Books I Haven’t Read: ‘Notes of a Dirty Old Man’ and ‘Hollywood’ by Charles Bukowski
Note: This was going to be an article about ‘Lord of the Rings’, but I worried that it would just begin to look like the books I didn’t read were books that were too long. ‘NOADOM’ and ‘Hollywood’ are both relatively small – no complaints to be had!
Reading my first Bukowski novel was a revelation. This may sound like hyperbole, but having reflected on my formative reading experiences recently, it is the only way I see fit to describe it. This is not to say I read badly before Bukowski per se, just that I’d never read an author with such a distinctive voice. A gritty, unapologetic voice.
Whilst it would be unwise to suggest that all my reading before Bukowski had been sunshine, lollipops and unicorns, I honestly believed I hadn’t encountered someone so willing to lay bare the seedier aspects of life. The work by Bukowski was recommended to me by a friend I knew from secondary school, at a time I was working in a betting shop to help fund my way through university. He used words to the effect of ‘maybe you should become like Bukowski’, which seems to suggest a desire for me to sleep and drink my way through a completely unfulfilled and unstable adult life.
Still, these words made me choose to seek out one of Bukowski’s books – I chose ‘Factotum’ – and see what the fuss was all about. The book was short, the narrative simple, it was all over in a matter of days…yet it was hard to shake what I had read from my mind. Bukowski was able to allow me, for 200 pages, to inhabit life in the US from the view of someone on the bottom rung of society. A life that saw more value in the next glass of wine or the next bunk up over and above the staples of employment, relationships and family. It was unflinching in its crassness, and I was completely enthralled.
Looking back at a synopsis (I read this over ten years ago), I even begin to question now how much of Bukowski I embody. Sure, I’ve got a fiance and a daughter and the staples of what would be considered a ‘good life’, but doesn’t a certain unsatisfactory edge lie, bubbling, below the surface? How much solace and enjoyment do I get out of the next drink, and how much does the next drink help mask my own flawed creativity? Maybe there were elements of the writer that my friend perceptively teased out within my own personality.
A few years later, I walked into HMV and saw the two aforementioned books on sale for £2 each. I remembered the exhilaration of reading ‘Factotum’, and decided that I couldn’t really pass up the offer. I bought both books, and looked forward to delving back into Bukowski’s world, with all that entailed. I opened up ‘Hollywood’ and read the first fifty pages or so.
I never picked it up again.
‘Notes from a Dirty Old Man’ didn’t even get the proverbial literary test drive. Whilst I appreciate that ‘Hollywood’ is in no way a spiritual link to the Henry Chinaski stories told in books like ‘Factotum’, I felt like I had grown up in the years the followed my initial reading. What was once shocking or engaging just ceased to grab me in the same way. There is no doubt in my mind about my own perceived quality of Bukowski’s writing, and how important the one book I did read came to be to my reading odyssey, but I couldn’t recreate that moment or that feeling. I had moved on and left Bukowski behind.
Will I ever look to read him again? I truly doubt it. I would argue that I have since read books by novelists that take his self-destructive narratives and applied them in more interesting and exciting ways. Does this devalue my original experience with Bukowski? Not at all.
If I hadn’t have read Bukowski, would I have moved towards the books of Michel Houellebecq, J.M. Coetzee or even Patrick Hamilton? Though not all of these novelists are obvious successors to Bukowski, they all have elements that I may not have enjoyed had I not previous read ‘Factotum’; the crass discussions of violence and sex in Houellebecq; the simmering tension of Coetzee; the explorations of social obscurity within Hamilton’s work. In some ways, Bukowski was the gateway, and even if I never read a book by him again, I will have no difficulty trumpeting the value of my limited time spent reading his work.