If you’re lucky, you’ll connect with a writer (or several) who will alter your worldview after reading their works; “Confessions of an Educator” columnist Chris Margolin shares his transformative experience reading Charles Bukowski.
When I was a sophomore in college, I was fingering through the bookshelves at Powell’s City of Books and came to an abrupt stop at a thin anthology called Drinking, Smoking, and Screwing. I’m a guy with a sardonic sense of humor, so this immediately caught my attention; and without even opening the cover, I added it to my stack of books and walked up to the counter to hand over my semi-hard-earned money. Little did I know, I was buying a book that would change my life. Little did I know that in that little anthology, I would discover the sad, dark, hilariously honest world of Charles Bukowski.
I’d heard the name before, but I didn’t know why. It was sort of like that whispered name that you weren’t supposed to know—something was dark and forbidden about those three syllables. And then I read this little excerpt from Women and that was all I needed in order to move my head in a whole different literary direction. I hadn’t read any Chuck Palahniuk yet, Chuck Klosterman wasn’t on my radar, and James Frey hadn’t released his wish-it-was-real-but-still-genius A Million Little Pieces. Bukowski was dark, sullen, drunk, misogynistic, and didn’t give a shit. He was going to tell it like it was, spit in your face, and not apologize for a damn thing. Where Burroughs used metaphors to share his love of drugs, Bukowski gave fuck-all about your feelings and wasn’t going to hide behind any metaphors. There was whiskey in his glass, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, pock marks, and eyes so deep in his face that you could feel the years of hard living before you even read a word. But I read every word. We all read every word. Not because we’ve been asked to or forced to, but because if you’ve picked up any of his words, you’ve not put them down until you either finished or felt so much that you paused for a whiskey and came right back to it.
I spent that year reading every one of his books I could get my hands on. He wasn’t afraid to go over our head. He wrote it so we’d know it, but if we couldn’t grasp it, it wasn’t his fault. For example, I didn’t understand the bulk of Pulp. I couldn’t figure out what it was that made it so difficult, and then I realized the entire book was referencing Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night—a French masterpiece of literature that I’d never known. Bukowski wasn’t just bringing us his words, but also pointing us in the direction of ones he revered—or at least sorta dug.
Sometimes, especially as a teacher, I wish I could hand certain books to certain students. I understand that formative years are probably not the best time for Bukowski. I realize that handing a sophomore in high school a copy of Post Office probably wouldn’t be the smartest choice. But at the same time, why not? If I learn all about Chinaski at age 13 years old, I might have made a few smarter choices along the way. Or maybe I’d become a postman.
It’s tough to know that while you’ve got this book that might work to help someone, you can’t hand it over to them because there are pieces that simply do not work for that age group; even though there are definitely students who see a lot worse than a Bukowski novel as soon as they walk through their door, that experience is far from the same as the bulk of the class. It’s a bit of a tightrope walk when it comes to what teachers can, and cannot, read with their students.
Bukowski was a genius at just being real. He was who he was and just wanted you to know everything he could remember through the drunken haze. There are a lot of folk who could benefit from taking a gander at a few of his books—some of whom we allow and others who somehow find their way to it. His writing is a bit of a road map; if you use it properly, there really is a life’s worth of treasure at the end.