Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Don't Try

The established literary world always feels to me to be an impregnable culture, a self-rewarding network of publishers, agents and journalists. Simply existing as a smart writer with good ideas (yet no inside connections to this culture) often leaves you on a par with your pet rock when it comes to the chances that your work might be blessed with recognition, no matter how many query packages you send out and no matter how relentless your self-promotion.

Yes, yes, yes….we all know J.K. Rowling walked the earth with the first Harry Potter manuscript in a battered shopping bag, and blah, blah, blah, blah…. But seriously, a good writer getting a book deal is as random as a trailer home getting obliterated by a tornado while the other three hundred neighboring trailers watch.

In light of such Sisyphean obstacles, Chuck Bukowski’s philosophy was ‘don’t try’ (it was also his cryptic choice for his epitaph). But despite choosing obscurity, Bukowski became the Legend of Bukowski – the postal worker novelist, the tramp, the poetic drunk portrayed by Mickey Rourke in the film, Barfly. Like Harvey Pekar, Bukowski is the average guy who has given a voice to the disaffected outsider, to those who have either shunned or been run over by the American Dream.

A strong sense of Pekar comes through The Captain is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken over the Ship as this memoir was illustrated by Pekar's ally, Robert Crumb. I’m sure if Crumb were commissioned to illustrate Henry James’s work, he’d easily turn Portrait of a Lady into a sour, soiling experience. His touch then, is perfect for the contents of Bukowski’s mind.

But in this series of journal entries, we are seeing Bukowski in his last days where he lives a life that is materially comfortable and artistically recognized. Still though, Bukowski’s thoughts seem to rumble and grapple with the Greater Question of Life, and here, in his life’s coda, he mulls that there is perhaps no answer.

It’s best encapsulated by the following episode: Bukowski attends a function with his wife. He goes to the bar to order a drink. He orders and then challenges the bartender to a fight out in the alley after he’s completed his drink. To his disappointment, the bartender declines by saying, “Oh…hey, you’re Chuck Bukowski…I love your work!”

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