Charles Bukowski would have been 100 if he was still alive today – and of course making it to his 70s was, for him, the equivalent of living to nearly 200. He was all but dead in his 20s. And 30s. And 50s. And drinking was his thing. The hard living that goes with that – barfights, manual labour, late nights and poor nutrition. He was a drunk. And occasionally proud of it. Certainly he explored it. From many angles. And he never really stopped – both exploring and drinking. It was there in his work always, even if in his sixties he swapped warm beer and bar fighting for red wine and writing on a computer.
In recent years, with the need to repackage and re-sell/re-introduce Bukowski there’s been a series of themed books. Bukowski: On Love for example. I enjoyed On Cats and On Writing because many writers love to think and speak and write about those topics and themes. And Bukowski did it in his unique way. It also showed his ‘softer’ side.
He’s not the only writer to focus on drinking – as subject for the writing, not merely as occupational tool and side-gig – but I’m less excited by his book that’s been compiled to riff on that as a theme.
Two and a half decades on from his death – and my discovery of his work – I’m less enamoured with him in general it has to be said, but particularly the drinking material. There’s nothing cool or tough or particularly interesting about this exploration. It speaks only to the sadness. Now Buk knew he was doing that, he never hid from that, even if he chased whatever he thought was down there at the bottom of the bottle he would always return to the surface and not shy away from admitting to the despair down in the depths. He was sometimes accused of glamorising drinking but it’s hard to find that depiction when you read 200 pages of poems, stories, columns and extracts from novels that focus only on his fascination and desperation in drinking.
It’s also shorn of any magic when that is the only topic.
Perhaps I’ll admit here that my reading of “On Drinking” comes at a time when I’ve decided to give up drinking alcohol. Maybe that’s an important aspect to note, though I feel my reaction would have been much the same even if I was still enjoying a quiet tipple.
Too much of a bad thing is, unsurprisingly, just a bad thing. And Bukowski was better than just a bunch of arsehole stories about drinking too much and grabbing at the wrong end of the stick with glee, at setting the world to rights from a typewriter he cared about in a boarding house room that he didn’t.
But I was 20 when Bukowski made the biggest impact on me. And maybe I would have loved this book then – in between runs to the bottle-store. I don’t think it would have any of that impact with 20 year olds today.
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