Wednesday 27 March 2019

From Bukowski to Hemingway: There’s a problem with the way we idolise drunk male writers

A new book of excerpts from professional rogue Charles Bukowski may feel frank and forthright – but we should hesitate before seeing this as an unvarnished account of alcoholism, Ceri Radford argues. 

In today’s prim culture, where millennials shun nightclubs for spin classes, the unabashed booziness of certain 20th-century writers has a quaint vintage charm. Hemingway considered beer basically a soft drink! Truman Capote would have a double martini before lunch! Can you even imagine the whiskey-soaked Dylan Thomas sipping a mocktail?

It’s in this spirit, as it were, that a collection of excerpts by the American writer and professional rogue Charles Bukowski, On Drinking, is published in the UK on 21 March. With a cute cover that makes alcoholism look like a Father’s Day gift opportunity, the book spans poems, letters and novel extracts on the topic of Bukowski’s legendary love of the bottle.

If anyone could give an honest description of the mingled euphoria, misery and indignity of heavy drinking, it should be Bukowski. Born in 1920, he worked dead-end jobs and propped up bars while publishing in small presses, prompting Time magazine to call him a “laureate of American low-life”. He claimed to hate writer types, spearing literary pretensions with his sparse, scabrous style, and was more at home describing his bowel movements than the dew on a leaf at dawn.

Bukowski in San Pedro, 1981 ( Rex )
Indeed, he shunned the clichés about the mystic connection between creativity and intoxication. In a letter to his friend Douglas Blazek in 1965, extracted in the new book, he wrote: “Drinking is a temporary form of suicide wherein I am allowed to kill myself and then return to life again. drinking is just a little paste to hold on my arms and my legs and my pecker and my head and the rest. writing is only a sheet of paper; I am something that walks around and looks out of a window.”

It was almost a permanent form of suicide, too. Bukowski took great relish in describing the internal haemorrhage brought on by alcoholism that nearly killed him in 1955, blood pouring out from mouth and arse as he lay on the floor of a charity hospital, “my stomach torn open finally with gut rot and agony”.

On Drinking might feel frank and forthright, but we should hesitate before seeing this as an unvarnished account of alcoholism. As Olivia Laing wrote in her superlative book on writers and drinking, The Trip to Echo Spring, one of the things that binds together the overly bibulous is “the self-deceiving nature of the alcoholic”. The first step in the Alcoholics Anonymous programme is to admit that you are “powerless over alcohol”, a step that many never accomplish. As Laing writes:

“In the particular case of the writer who drinks, the ways in which autobiographical material is used requires more than usual scrutiny, since what denial means in practice is an inconsistent mass of material that moves bewilderingly between honest accounting, self-mythologising and delusion.”

Although Echo Spring covers six other famous and alcohol-fuelled American writers – John Cheever, Tennessee Williams, John Berryman, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and Raymond Carver – Laing could have written that sentence with Bukowski in mind.

Charles Bukowski in 1978 (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
What is most striking about On Drinking is that although Bukowski revels in being a down-and-out, he always has the upper hand. He wins at drinking games, he wins at fights, he wins at the horses, he wins with women. The “dirty old man” – the title of a column he wrote about his life – is a creature of his own meticulous creation, and for all the filth and dysfunction you never truly get the sense of a life spinning out of control. The closest he comes is in his poetry, notably when confronting a voracious enemy in “ants crawl my drunken arms”:

and the ants crawl down my throat
and into my mouth,
and I wash them down with wine
and pull up the shades
and they are on the screen
and on the streets
climbing church towers
and into tire casings
looking for something else
to eat
It is still, however, his decision to drink the wine, to raise the shades.

If Bukowski were alive today, he would no doubt have some choice words to say on the concept of toxic masculinity, but it is impossible to read his work in 2019 and not be struck by the narrowness of the macho mould he created and inhabited in his writing. If he’s not swinging a punch, he’s yelling rape threats: the one thing more copious than beer in On Drinking is casual sexism. Women are not really humans; they are body parts, ages, or a hectoring, cat-fighting stereotype.

This is a typical sentence, from the largely autobiographical novel Post Office: “She was a nice nurse. Good legs, good hips. Fair breasts.” In the same book, his alter-ego Chinaski also describes raping a mentally ill woman on his rounds in a casual, self-satisfied way – “‘Rape! Rape! I’m being raped!’ / She was right”.

Special contempt is reserved for women who encroached on his territory, as in this extract from his travel memoir, Shakespeare Never Did This: “Then a lady writer started talking. I was fairly into the wine and wasn’t so sure what she wrote about but I think it was animals, the lady wrote animal stories. I told her that if she would show me more of her legs I might be able to tell if she were a good writer or not.”

Quick, somebody find me a lady doctor to stitch my sides back up. If the sexism is, to a certain extent, just another part of Bukowski’s schtick, something deliberately hammed up into a joke, it’s a joke that from this vantage point feels as funny as a lump of mud.

But what has the misogyny got to do with the drinking? Only that alcohol acts chemically on the brain as a disinhibitor, and if there was anyone who needed to ratchet up their inhibitions rather than going in the opposite direction, it’s the red-blooded male of the Mad Men era.

There is plenty to enjoy in Bukowski’s writing: the spare lyricism of his poetry, the iconoclastic swagger of his prose. But this collection risks making a retro fetish out of dark and murky material. As Echo Spring makes clear, it’s hard to generalise about the effect of alcoholism on a writer beyond the inevitable ripples of suffering. While Bukowski lived to the age of 73, many others were less fortunate. As the writer Lewis Hyde noted, four of the six Americans to win the Nobel Prize for Literature were alcoholic, and “about half of our alcoholic writers eventually killed themselves”. With so much left unsaid and so many moments of reflexive sexism, On Drinking leaves a bitter aftertaste. 

(Source: Independent)

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