Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Bukowski is Still Relevant

A Review of “The Most Beautiful Woman in Town & Other Stories” by Charles Bukowski

When asked “What’s the difference between prose and poetry?” Bukowski responds with one of the best quotes I’ve read from him: “Poetry says too much in too short a time; prose says too little and takes too long.” Well, this prose collection says a lot, and it doesn’t take long at all. At 200-plus pages, it’s a blur of horseracing, drinking, shitty relationships and shittier jobs.

I’ve always been intrigued by Bukowski’s love-hate relationship with the “the public,” “the people” and “the poor.” Although he never sticks to these issues for longer than a couple of paragraphs, this collection contains a lot of his musings about the working class, people’s movements and politics. He respects the poor and, rightfully so, counts himself among them. His characters are poor, his language is poorer and his settings (bars, racetracks, skid rows, post offices, loading docks, alleyways) are poorer still. He writes beautifully about the poor and downtrodden: “Only the poor knew the meaning of life; the rich and safe had to guess.”

At his heart, I think Bukowski is a populist. He maintains respect and admiration for poor people, even while he’s lambasting them for their idiocy and compliance. He’s also an introvert, quite possibly the most prolific introvert in modern American letters. He’s a man easily fed up with the hoi polloi. To Bukowski, people are crazy and scary. Individuals can be okay, but the collective “people” are a joke. They fritter away their lives at pointless jobs, and they maintain a pathetic hope that somehow they can change the ingrained system that is screwing them. But their votes, protest pins and catch phrases never amount to much. Just pick up the newspaper. Working people are also terrible at accomplishing large-scale goals, Bukowski says. (“once the public gets onto something it is dead and it changes. the public is not allowed to win in any game ever invented and that includes the American Revolution.” ) He also has no patience for the political process. Right wing, left wing, to him it's all crap, or, as he titles one of his stories: "Politics is like trying to screw a cat in the ass."

But while Bukowski gets in a few jabs here and there, he never gets bogged down in the corner with sociopolitical issues. He just doesn’t have time for it. For example, while much of Bukowski’s best work is seeped in skid row realism, he’s great when he adds in a dash of science fiction. There’s one story in this book about an ex-Nazi scientist who been retained by the American government to create a sex-bot. Bukowski meets this strange German guy in a bar, and he agrees to introduce Bukowski to the sex-bot. The sex-bot falls in love with Bukowski and says she doesn't want to be with other men. It ends, like many stories involving Bukowski and women, in tragedy.

I love the way Bukowski plays with his readers in this collection. He tells this great story about this sex-bot love affair, and ends it on the line: "what would you do?" This has the effect of drawing the reader into the story on a deeper level, and it's that deeper level that I think Bukowski works best. If his stories don’t really have an ending, he just wraps them up with a line like: “let that be story enough.” I love it.

In “The Gut-Wrenching Machine,” Bukowski takes on one of his all-time favorite enemies: work. The story is set in The Satisfactory Help Agency, a temp firm that keeps a factory of men and women work slaves around to rent out to companies. Before sending the human work-bots out into the world of 7-day work weeks, the Agency puts them through this machine that squeezes “the guts” out of them, metaphorically speaking. They’re still alive, they are just made compliant and pliable. After going through this machine a number of times they come out with no heart, no soul, no desire for leisure. They just want to work endlessly and follow orders. It’s an age-old theme for Bukowski (that mindless and heartless toil in pursuit of materialistic gain destroys the human spirit), but this story tells it in a hilarious sci-fi-inspired kind of way.

The titular story is perhaps one of his most heartfelt pieces ever. It’s about a beautiful woman who despises her beauty. She can’t stand herself, even though everyone wants her. It’s a truly heartbreaking piece that is worth reading.

That said, this collection is not for everyone. There are stories in here that will enrage even the most hardened and cynical. A few stories left me feeling like I needed to take a shower, or go back in time and punch Bukowski in the face for being such a prick. But, maybe in some odd and perverse way, that’s a tribute to a man who spent his life not giving a shit. It’s what brings me back to him after all these years. And it’s what makes this collection special.

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