“I never pump up my vulgarity. I wait for it to arrive on its own terms,” says Henry ‘Hank’ Chinaski the fictional alter-ego of legendary boozehound writer and “laureate of American lowlife” (as Time magazine dubbed him) Charles Bukowski in his 1978 novel “Women”.
I’ve read many of Bukowski’s brilliantly irreverent novels – written in a parsed down, forthright and highly entertaining style – and Women is by far the most graphic, indeed almost pornographic in its depiction of Chinaski’s innumerable sexual encounters.
(“I got down there and began licking…the cl*t came out but it wasn’t exactly pink, it was a purplish pink,” is how he describes one of these episodes.)
The semi-autobiographical novel (one can only assume some of his sexual exploits are exaggerated, though perhaps not the prodigious drinking) begins with Chinaski, 50, telling the reader that he has not had sex for four years.
“I had no women friends. I looked at them as I passed them on the street or wherever I saw them, but I looked without yearning, with a sense of futility.”
This drought is then broken by a period of romping that would have made Don Juan proud. It begins with half-crazed divorced mother of two Lydia Vance (the fictional version of Bukowski’s real-life girlfriend, the sculptor and playwright Linda King), whom Chinaski meets at a poetry reading:
Their relationship is full of wild sex, described in intimate detail by Chinaski – “I heard her breathing heavily, then she moaned” – and violent breakups due to his excessive drinking, visits to the racetrack, and infidelities, none of which he apologises for. Chinaski is who he is and the world can go to hell if they don’t like it.
“I walked into the bedroom with just my shorts on. I was conscious of my white belly lolling out over the shorts. But I made no effort to suck in my gut…”
At face value, Women is simply a recollection of Chinaski’s (or Bukowski’s) various relationships with women. These include Lydia, but also brief encounters with star struck fans who are seemingly served up on a platter to the horniest 50-year-old in LA.
It’s also a daily tally of his prodigious alcohol consumption of mostly cheap wine and beer. In between all the boozing and bonking – “Fucking was the best cure for hangovers. It got all the parts ticking again” – we accompany Chinaski on his often hilarious trips to college campuses around the country where he gives readings.
But as with all his writing, Bukowski manages to convey something more profound and meaningful than the sum of his adventures across bedrooms, bars and college campuses.
It is to champion the other side of Los Angeles in the words of his biographer Barry Miles: “Not the LA of ranch homes in the Hollywood Hills with the breathtaking views…” but the LA of tarnished dreams, of dead end jobs, of hookers and workers in the sex industry, of beaten down, damaged and dysfunctional people”.
Miles adds: “Bukowski loved the corner bars, the tawdry fast-food outlets, the sex shops and brothels, the graffiti on the walls…”
Sure Chinaski is the hero of the story, but he is no superman in a cape. He is very much the Bukoswki you see in those grainy black and white poetry readings on YouTube. a disheveled anti-hero with a pockmarked face who says what he thinks, never holds back and for whom nothing is ever taboo.
Chinaski in Women is very much a mirror – if perhaps a distorted and exaggerated one – of Bukowski at the height of his powers and fame: when after decades of struggle, eking out a living and working dead end jobs, he had finally established himself as a figurehead in American literature: the dirty old man of American letters.
Chinaski is not searching for some deeper meaning to life, or for the woman of his dreams. Life is simply about the experiences that happen to him – whether its winning big at the track or walking away broke, having a raging hardon or being unable to perform in the sack because he drank too much, talking to prostitutes or college professors – everything finds its way, uncensored into the book.
And while Chinaski is vulgar, and driven by his baser urges, he can also be sweet and loving. He is not a manipulator, nor does he pretend to be anyone else. And he despises pretentious, fake people.
Most importantly – and perhaps a key reason why I enjoy his books so much – is the poetic nature of his writing: short, descriptive sentences that hit their mark without ever saying too little or too much (a style that would have impressed George Orwell).
If you are a fan of Bukowski other books, or a writer like Raymond Carver who though not as vulgar, employed a similar parsed down style of storytelling, you should definitely give Women a read. (Just don’t leave the book anywhere near young children!)