For what would be his 95th birthday, here's all you need to know about the laureate of American lowlife
This Sunday marks what would have been Charles Bukowski’s 95th birthday. Hailed as ‘a laureate of American lowlife’, Bukowski wrote about the things he knew well: downtrodden characters, the daily drudgery of shitty jobs, failed relationships, and booze – especially booze. His writing in novels like Post Office and Women is plain and crisp – no cryptic metaphors, no bullshit. It offends, it enlightens, it entertains. But of course, all these things I mention you’ve probably heard a thousand times before; you know about his penchant for booze. So to celebrate the author’s birthday, here are a few things you might not know about Charles Bukowski.
HE HATED BEING AROUND PEOPLE
There’s an enduring cliché about writers being anti-social. J.D. Salinger was a famous recluse, while both Cormac McCarthy and Thomas Pynchon shun interviews and flee the spotlight – the latter’s very existence is only confirmed by a handful of photos. In comparison, Bukowski was more outgoing; he was candid in interviews, but he did in so many words admit to being a misanthrope. “Even though I write about the human race, the further away from them the better I feel. Two miles is great, two thousand miles is beautiful. I do not like the human race. I don’t like their heads, I don’t like their faces, I don’t like their feet, I don’t like their conversations, I don’t like their hairdos, I don’t like their automobiles.”
IN FILM HE’S BEEN PLAYED BY MATT DILLON, MICKEY ROURKE & OTHERS – BUT TO HIM HOLLYWOOD IS DUMB AND CRUEL
In the 1987 film Barfly, Mickey Rourke played Bukowski’s literary alter ego Henry Chinaski, which in retrospect is quite strange, because at that time Rourke still had his good looks and charming Hollywood smile. No matter how much the actor hunched and grunted as Chinaski, he could never quite pull off those heavy-set features and drunken mannerisms; Rourke was too smooth, his gestures too exaggerated. Two decades later, Matt Dillon, another erstwhile marquee heartthrob, had a crack at playing Chinaski. He missed the mark for similar reasons. Now Josh Peck (the tubby one from Drake & Josh!) is playing the author in James Franco’s upcoming biopic, Bukowski. Not that Bukowski would be rolling in his grave at all this; he knows Tinseltown all too well. He even wrote a book called Hollywood, about his experience working on Barfly. “I found out that Hollywood is more crooked, dumber, crueler, stupider than all the books I’ve read about it.”
HE WAS ALMOST A JOURNALIST
If he had been hired, Bukowski would have been a journalist. Thankfully he was too lazy. When he attended a journalism class at LA City College he said he “didn’t do anything; I laid on the lawn and missed classes.” He even applied to be a journo but they chose not to hire him. He’s glad they didn’t. Those guys changed literary history. Heck, without them this article might not even exist.
HE REALLY LOVED CATS
Bukowski had a cat called Minx. He loved cats. There’s now even a book that collates all his musings on his little whiskered friends – it’s called On Cats (obviously). In the poem My Cats he writes: “They complain but never worry, they walk with a surprising dignity. They sleep with a direct simplicity that humans just can’t understand. When I am feeling low all I have to do is watch my cats and my courage returns.” It’s one of those rare moments where we glimpse Bukowski’s soft side. Rare indeed…
HE COULD BE A REAL ASSHOLE
Modest Mouse have a song called “Bukowski”. The lyrics in it seem a little harsh, with lines like, “Yeah, I know he's a pretty good read but God who'd wanna be such an asshole?” But then you watch this clip, where the author violently kicks his wife and calls her a “fucking whore”, and it all makes sense. He could be a real asshole sometimes, and Linda Lee Bukowski clearly bore the brunt of it.
HE WAS MATES WITH SEAN PENN AND BONO
Bukowski was an author lucky enough to be famous in his own time – which meant he could hang out with famous people like Sean Penn and receive free tickets to see U2 from Bono himself. In the documentary Born into This, Penn describes a drunken evening with Bono, where they recite verse together. Soon enough he’s on the phone to Bukowski and discovers that his wife Linda is a huge U2 fan, so Bono invites them to their next gig in LA. At the gig, Bono dedicated a song to Linda and Charles Bukowski, and according to Bono, Bukowski was a little taken aback. “I think we got to the old fucker.”
HE USED TO SURVIVE ON ONE CANDY BAR A DAY
Throughout the 40s, when he was a struggling writer doing cheap labour work, Bukowski lived in shitty rooming houses and filthy hotel rooms. At that time he barely managed to get by; in fact, he subsisted entirely on cheap chocolate. “I used to live on one candy bar a day – it cost a nickel. I always remember the candy bar was called Payday. That was my payday. And that candy bar tasted so good, at night I would take one bite and it was so beautiful.”
HE DESPISED MICKEY MOUSE
In Born into This, Bukowski’s wife Linda explains his hatred of Mickey Mouse, especially his three fingers. “He could not handle the fact that the power over multi-millions of human beings was in the hands of this three-fingered, foolish creature that taught you nothing whatsoever, that expressed nothing real, total absurd fucking fantasy, not even good, not even creative. He was appalled by Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse doesn’t have a fucking soul.”