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What to Save From a Garbage Fire

Bro Bibles: A review of Charles Bukowski’s ‘Women’

Greetings and welcome to Bro Bibles, a series in which I ruin my summer by reading the books your worst ex-boyfriend holds dear to his heart. It’s my hope that by engaging with these often problematic and rarely rewarding texts, I will save everybody else the trouble — and perhaps learn why they are so popular among my cursed gender.

Charles, Charles, Charles. He’s never been Charles, has he? He’s Bukowski — that rough, blue-collar, white immigrant name — and Hank to his friends, being born Heinrich Karl Bukowski in Andernach, Germany, and becoming Henry Charles in Los Angeles, his true and favorite home. This real-life matter of names within names mirrors the way Bukowski shifted his biography around in poetry and fiction. Five novels concern the sleazy misadventures of the notorious alter-ego Henry Charles “Hank” Chinaski, a drunk LA writer and womanizer. If you know anything about Bukowski, it’s that he brought to life this literary caricature and invited readers to confuse it with himself.

Among those novels, Women is a sort of exception. For one, it depicts a middle-aged Chinaski unencumbered by a dead-end job; he’s finally making a living off his craft alone, which affords more hours to wallow in his bachelor’s apartment and get shitfaced. Being 50 years old, however, means booze is catching up with him — we quickly learn that he vomits first thing every morning. Chinaski’s relative freedom and success also account for the book’s bluntly stated focus: an overlapping series of affairs with a vast female ensemble, none of whom can hope to stay in the picture long. Our hard-boiled Casanova provides a litany of grievances against each woman, and proven methods for sending them packing whenever he reaches an impasse, along with excuses for his emotional vacuity, occasional failures to perform in the sack, etc., etc.

No, seriously. After the first few chapters, it’s another 250 pages of et cetera. You’ve heard the phrase “warts and all”? This is warts and warts. You can read it as an anti-novel, or maybe a graphic sitcom, a piece of pulp farce whose modest stakes are continually undermined by the glaring absence of consequence. There might be something subversive in this — Bukowski’s appeal is as an ugly outsider hurling rocks through church windows — but his steadfast loyalty to small, renegade publishers was more evidence of an iconoclast’s heart than his saggy storytelling. The riffs in Women are like a beatnik’s hangover, when the bursts of wild imagination and run-on sentences have stopped.

If anything, Bukwoski’s innovation is to microwave the sexist currents of American literature till then, and especially of Kerouac and Burroughs and Ginsberg, into a full-blown casserole of misogyny, with no distracting frills. Chinaski tortures women, they torture him, and he tells us about their legs, tits, and “cunts.” The mechanics of foreplay: “I turned her toward me and started playing with her parts.” And there begins the troublesome wrestle between author and toxic avatar that complicates books by everyone from the late Philip Roth to Junot Díaz. This one is slower and increasingly painful, page by page, as if you’re sliding into a black hole, then mercifully ends with a dumb joke likening women to cats.

I can’t pretend Chinaski (Bukowski?) didn’t make me laugh out loud sometimes, no cheap trick for fiction. This usually happened, however, when our narrator was away from his women, and well out of his urban element, which is to say stuck with himself. The funniest episode of the novel sees him lost in the Utah mountains on a camping trip: the rising panic wakes him from his dull and laconic stupor, his mind races with adrenaline, and he is, in the end, hilariously grateful to be rescued. As he wanders the wilderness, he envisions insulting headlines of his death: “HENRY CHINASKI, MINOR POET, FOUND DEAD IN UTAH WOODS.” Bashing open a metal box on a lake pier in hopes of an emergency phone, finding only wires, and accidentally opening a nearby dam by crossing them, he ponders whether a deluge would bring a crew of rugged cowboys to save him, then a new headline: “HENRY CHINASKI, MINOR POET, FLOODS UTAH COUNTRYSIDE IN ORDER TO SAVE HIS SOFT LOS ANGELES ASS.” That’s a kind of self-laceration sorely missing in the tedious bedroom supercut.

But fine, I can avoid it no longer. Let’s talk about sex. The thrust of Women, beyond the folk axiom “can’t live with them, can’t live without them,” is that male desire hinges on surplus. Prior to the events related, Chinaski went four years without coitus, and it is the early introduction of Lydia Vance, a volatile on-and-off girlfriend (based on the sculptor Linda King), that launches all the fucking. A cosmic rule of this universe holds that the next hot floozie will arrive on Chinaski’s doorstep the moment he’s half-committed to a relationship; the presence of any woman in his life, and eventually many women, is what draws more women into that putrid orbit. Well, that and his modest celebrity, built on “love” poems and raucous underground readings. Younger women seek him out with the understanding that he will defile and abuse them — such is his reputation — and he obliges. He refuses to call a girl named Laura anything besides “Katherine” after deciding she looks like Katherine Hepburn. Having bleary morning sex with Mindy, he reports: “I was astounded and dismayed to find she had a large pussy. An extra large pussy. I hadn’t noticed it the night before. That was a tragedy. Woman’s greatest sin.” Valencia is so well-endowed that he describes her as “one-half breast,” and when he shoves his cock at her mouth, she refuses to suck it, prompting these lines: “I thought of burning her ass with a cigarette. What a mass of flesh she was.”

Far be it from me to attack the proud tradition of unlikeable protagonists, but the flickers of interior critique Bukowski allows his monster (“I am more or less a failed drizzling shit with absolutely nothing to offer,” he informs Lydia, later declaring: “I didn’t want to be interesting, it was too hard”) are pretty thin gruel in comparison to the steaming buffet of casual violence. Midway through Women we embark on a sequence of rapes, including the violation of a barely conscious Tammie and the brutal sodomizing of Mercedes, who is left weeping from the sensation of Chinaski “slicing her in half, right up the backbone.” At her agony, he remarks, “Goddammit…what’s the matter? I didn’t touch your cunt.”

The question you’re left to answer is, does Chinaski periodically acknowledging his legendary shittiness and nihilism elevate these vignettes from cruel pornography? Can you fathom being titillated by the comment that intercourse with a “little girl-woman” was “like raping the Virgin Mary”? Had the book come out in the 1950s, Bukowski might have wrangled an obscenity trial, but this contempt and sadism barely passed for transgression in his own rotting era, and now excites few but the stunted or juvenile.

And that’s the real worry, isn’t it. Boys still devour this junk and prize it as a guiding influence. Bukowski himself was, by his own admission, biting John Fante, who wrote likewise squalid novels starring the starving writer Arturo Bandini and his Depression-era Los Angeles, so it’s fitting that he passed the torch to another generation of chain-smoking, typewriter-humping, supposedly persecuted lit-bros intent on weaving their personal legends, which don’t sound all that different. They write of the same interchangeable rundown whores, with the same Bukowskian certainty that they’re less human than they are “complaining machines,” while their autofictional doubles toil at writing in obscurity, willing to forfeit that sacred isolation only to attain a woman’s temporary embrace. They mistake this for tragic romanticism, missing their idol’s most embarrassing tells: At the beginning of Women, Lydia persuades Chinaski to attempt cunnilingus for the first time ever — this did actually happen, according to Linda King — but somehow, in Bukowski’s version, he masters the skill in minutes. When she walks out on him for another infidelity, Chinaski realizes, “All she’d left me was my t.v. because she knew I never looked at it.”

These bits form the pernicious untruths Bukowski’s disciples are damned to believe: that indifferent partners are the most talented, and lowbrow men can’t be pretentious. Indeed, their thinking goes, this sort of man stands apart and alone, the misery of his addictions and reckless hatred not too high a price for freedom. Worst, though, is the conceit that mistreating women — or somberly warning them, as Chinaski does, “Don’t do it. Don’t love me” — is the symptom of a more honest and visceral love.

When I lived in the east side LA neighborhood of Los Feliz, a richly gentrified area Chinaski would no doubt avoid, I always scowled at a corny mural of Bukowski that covered the side of building on Vermont Avenue. Head wreathed in smoke, typewriter at the ready, the two-dimensional author imparts this lesson: “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire.” Recently I learned this bland tribute had replaced a vibrant psychedelic work by the artist Monte Thrasher, “Six Heads,” painted in 1992. Thrasher sued the people who thoughtlessly destroyed his mural for $250,000, citing the Visual Artist Rights Act, a federal law which “mandates the artist receive 90 days’ notice in order to document and preserve their work.” The defendants are the owners of Bukowski’s, a yet-to-open theme bar, who apparently sought to create buzz for the establishment at the cost of popular local color. Is there a better parable of Bukowski’s lasting damage? He was neither a crass insurgent nor voice for the gutter’s casualties, just the heir to a loutish brand that steamrolls any subtlety.