I couldn’t really write about Charles Bukowski for my Authors I Admire series because there’s not a lot to admire – beyond the fact that as a writer, not as a human being, he did the time behind the typewriter. But I can rave about this book – for it was my introduction to his words and his world. And it was such a visceral thrill. It’s one of the only Bukowski books I still own – I bought a new copy of it a few years ago, haven’t yet creased the spine. The original copy that I bought in 1996 was so well thumbed, its cover falling off, I ended up giving it away – introducing a new reader to the words that had been so incredibly formative.
A couple of years ago now I sold all of the Bukowski books I’d collected up. Which was most of them. I had about 40 books I reckon, maybe more. And I gave a few to some friends, then traded the rest to a second-hand dealer. I’m not sure if I got ripped off, because I just wanted them out of the house. I also knew they’d be of use to anyone else – someone would find them and maybe find them to be the revelation that I had. But having them peer down at me from the shelf, almost literally hanging over my head, was no longer helpful. It was time to move them on.
I’ve never had a relationship with a writer quite like the one with Buk.
It’s not that I ever idolised him – he’s not one to idolise. But I was so into the way he wrote. His version of honesty was profound. The poetic beauty he found in the everyday. His way of chronicling his own life and the way he looked at mundane elements with an eye that spotted a new truth. It was hypnotic.
What got me into Bukowski, and I’ve no doubt told this story before, was a eulogy-piece in the Rip It Up magazine. It had that famous picture (used for the Hostage spoken-word album, and used more often than just there) and it had a brief context-grab about who Bukowski was and how his name had come up in some songs and how some musicians had been inspired to name-drop him or borrow some of his phrases for song titles and lyrics (it was a music mag after all) and then there was a single poem.
the bulls are grand as the side of the sun
and although they kill them for the stale crowds,
it is the bull that burns the fire,
and although there are cowardly bulls as
there are cowardly matadors and cowardly men,
generally the bull stands pure
and dies pure
untouched by symbols or cliques or false loves,
and when they drag him out
nothing has died
something has passed
and the eventual stench
is the world.
That poem haunted me for days. And weeks. Months in fact. I moved to Wellington to start university and eventually found one of the world’s best bookstores and the first thing I found was this Run With The Hunted collection; a “Reader”; filled with poems and stories and extracts from the novels.
It is close to 500 pages and I took it home to my tiny flat and sat on my bed listening to Neil Young and Tom Waits and whatever else and turning page after page. I read it cover to cover as if a novel or autobiography (it was both or offered glimpses of both anyway). And then I started reading it again straight away the next day, this time picking out favourite bits, returning to poems that made me laugh and some that made me cry. Bukowski was so often so cruel but he could make you crumble too. There’s huge heart in his best work and though you have to squint to see it sometimes that’s what kept me there for the longest haul.
I started ordering the individual volumes, or buying them on the fly off the shelf as they arrived – of course his recent death meant the books were all easily available (reprinted) so the timing was exquisite.
My own poetry was florid and silly and I was trying hard to write in different styles and sticking to rhyme a lot of the time but Bukowski totally rewired me. Made me see I could write in a different way altogether.
I firmly believe he – for better or worse – is the writer that helped open the door to where I found my voice. Him and Lester Bangs. They were the ones. And that’s probably a giant cliché. But its also the truth – as is often the case with clichés, they’re well worn because they ring true, or the truth is what makes them so well worn.
There are some other Bukowski books I love still and maybe I shouldn’t have ditched them – but there are ones I thought I loved that I re-read recently and found almost nothing in them, or had I simple already taken what I needed? But I have to consider this Run With The Hunted compendium as a book that blew my mind. Because it was the first book I read by a writer I’ve now read some 50 books by. The compilations and unreleased ‘gems’ have slowed in the last few years but I’ll still read a new Bukowski volume, even if I no longer rush to pre-order.
And one day I’ll clear a few hours to read Run With The Hunted from page 1 to page 497 again. All in one go. I’ll raise an imaginary glass to Chuck. Think of the good times we had. And the bad times he inflicted on many of the people in his life; the trauma that shaped him too.
He endured a lot and he was always either running or hunting. His trick was to tell you he was running with the hunted. His trick was to tell you he didn’t care – when he did. Far too much and way too often. His trick was finding me at the right time. My trick was convincing myself (even still) that it was the right time.
Books That Blew My Mind is an occasional series here at Off The Tracks – thinking back on great books that I loved (and still love); books that found me at just the right time.