Monday, 15 October 2012

Charles Bukowski’s Scarlet: A Memoir - Pamela “Cupcakes” Wood (2010)

Bukowski and Wood

During the 1970’s Charles Bukowski had gained enough notoriety from his street-smart writing to attract the attention of ‘fans’ that wanted to meet him, party with him or in the case of some women, to find out if he really was a dirty old man. Although Bukowski was essentially a misanthropic loner, he mostly let these people into his life and many of these experiences ended up in his writing. In Absence of the Hero (2010) he knowingly refers to this period as ‘research.’

Pamela Wood first met Charles Bukowski in 1975 when her and her friend, Georgia, were out late at night celebrating the latter’s birthday. Inspired by her friend’s love of Bukowski’s writing she rang him from a public phone booth and Bukowski invited them around. That night began two years of involvement in Bukowski’s life and Wood went on to be featured in his great novel Women (1978), inspired a volume of love poems called Scarlet (1976) and many other poems that featured in books such as Love is a Dog From Hell (1977).

Scarlet is a fascinating memoir for Bukowski fans because Wood tells us the story from the other side. Bukowski’s writing was essentially autobiographical, so we know his side of the story only too well. When Pamela Wood met Bukowski she was a young mother struggling to make sense of her life and was partying hard on uppers and alcohol. What you learn from Scarlet is both how Wood changed as a person during the years she knew Bukowski and also the intimate minutiae of her relationship with Bukowski. As fascinating as her time with Bukowski is, Scarlet is also about Wood’s life and like Bukowski she is perceptive and honest about herself and the people in her life at that time.

Bukowski with Georgia

Wood wrote Scarlet herself and although she is no great stylist she manages to project what it was like for a young woman to be thrust into the intense world of Charles Bukowski without resorting to sensationalism. Scarlet helps to bring Bukowski further into focus as a sensitive and complex man who also had a no bullshit attitude. There’s pathos, bathos and serial dysfunction throughout the memoir, but what is interesting is that it mostly comes from Georgia, Wood and her brother, Larry. In fact Bukowski emerges as a voice of reason; admonishing Wood for not being careful with her money, being a stickler for punctuality and displaying a strong work ethic. He did have his flaws of course, such as his irrational jealousy and his alcoholism – of which Wood recalls without much judgment.

Scarlet offers many joys for the Bukowski fan. Wood recounts several poetry readings she attended, where she took pride of place at the front, giving the reader valuable insight into Bukowski the reluctant performer. At one poetry reading in New York Bukowski gives a visiting poet short shrift and at another Wood drinks too much and ends up making a fool of herself in front of the great Jack Nitzsche (Nitzsche also turns up at Bukowski’s bungalow – the two seemed to be great friends.) There are also many intimate photos throughout the book, many of them unseen and taken with the Polaroid camera bought by Bukowski for Wood.

Wood entered Bukowski’s life just after Linda King and Bukowski parted ways for the final time. Bukowski tells an amazed Wood about King’s jealous rage, in which she smashed his beloved typewriter, all caused by Bukowski talking about Wood to King. Of course anyone who has read Women will be already familiar with this and many of the other events Wood recalls. That book almost ruined a relationship for Wood, when years later her soon to be husband read the book and nearly called off the wedding because of her portrayal as a wild and sexy pill popper.

Despite the dysfunction and general craziness of Bukowski and Wood’s relationship, Wood ends up looking back with genuine fondness for Bukowski. Bukowski suffered a great deal because of his love for Wood, which she acknowledges without coming over as being defensive - in fact Wood is both insightful and genuine. At the end it is extremely touching when she talks about how it felt to hear about Bukowski’s death on the radio after having not seen him for nearly twenty years. She went from someone who couldn’t understand why people loved his writing to someone who was angered when the radio announcer referred to Bukowski as a “pornographic poet.” Wood, like Bukowski’s admirers, knew that he was much more than that and through Scarlet she confirms this fact emphatically.

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