The writing and persona of Charles Bukowski is in the same category as Vice Magazine for me: I appreciate some of his work purely for its brilliance, and I also appreciate aspects of his persona for the way he conjured up an equal playing field of dissipation for both sexes (much in the way that Vice lets both male and female participants explore and write about equally revolting topics). For the sake of this discourse, It’s helpful to divide women into 3 categories
Women who are ignored by society all-together
This third category, and Bukowski’s enthusiastic exploration of the inner and outer lives of these women in much of his semi-autobiographical works of fiction, is what gives me my soft spot for him. The women in this third category are women who it’s hard to look at or sit next to on a bus, usually. They’re the type who often suffer a personality disorder, some kind of overreaction to eye contact perhaps. These women are often stunningly outfitted, like gypsies, adorned with necklace upon necklace and earrings tangled in with their wild, tangel hair, sometimes with little smudges of dirt on their arms– these are usually abstracted women. The type I’m thinking of is an alcoholic, probably a cigarette smoker too, which in my town of Los Angeles, is a leprous affliction, akin to barfing on a baby’s head, when such a woman is smoking at a bus bunch and there is a child anywhere in sight. (aside: lest any part of my description of these outcast women sound derogatory, I want to make clear that this is a group of women I am very familiar with, and not through any phase of slumming. My mother is one of these women, as are her friends. These are women who have often tried my patience, but I have also appreciated sharing such uncommon experiences with them as feeding 20+ stray cats as a park in San Pedro where assholes go to ditch their pets).
Bukowski, before he got famous, was also hard to look at and most likely someone who would be avoided on a bus or sidewalk.
But there are intelligent women who love Bukowski’s writing – that was something I wanted to know more about. What was the draw there?
Consequentially, one night when we were living in Philly and it was so hot there was not a chance I could even sleep for a moment, I found Bukowski’s novel Women in our bookshelf and finished it that night. The next day my husband was a little shocked that that was the Bukowski book I’d started with, because even some of the hornier, devoted fans think that book crosses a moral line.
Women is the story of Bukowski meeting women, developing bonds with them that he never maintains, and then moving on to new and different bonds with different women.
The expectation of a female caretaker, a surrogate mom, is an important trait forced upon us. But Bukowski likes women who can match his alcohol tolerance and who often unpredictably abandon him for days, in the manner stereotypically reserved for the fathers who go out for a pack of cigarettes and never return. Several of his temporary girlfriends depart without saying goodbye—a narrative generosity on his part to unquestionably accept women to need the same unsteady and often hurtful soul-searching that men in the Siddhartha mold embark on with well-wishes (“Good luck finding your true meaning in your valuable life).
Sexist as much of his prose may be, 1) he learns to excellently eat pussy from a girlfriend at the novel’s beginning and remains proud to show off his skills (good for him!), and 2) His unquestioned acceptance of women who display the same wild trait as him is in some sense a form a feminism. His horniness and the literal filth of his body are not written of as his exclusive right as a man; instead he accepts filth, sexual aggression and dissipation in the women in his life. This is an unhealthy but not worthless gesture of equality, as well as a welcome refusal to buy into a sanitized version of human nature.
The fact that he attacked and smacked his wife, completely unprovoked, in the documentary “Bukowski: Born into This,” makes any whole-hearted praise of his work impossible for me. Any cause and effect of this situation, rather than her beating the living shit out of him in return, is an unsatisfactory outcome, but of a victim of violence is often not able to react.
Forgetting this scene, if possible, I can still manage to tolerate Bukowski’s open-minded admiration of traditionally beautiful women, yes, but an equal appreciation of the women that hold no noted place in mainstream society.