Thursday 6 September 2012

Absence of the Hero: Uncollected Stories and Essays, Volume 2 1946 - 1992 – Charles Bukowski (2010)

The unearthing of Bukowski’s writing continues and Absence of the Hero does not disappoint. I’ll get right to the point, rather like Bukowski himself, and advise all admirers of his work to get your hands on this collection because it is just brilliant. As for those who view Bukowski with distaste or have never heard of him – I’ll get to you later.

I’m not usually one for quoting, but on the rear cover of this book Tom Waits sums things up best: “He loads his head full of coal and diamonds shoot out of his finger tips.” Absence of the Hero features some of his earliest stories, unseen Notes of a Dirty Old Man columns that were originally published in underground papers, and most fascinating of all, critiques of other writers’ works and commentary about writing.

Two of the early highlights of this collection both play with perception. Cacoethes Scribendi is a rare third person excursion that finds an editor visiting a writer suspiciously like Bukowski himself. The Rapist’s Story gives you a tale of innocence from the rapist’s point of view. It lures the reader into being sympathetic towards the rapist, until you realize at the end that it’s all a matter of perception and that your own has been played with, with disturbing results. For seasoned Bukowski readers these two stories are surprisingly untypical and that’s the great pleasure of this collection – it presents another side of Bukowski.

A side of Bukowski that I’ve never read before are the critical essays and his ruminations about writing. As usual they are peppered with his succinct brilliance. It’s fascinating to read his critique of Alan Ginsburg’s work, in which he manages to examine both Ginsburg’s writing and the psychology of reviewing other writers. Hilariously he refers to Ginsburg as a “…bearded half-monk, kind of lighted with bedroom infractions and stinking nightmares of India and Cuba and coffeehouses, this flumping spread of hair that is Allen Ginsburg.” All aspiring writers need to read House of Horrors, in which Bukowski lays down the truth about writing. At the end he concludes that: “For after some years of writing, the soul, the person, the creature becomes useless to operate in any other capacity. He is unemployable. He is a bird in a land of cats. I’d never advise anybody to become a writer, only if writing is the only thing which keeps you from going insane. Then, perhaps, it’s worth it.” I hear you Bukowski.

More typical is Notes of a Dirty Old Man, Open City December 8 1967 in which Bukowski reveals that he was an American who fully understood irony when he twists an argument that he is a racist back onto the accuser, in a beautiful and succinct way of course. Another Notes of a Dirty Old Man, this time published in Free Press November 1975, is a hilarious misanthropic meditation about cars and people. There is also the usual stories about drunkenness – being drunk at poetry readings, on the way to poetry readings and after poetry readings, oh, and in the middle of the night, afternoon and morning, with or without other people, usually with hilarious results and with a dash of pathos thrown in. There’s sex and as usual it’s very masculine, but take note all you women reading Fifty Shades of F**king Grey (they’ll change its title to this in the future), it’s erotic in a powerful way and it will give you a thrill, not a cheap one though. Start with Vern’s Wife, page 140.

The thing about Charles Bukowski’s writing is that you can be feeling terrible and you read him and then you feel good again. Bukowski speaks directly to the hurt part of your soul; his humanity is palpable because it came directly out of his brain and onto the page unfiltered. No doubt his writing was like therapy to him and it certainly has that effect on the reader. Another thing is that his brand of existentialism is way better than, say, Sartre’s. I have no doubt that Bukowski would have thought that Sartre was a pussy, but he would have at least had a drink with Camus.

As for those of you who accuse Bukowski of misogyny, I’m afraid that you are sadly mistaken – he was a misanthrope. Read his work and after a while you realize that the men in his stories come in for some rough treatment. He loved to reveal the awful stupidity of men and he didn’t spare him-self from such treatment either. Besides, no one else has quite summed up the effect of a beautiful woman quite like this: “She walked in. Shining gold. Flare of eye in wild painting. Centuries of men killing for the like. I mean, you know, I was at last overcome.” It still didn’t get him laid though.

As for those of you who have never read Bukowski, hear this – every man and woman, but perhaps not child (teenagers are a grey area) should read Bukowski. Everyone should at least read Post Office (1971) and Women (1978). Quite frankly if you don’t read Bukowski then you will die having never experienced literature that comes from the core and reveals the essence of what it is to be human. Don’t miss out.


  1. Yeah Post Office and Women are essential, you nail it. I'd recommend Hostage, to hear the man, and his way of handling a lively bar crowd in Redondo Beach 1985. Great to read what he made of Allen Ginsberg, knew he'd like him. Keep 'em coming Jeremy!

  2. Thanks! Hostage? I may well have heard that recording - I have a few. The recordings of his poetry readings are priceless.

  3. It was a beat up old cd I bought for a song, I listen to it every so often, gets me cackling! He gets a little bored and asks the crowd for insults, rather than clapping.

  4. Jeremy! I just read this review. Mainly your last three paragraphs. You're right, Bukowski treated men just as badly as he treated women, but I really don't think you can say he's an example of the essence of what it is to be human. Unless you mean an incredibly negative, mean spirited human?

    I did like Post Office, for sure, but Women is self-indulgent, bad pornography. And that's not just because I'm a woman who apparently should be reading Fifty Shades of Grey.

    (You must have known I'd want to comment if I ever found this post!)

    1. Hello! It's not about being negative or mean spirited, whether he was or not, but his ability to articulate both the pain and the joy of life, and to be absolutely truthful about it. It's a hard thing to do, whether you admire it or not. I don't agree with every opinion expressed in his autobiographical writing, but I admire his ability to clearly express it.

      I don't think anyone should read Fifty shades..!

      I'm disappointed it took you so long!

    2. He is actually quite endearing here:

  5. That's great! That's why I love Bukowski....