Bukowski: an American lowlife

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Charles Bukowski, a herald for American low-lives and patron for life in the underbelly; 20 years after his 1994 death he still remains one of the many angels housed in the City of Angels. Through the years it is hard to say that his brand of rough American poetry chronicling the gory details of life in seedy Los Angeles has been matched or even tried again.


While it is true that there are tons of Buk knockoffs drinking in front of a typewriter in a dingy basement hoping to have the same success, none have had any level of considerable success. The Charles Bukowski brand of poetry is like none other. From “Post Office” to “The People Look like Flowers at Last,” he remains Bukowski, a literary style that is distinguishable from anyone of his time, from anyone of any time for that matter.

Bukowski was born in Andernach Germany and then a few short years later relocated to his childhood home on Longwood Avenue, a small street running through Washington Boulevard. From his boyhood home to his last known residence in San Pedro, California, Bukowski’s stomping grounds stayed true to a small section of Los Angeles that he vividly recalls in his literary works. Bukowski and Los Angeles are inseparable and synonymous.

Bukowski has achieved a feat writers and artists hope for: to be quoted even after their death. However, taking Bukowski’s persona into account, something tells me that wouldn’t have mattered to him at all. So what makes Bukowski different from his writing peers? Easily the most defining thing about Bukowski and his literature is the lack of academia found in his writing. He was a non-academic writer. Though he is often associated with Beat writers like William S. Burroughs and Jack Kerouac, it is simply a superficial link of time. Bukowski and the Beats were simply both controversial at relatively the same time.

Bukowski’s novel “Factotum” was made into a movie starring Matt Dillon, lili Taylor and Marisa Tomei (wikipedia)
Bukowski’s novel “Factotum” was made into a movie starring Matt Dillon, lili Taylor and Marisa Tomei

However the locations were different and so were the crowds (if you could even call what Bukowski had a crowd compared to the Beats). The subject matter was entirely different. The Beats were writing about enlightenment and jazz and ecstasy, all while shrouded in the familiar coat of Beat mysticism.

Bukowksi, meanwhile was writing about perversion, being poor, drinking, gambling, and was usually employed full time. He never fell into that sort of cultural and social movement that the Beats had started, about questioning your parents and trying hard drugs in the streets of San Francisco. Bukowski was living in Los Angeles going from dead end job to dead end job, being consistently judged and rejected by serious literature. The Beats by contrast were alternative royalty. Sure they all touched on relatively the same thing every once in a while, but the delivery was different and so were their experiences. While Bukowski was working at the Post Office, Allen Ginsburg was cozy with Harvard professors.

Just as the Beats are synonymous with the Bay Area, Bukowski belongs to Los Angeles. He never strayed far, no matter where his residence changed to or what new dead end job he had picked up. Perhaps the three most famous Bukowski locations in and around Los Angeles were the Post Office on N. Alameda where he worked, his apartment on DeLongpre Avenue and Hollywood Park.

San Pedro and the Port of Los Angeles with the Vincent Thomas Bridge. (Blogspot)
San Pedro and the Port of Los Angeles with the Vincent Thomas Bridge.

Bukowski mentions these places countless times in his literature, obviously even writing a book about the painful monotony of working at the Post Office. At the time, even though Bukowski was experiencing relative success as a writer in the 50’s to the 70’s, he lived in Los Angeles as mostly any other man his age with his same wealth.

There isn’t any easy way to say that Bukowski didn’t have much, whether it be due to lack of success or his habit of spending his money for sex, alcohol and betting at the racetrack is really a matter of opinion. He drove a ’67 Volkswagen Beetle, was usually employed full time until about the age of fifty and was public about his vices.

To this day there is no one that comes to mind that even compares to the late great Charles Bukowski. Though his work now seems to be popular amongst college kids who sit in coffee shops and to some measure fake depth, he will always be the symbol of the Los Angeles underground. If you’re ever in the San Pedro area and manage to stop by Bukowski’s grave, just below the symbol of a boxer you’ll see the words “don’t try” inscribed on his headstone. Bukowski once said “some people never go crazy, what truly horrible lives they must lead” reminding us that there is a way to defy the ordinary, just as he had done by going from unknown martyr for the underground to literary icon in one lifetime.