[Sidebar] March 15 - 22, 2001
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Ugly beauty

Bukowski remembered

by Mike Miliard

DRINKING WITH BUKOWSKI: RECOLLECTIONS OF THE POET LAUREATE OF SKID ROW. Edited by Daniel Weizmann. Thunder's Mouth Press, 228 Pages, $16.

BUKOWSKI IN PICTURES. Edited by Howard Sounes. Grove Press, 152 Pages, $25.

[Charles Bukowski] Charles Bukowski's face was a work of art -- a gnarled expanse of hills and valleys and craters, plastered over with acne and pustules, spotted with wiry whiskers, bloated by a deluge of booze, and yellowed by an all-enveloping smoke. It was a face only a mother could love.

But everybody loved Bukowski. The people who published him. The people who got rich off of him. The sycophantic strangers who showed up at his Hollywood bungalow with 12-packs hoping for "a piece of him to take home, a hunk of flesh from the rotting corpse." For a man who was so physically unappealing and had such indelicate habits, "Buk" engendered a devotion from those who knew him and millions more who didn't that remains unabated six years after his death.

The focus of these two new books is not Bukowski's writing but the man himself. Bukowski in Pictures is full of photographs, some never before published, of this supremely unphotogenic man. Drinking is a collection of reminiscences -- essays, dialogues, and sporadically successful poems (many aping Buk's spare, blunt style) -- from acquaintances and admirers like Raymond Carver, Sean Penn, and Barry Miles. What emerges from both is a portrait that's much more complex than you might expect of a man who in death has been so codified as caricature: drunk, brawler, bettor, "dirty old man," the "poet laureate of skid row."

Sounes, who's the author of the acclaimed Bukowski biography Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life (Grove), uses the vast photographic resources at his disposal to good effect in Bukowski in Pictures. Yes, there are the photos of the hunched man with the knotty face and colossal gut hanging well below his belt as he poses with an unending series of women (one of whom, we're told, vomited after sex with him) or kisses his "typer" for good luck. Beer bottles and smokes are omnipresent. But we also see a cherubic boy mounted on a pony who's new to the USA from his birthplace in Andernach, Germany. We see Buk as a pained-looking teen in ROTC, an organization he joined because "it meant he did not have to take part in gym class and fellow pupils would not see the acne on his shoulders and back." We see the blurred, ghostly 1927 yearbook photograph of Jane Cooney Baker, the only image known to exist of the one great love of the infamous philanderer's life. We see a humorous series of colored Polaroids of "the only conventional vacation" Buk ever took, on the California island of Catalina. He "was bemused and confused," Sounes writes, "not knowing quite how he should behave on vacation." As opposed to Bukowski's self-constructed persona as a besotted brawler, or his veneer of supreme self-confidence, we see a man who's often ill at ease with his own life.

Drinking does more to support popular perceptions of the man. "He was our god. We all wanted to be like him. Hell, we wanted to be him," acolyte David Barker writes. "We wanted the face . . . the booze-ruined body, the sour flesh. We wanted his drunkenness, his hard women, his brutal poetry, his weeping soul. We wanted to live the legend too. But it was his alone. God knows he had earned it. He wasn't giving it away."

In the same piece, Barker relates his first fan encounter with the man himself: "He took the book, carelessly dropped it on the wet bar, and roughly opened the cover. . . . With a ballpoint pen he made a wild, messy drawing of squiggles that looked like two big figures -- he and Linda -- with lots of little figures -- the students and hangers-on and sycophants -- beneath the big figures. On the facing page he wrote `2 U -- FUCK OFFF!' and signed it `BUK.' Then he scribbled all over his photo on the front cover."

In Drinking, Raymond Carver's poem "You Don't Know What Love Is" evokes Buk's assessment of the situation:

I've met men in jail who had more style
than the people who hang around colleges
and go to poetry readings
They're bloodsuckers who come to see
if the poet's socks are dirty
or if he smells under the arms
Believe me I won't disappoint 'em
But I want you to remember this
there's only one poet in this room tonight
only one poet in this town tonight
maybe only one real poet in this country tonight
and that's me

That's Bukowski. A man who relished solitude but was a magnet for others' attentions. A man with a disgusting appearance who elicited adoration. "He grew on you," said his friend "Gypsy Lou" Webb. "In a way, he was a beautiful, ugly man."

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