I Don’t Know About Charles Bukowski

Alli Armijo // Blog Writer

The first thing I do when I am interested in a book is turn to a random page and read a passage. It might be a few words or a few sentences, but it usually gives me a pretty good idea of how the author writes.

I first picked up Charles Bukowski’s Hot Water Music (1983) on a whim, or more honestly, because I liked the title. I imagined a warmly lit kitchen and a faucet spewing hot water, steam dissolving against a large, open window. Perhaps a couple was dancing while water boiled, or maybe a tea kettle was screaming, about to boil over. What I didn’t expect was “Turkeyneck Morning,” a short story about a man comparing his erection to Mount Everest. It wasn’t the subject matter that caught me off-guard, but the language used. It was minimalist, technical. It was as if Raymond Carver and Hugh Hefner had a literary lovechild, and I was reading it.

I write this now, having read Hot Water Music in its entirety. Since finishing the short story collection, I went on a Charles Bukowski deep dive. I read his poetry, scouring the internet for articles, reviews, and opinionated rants. I considered what I read in tandem with my own feelings and emotions approaching his work, and still cannot definitively express how I feel about him.

What I will say is, I feel a great amount of guilt reading his work. I feel dirty and grimy reading stories about men confidently assaulting women, and wives dismissing the fact that their husbands might be child molesters. His language is not beautiful, but sexually mechanic. It is obtuse and casual, but not necessarily in a bad way. Casual can be dismissive, but it can also be everyday; it can underscore what meets the eye, calling attention to the mundanity of sex and the people who have it. And while stories do not have to be told eloquently, there is a line between “easy on the eyes” and “cringeworthy” that Charles Bukowski dares to cross.

To speak about the collection specifically, Hot Water Music is primarily about working-class artists who are constantly deprived. They are either hungry or having sex— and most of the time, both. The women are sexualized and objectified, and the men say crude things to their wives, especially when they burn coffee, which is a recurring theme throughout many of the stories.

My favorite story in the collection is “The Great Poet,” which is about a man who excitedly interviews one of his favorite poets, Bernard “Barney” Stachman. Throughout the five-page story, the protagonist asks Stachman a series of questions, to which he is met with terse answers or lengthy explanations for questions he did not ask. Stachman is also unkempt and drunk. When the protagonist asks to take a picture of Stachman, the poet accepts, first telling his interviewer to grab him a bottle to pee in.

“At his elbow, on a table, was a gallon jug of dago red filled with cigarette ashes and dead moths. I looked away, then looked back. He had the jug to his mouth but most of the wine ran right back out, down his shirt, down his pants. Bernard Stachman put the jug back. ‘Just what I needed.’” (31)

The stories feature no optimistic moral, nothing about the resiliency of life or the respectability of people who pursue art as a career. And perhaps that is why Charles Bukowski, as his own character, is so interesting to me. He doesn’t write omnisciently or sympathetically, but observationally; he seems to be a journalist just transcribing the day’s events. And while the subject matter of each story is provocative in its own way, Bukowski and his characters are not fallen heroes, but the great thing is, they don’t claim to be.

In any case, that is one reason I read Charles Bukowski: he is unlike any author I’ve ever read. While that does not necessarily mean I like him or his writing style, I can confidently say I have never felt the way about another author’s writing; I don’t know if I’m uncomfortable or interested, but maybe I can be both. Maybe I can admire him from afar, or maybe I can judge from the same distance. Whatever the case may be, I am happy I picked up Hot Water Music.

While there were no nostalgic kitchen scenes, there were penises, drugs, and cursing. And if Bukowski keeps me on my toes, that might be all I can ask for as a reader.

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