Bukowski By the Bunch

Dennis Harvey August 24, 2006

For an author long considered unpublishable, then adopted (in the U.S., if not Europe) only by small alternative presses, Charles Bukowski has turned out to be a pretty popular guy. Twelve years after his death at age 74, the poet, novelist and memoirist is still probably more referenced as a cultural icon than he’s actually read — in no small part due to his evergreen status as a name-check amongst Hollywood’s latest Brat Pack types.

I’ll bet eight out of ten actors and directors who ever fancied themselves misunderstood badasses — that would encompass most of the straight male ones — have read or at least publicly toted something by Kerouac, Bukowski, Burroughs, maybe even Ginsberg. If you read them while also knowing first-hand the traditional literary bastions they stormed, or their influence on subsequent literature, you can experience them fully (if not uncritically). If not, then you’ve read just to inculcate lit as a faux-lifestyle enhancer — a badge of “roots” coolness for those who in love with processed movie/advertising notions of rebellion.

Which is not to say less scholarly fans don’t deserve Bukowski, but rather suggest he’s a better writer than they probably know — and a more accessible, even traditional craftsman than most of the other authors he’s frequently lumped in with. (He never identified with the Beats, in any case, and went unpublished until long after most of them had passed from significant activity to mythic antiquity.)

His public persona as the aging drunken womanizing reprobate was echoed by myriad themes in his writing. But the full humor, tenderness, rage, alternately startling and subtle sheer craft of the latter remains underappreciated — not to mention worlds away from the consciousness-streaming favored by Kerouac & Co., which was historically innovative but now seems (for the most part) awesomely indulgent.

This week the Bukowski cult will get another buck-up from the release of “Factotum,” Norwegian director (“Kitchen Stories”) Bent Hamer’s first English-language feature. His fatalistically bone-dry Scandinavian humor makes for a decent fit with Bukowski’s deadpan