When Charles Bukowski died, his fans expected to miss him. But they haven’t had the chance. A steady stream of Bukowski volumes has come out since he passed in 1994. It’s not like he didn’t leave plenty behind besides books: dozens of Open City and L.A. Free Press columns from the ’60s—which first made Bukowski famous—sundry pieces for magazines both literary (Ole, Matrix) and mass-market (Oui, Creem), broadsides, manuscripts, reportage, letters, etc.
They aren’t all first-rate, but there’s no sense leaving them boxed up. Even marginal Bukowski is still Bukowski, and has the flavor fans like: crude but not dumb, sexual but not “erotic,” arty but not farty—literary hard stuff for people who think they can take it.
The latest Bukowski edition of stories and essays, Absence of the Hero, has, like other recent posthumous Bukowski books, filler and repeats. Some of the items here also appeared in Portions From a Wine-Stained Notebook, published in 2008. Some of the new things are not of the first order.
But like the fans who used to wait patiently for the latest dead Tupac album, Bukowski’s audience will tolerate barrel scrapings. The repeats are usually worth a reread, and the second-tier stuff will still interest people who love him. And some of it’s better than that.
Bukowski was probably the first of American literature’s beautiful losers to become a star before he died. (Nelson Algren got to fuck Simone de Beauvoir, but Bukowski had groupies.) By the time the censorship wars of the ’60s were decided in favor of artists like him, he’d already had a tough life and chronicled its numerous alcoholic, romantic, and criminal adventures. So he had cred and a body of work, and liberal arts majors who liked a bit of rough ate it up.
But he’d been working on more than a tough reputation. Recent excavations of his pre-fame work show that—despite his own claims to the contrary—Bukowski never entirely stopped writing, even when personally adrift. Also, he seems to have never even tried to conform to commercial models—a great rarity among freelance writers, especially poor ones. Though he talked a lot about the grind of turning out dirty stories, he ground mainly for the muses, not the pulps. His style is discursive and poetical even when describing fights with whores. That’s part of what makes the product worth churning out 16 years after his death.
The least interesting numbers in Absence of the Hero are those written outside Bukowski’s wheelhouse. His reviews of poetry and poets are easier to read than most such essays, but always give the sense that he wished he’d spent that time writing poetry rather than criticizing it. As for “A Call for Our Own Critics,” his “Manifesto” contribution to the poetry magazine Nomad, let’s just say it’s fun to see him playing with words like steatopygous and transelementation.
Most of the stories in Absence of the Hero are fine: a horror tale called “Christ With Barbecue Sauce” (hitchhiker, picnic; guess), in the vein of “The Gut-Wringing Machine” but less overtly satirical, and better for it; several inevitable records of Bukowski drinking, giving readings, and getting laid or trying to (“I Just Write Poetry So I Can Go to Bed With Girls”), etc. Some lack the little touches that distinguish Bukowski’s best work: his strange word-choices, for example, like the great line at the end of his “Night Streets of Madness” (“I arranged myself upon the bed, supine, staring upward and listened to the cocksucking rain”), or his tendency to eschew plot for telling detail, as in “The White Beard.”
But fans will find some of the factory seconds in Absence of the Hero endearing. I’m fascinated by “Sound and Passion.” It’s about a relationship that’s doomed, not because it’s bad—they enjoy each other, and the sex sounds like “two or three people are getting murdered”—but because he’s broke, and she had to find a man who isn’t. That’s no shock coming from a Bukowski story. What does surprise is that Bukowski is actually a little corny about the woman. Not that his other doomed-love stories are without tenderness, but when the woman asks him not to forget her, he actually replies, “Goddamn you, you talk that way once more and I’ll kill you right here on the street, you understand?” It’s almost like something out of an old-fashioned pulp romance—the kind that could have made Bukowski some money back in the bad days. But only almost.