Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Notes Of A Dirty Old Man - Charles Bukowski


It was the sex fuhrer/tattooed beat messiah Zodiac Mindwarp himself who first introduced me to Charles Bukowski's Notes Of A Dirty Old Man when many years ago he advised that this particular book was his bible. I promptly sought out Bukowski's works and read two of his novels, Post Office and The Most Beautiful Girl In Town but I must admit I wasn't overly enamoured by them. Perhaps my expectations were too high? Or perhaps at that time I was? They weren't bad books in the slightest but they just didn't grab me.

Years later, I finally get round to reading the specific book Zodiac was referring to and I'm flabbergasted by just how good it is. Titter ye not, as Frankie Howard would say. Bukowski's writing explodes, pops and fizzes like a firework. In fact, almost every sentence in every paragraph explodes, pops and fizzes with a new thought, a new idea or a new turn of phrase as if he was writing for his life and in many ways I guess he actually was. He was writing for his rent, for his next meal and to be able to get drunk - and not necessarily in that order. He was writing to survive.

Notes Of A Dirty Old Man is a collection of the columns Bukowski wrote for a free alternative newspaper in Los Angeles during the late Sixties by the name of Open City. It's here that he was given free rein to write about anything he wished and it's here that he found his true voice.

'One day after the races, I sat down and wrote the heading, opened a beer, and the writing got done by itself', as he explains in the introduction 'There seemed to be no pressures. Just sit by the window, lift the beer and let it come. Think of it yourself: absolute freedom to write anything you please. Hit the typer on a Friday or a Saturday or a Sunday and by Wednesday the thing is all over the city. People come to my door - too many of them really - and tell me that Notes turns them on. A doctor comes to my door: "I read your column and I think that I can help you. I used to be a psychiatrist".'

It's from here that Bukowski created his art, delivered in a certain style that's clearly been much copied but never bettered. There's a world weariness in his writing that can be a little depressing at times as though he's down with the blues and the only way out is to have another drink but - and it's a big but - when he's relaying anecdotes about meeting Neal Cassidy (of Kerouac's On The Road fame) or delivering tales of drunken escapades with fellow barflies, or giving state of the Union addresses, Bukowski is utterly brilliant.

'What is not in the open street is false derived, that is to say, literature,' said Henry Miller. Bukowski, however, was not so much writing of the open street but of the bars and the gutters. 'We are all of us in the gutter,' said Oscar Wilde (or was that Chrissie Hynde?) 'But some of us are looking at the stars.' Bukowski wasn't looking at the stars but rather his gaze was fixed firmly upon a bottle of beer, a bottle of wine or on occasion a bottle of whisky. This is where he drew his inspiration: from these bottles and from the life associated with the continuous consumption of the cheapest varieties of the contents therein.

I'm not sure I'd like to emulate Bukowski's lifestyle or tread the same path he took (for one thing, I couldn't manage the hangovers) but as an example of how to write attention grabbing columns and as an insight into the strata of American society he was very much a part of, I'd say Bukowski's Notes Of A Dirty Old Man cannot be beaten.
John Serpico

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