Even in this woke moment, the self-professed dirty old man attracts new readers. Charles Bukowski, or Hank as he was known personally, wrote poetry and prose filled with violence, sexism, racism, abuse, rape, poverty, booze, and vomit. Occasionally he even slipped a little redemption in there, but it was of a low key “we were going to make it for another day” variety.
Granted, he’s been dead for a quarter century but Bukowski was not made for these times, and yet he remains popular. Younger readers enthusiastically post Hank memes to the same social media feeds from which they would block him the first time he went off on a drunken faux Nazi rant or threatened to beat their asses. Heck, even when Hank was alive the majority of his readers would’ve crossed the street to avoid him.
I reread Post Office last week, the author’s debut novel. I have no idea how many times I’ve read Bukowski’s prose works over the last 30 years, but I can tell you this: I return to them again and again, often when I’m in need of comfort. That’s a strange choice of security blankets, what with the poverty, alcoholism, job insecurity, self loathing, and the rest of his skid row poet trappings.
Why do I keep coming back to Bukowski, and why does he still attract young readers? I’m sure the answer is different for everyone, but here’s my hunch.
1. Emotional Honesty. Of course his stories are exaggerated, but one can always count on Hank for emotional truth. Whether you’re struggling with difficult parents, difficult bosses, difficult significant others, or your own difficult self, Bukowski’s mix of public bluster and private vulnerability resonates. Consider this passage from Post Office: “I even had the butcher knife against my throat one night in the kitchen and then I thought easy, old boy, your little girl might want you to take her to the zoo. Ice cream bars, chimpanzees, tigers, green and red birds, and the sun coming down on top of her head, the sun coming down and crawling into the hairs of your arms, easy, old boy.”
2. Simplicity. Buk’s prose can be understood by a grade schooler, though I wouldn’t recommend it. This was likely a combination of education and choice: When writing about writing, Hank often criticized other authors’ use of “tricks” in favor of what he called clean lines. As a reader, one doesn’t have to untangle convoluted sentences or labor over obscure word choices–one can simply read. As for aspiring writers, I suspect that they find those clean lines inspiring. Bukowski is the Ramones of writing: three chords and a straightforward lyric about wanting to be sedated.
3. We Hate Our Jobs. We may not work at post offices, factories, or warehouses, but we’ve all felt our souls being eaten away in eight hour increments. Many of Bukowski’s stories border on Kafka-esque, their protagonists too sensitive and aware for the deadening bureaucracies in which they’re trapped, but in Hank’s stories the cockroaches remain cockroaches.
4. We Crave Love, But We Don’t Feel Worthy. Bukowski’s work is populated with broken people not so much trying to fix each other as to dull the pain for a little while. That “she never loved me, we were just using each other for a little while” subtext resonates.
5. We’re Voyeurs. Reading stories about people, both fiction and non-fiction, is an exercise in voyeurism, and the more incredible the life the more interesting the view. Hank’s life wasn’t incredible in the sense of great contribution to humanity, but rather in its struggle against inhumanity. Few of us will hold 50 demeaning jobs, puke blood in the gutter, or sleep in flophouses, but we struggle with our own flavors of dehumanization.
Bukowski’s work is a gross parody of his readers’ own internal lives, written simply and honestly. Our worst fears and anxieties are magnified 1,000 times in his easy to read books, but the message is always the same: “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.” It doesn’t get much more comforting than that.