Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Charles Bukowski - Hot Water Music

The sun shone through the window. It was just before noon. Hot water gurgled through the pipes of the building.

Hank Chinaski got up, went to the bathroom, and vomited.

He came back into the living room, and cracked open a warm beer.

He drank it, then decided to update his blog.

"Shit,” thought Hank, “that didn’t sound right.”

If you’ve ever had a hangover, you’ll like this book.

Charles (or Chuck) Bukowski was a German-American writer, somewhat in the style of the Beat generation authors of the 1950s. He lived in Los Angeles for most of his life, and apparently enjoyed it some of the time. Best known perhaps for his novels such as Post Office, Factotum and Ham on Rye, he also wrote widely in poetry and short prose. This collection, Hot Water Music, first published in 1983, is one of his later works. He died in 1994, at the ripe old age of 74, which is pretty impressive, considering.

Bukowski's life and literature (in good old Beat style, seemingly inseparable) revolved around drinking, writing, fucking, arguing, more drinking and sleeping everyday until noon. Simultaneously, he was one of the most, honest, sympathetic characters in modern iterature (often through his lyrically named alter ego, Hank Chinaski) as well as a callous blackguard and general dirty old man.

The secret to Bukowski’s work, as with almost all good literature, lies with what might be called the creative impulses, or literary stimulants. Chief among all such is the substance of alcohol, as a brief survey of 20th century writing easily illustrates. Irish literature, which birthed the modern novel through James Joyce’s Ulysses, is especially notable in this respect. It has subsisted on its own steady diet of stout/porter and whiskey (barley malt, not rye) for several generations and counting. A significant proportion of Ulysses occurs within the walls of public houses, while Flann O’Brien made copious use of the Guinness advertising slogan “a pint of plain is your only man” in his debut Joycean-homage novel of 1939, At Swim Two-Birds and, in later life, attempted to get a contract to get paid to write a potted history of the whiskey distillery industry.

American literature is hardly much different. F. Scott Fitzgerald was never much more than a creator of martinis in book form. Kerouac, a sometime fervent Joycean, nevertheless had the purity of his message somewhat distorted and reshaped by the differing stimulants of Benzedrine and marijuana. And Bukowski, of course, was the ultimate barfly. Yet Bukowski took the progress of English language literature another step further, with the focus not so much on the effect of inebriation as on the impulse of being chronically hungover.

And that, pretty much, is the secret to Chuck Bukowski. Of course, it’s all a little bit facetious - or, as the man would have said himself, “Balls!”

As for the stories themselves, Bukowski has an astounding variety. Most of them do follow a kind of consistent Beat/lowlife mien, but he constantly switches between styles of narration (first person, alter-ego, or Joe Bloggs everyman), situations and even mood (okay, mostly he riffs on cynicism… but occasionally he forays into the elegiac). Bukowski is also consistently, and bitingly, hilarious, and you’re unlikely to get bored or jaded reading his stories.

Earlier Bukowski work featured a bit more surrealism, and often adapted his mien to the zaniness of classic science fiction (e.g., ‘The Gut-Wringing Machine’, or ‘Dr. Nazi’). His 1973 collection, South of No North, provides a good example of this earlier style.

In addition, the vast majority of Bukowski’s work involves, in some way or other, the scatological, the pornographic or the downright obscene. This collection alone contains not one, but two separate stories of mutilated penises (‘Not Quite Bernadette’, and ‘Praying Mantis’). The two extracts below, as it happens, don’t contain anything of particular crudity (well, except for the doberman… but read on). It’s not that I’m prudish, it pretty much just worked out that way when I was choosing them.

Finally, I am hesitant (perhaps gladly) to indulge in much literary criticism here, chiefly because of an internal Bukowski shouting “Balls!” at anything too arch. These books are meant to be enjoyed intuitively, not critically. But, there are two dynamics which I feel are a good way of looking Bukowski’s humour, particularly amongst the arcs of his desultory short stories: first, making the mundane farcical, and second, making the farcical mundane. These short stories tend invariably to follow one or other of these dynamics. These two extracts make a good illustration:


Valoff did have a fairly interesting face – compared to most poets. But compared to most poets almost everybody has.

Victor Valoff began:

"East of the Suez of my heart

begins a buzzing buzzing buzzing

sombre still,still sombre

and suddenly Summer comes home

straight on through like a

Quarterback sneak on the one yard line of my heart!"

Victor screamed the last line and as he did so somebody behind me said, “Beautiful!” It was a local feminist poet who had grown tired of blacks and now fucked a doberman in her bedroom. She had braided red hair, dull eyes, and played a mandolin while she read her work. Most of her work involved something about a dead baby’s footprint in the sand. She was married to a doctor who was never around (at least he had the good sense not to attend poetry readings). He gave her a large allowance to support her poetry and to feed the doberman.

Valoff continued:

“Docks and ducks and derivative day

Ferment behind my forehead

in a most unforgiving way

o, in a most unforgiving way

I sway through the light and darkness…”

“I’ve got to agree with him there,” I told Vicki.

“Please be quiet,” she answered.

“With one thousand pistols and one thousand hopes

I step onto the porch of my mind

to murder one thousand Popes!”

I found my half pint, uncapped it and took a good hit.

“Listen,” said Vicki, “you always get drunk at these readings. Can’t you contain yourself?”

“I get drunk at my own readings,” I said. “I can’t stand my stuff either.”

Gummed mercy,” Valoff went on, “that’s what we are, gummed mercy, gummed gummed gummed mercy…

“He’s going to say something about a raven,” I said.

Gummed mercy,” continued Valoff, “and the raven forevermore…

I laughed. Valoff recognized the laugh. He looked down at me. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “in the audience tonight we have the poet Henry Chinaski.”

Little hisses were heard. They knew me. “Sexist pig!” “Drunk!” “Motherfucker!”

I took another drink. “Please continue, Victor,” I said. He did.

(from ‘Scum Grief’)

and, 2nd

Joe Mayer was a freelance writer. He had a hangover and the telephone awakened him at 9 a.m. He got up and answered it. “Hello?”

“Hi, Joe. How’s it going?”

“Oh, beautiful.”

“Beautiful, eh?”


“Vicki and I just moved into our new house. We don’t have a phone yet.But I can give you the address. You got a pen there?”

“Just a minute.”

Joe took down the address.

“I didn’t like that last story of yours I saw in Hot Angel.”

“O.K.” said Joe.

“I don’t mean I didn’t like it, I mean I don’t like it compared to most of your stuff. By the way, do you know where Buddy Edwards is? Griff Martin who used to edit Hot Tales is looking for him. I thought you might know.”

“I don’t know where he is.”

“I think he might be in Mexico.”

“He might be.”

“Well, listen, we’ll be around to set you soon.”

“Sure.” Joe hung up. He put a couple of eggs in a pan of water, set some coffee water on and took an Alka Seltzer. Then he went back to bed.
The phone rang again. He got up and answered it.



“This is Eddie Greer.”

“Oh yes.”

“We want you to read for a benefit…”

“What is it?”

“For the I.R.A.”

“Listen, Eddie, I don’t go for politics or religion or whatever. I really don’t know what’s going on over there. I don’t have a tv, read the papers… any of that. I don’t know who’s right or wrong or who’s wrong, if there is such a thing.”

“England’s wrong, man.”

“I can’t read for the I.R.A., Eddie.”

“All right, then…”

The eggs were done. He sat down, peeled them, put on some toast and mixed the Sanka in with the hot water. He got down the eggs and toast and had two coffees. Then he went back to bed.

He was just about asleep when the phone rang again. He got up
and answered it.

“Mr. Mayer?”


“I’m Mike Haven, I’m a friend of Stuart Irving’s. We once appeared in Stone Mule together when Stole Mule was edited in Salt Lake City.”


“I’m down from Montana for a week. I’m staying at the Hotel Sheraton here in town. I’d like to come see you and talk to you”

“Today’s a bad day, Mike.”

“Well, maybe I can come over later in the week?”

“Yes, why don’t you call me later on?”

“You know, Joe, I write just like you do, both in poetry and prose. I want to bring some of my stuff over and read it to you. You’ll be surprised. My stuff is really powerful.”

“Oh yes?”

“You’ll see.”

(from ‘A Working Day’)


Andrew said...

This made me even more interested in finally reading Bukowski. Great review!

gabbagabbahey said...

Glad you liked it. The idea for the opening pastiche and the 'secret to Bukowski' bit came to me in the middle of the night... I was completely sober, but couldn't get to sleep. Way too much html!

Anyway, hope you find some good Bukowski to read. Look out for the Ecco editions of his short stories... they've got nice tactile covers and a real nice typeset.

Anonymous said...

Buk, Charles Bukowski, Hank, Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr. All good. These are names of the writer you are talking about.

There is no one named "Chuck Bukowski". Well maybe there is some other person with that name. But that is not the name of the writer you are reviewing. No one who knew Hank *EVER* called him Chuck.

Only people who know nothing & want to pretend some familiarity try to show their closeness by using the hated "Chuck". Usually drunks wanting to interrupt dinner.

Just thought you might want to know, since that doesn't seem like your angle at all!

gabbagabbahey said...

wow... I can't remember really why I included 'Chuck'. guess I must have read a lot of other people referring to him that way - also Chuck Dukowski (Black Flag guitarist) and maybe Chuck Palahniuk, who I was reading a lot of at the time.

thanks for letting me know that. no offence meant, obviously.

Mermy said...

I am at peace with the usage of "Chuck." I think "Charles" would have liked you to pull the stick out of your ass. Chuck is a well-known nickname for Charles. Corina: annoying, really. After that beautiful piece that was posted about Bukowski and "Hot Water Music." Your post just reminds me why Bukowski hated annoying people.

Mermy said...

Great title..."steady diet of books." Is it pulled from the Fugazi album; "Steady Diet of Nothing?"

gabbagabbahey said...

It is, yes.