Bukowski or Chinaski
Charles Bukowski was kind of an odd ball. As a figure in popular culture, he’s mostly known as the asshole writer who drank and swore and conquered a lot of women, a man whose fictional surrogate is jumping from one job or bed to the next with an almost psychopathic detachment. That’s, likely, intentional, as it seems Bukowski cultivated that persona for himself. He was only 49 when he published his famous collection, “Notes from a Dirty Old Man.”
His poetry, on the other hand, often paints a very different picture. Now, I’m not an expert on this very prolific writer, but I’ve read a number of his poems over the years and what consistently strikes me throughout his poetry is a voice that is sad but sage, pragmatic but encouraging, honest but willing to see the humanity in his characters.
The version of Bukowski that comes into focus within the pages of his fiction is a nihilistic, misogynistic jerk. The narrative voice of his poetry, however, is openhearted and passionate, at times compassionate. Which is real?
Henry Chinaski, the protagonist in most of Bukowski’s novels, is famously known to be the author’s alter ego, but they are not the same person. As with most writers, it’s tempting to conflate the creation and the creator. I would argue, though, that the real Bukowski is made plain in his poetry, not his fiction. The fact that his gravestone was engraved with the simple, “Don’t Try,” a phrase from one of his poems that serves as one of his many admonitions to aspiring writers, says a lot.
Zen Pencils is a wonderful webcomic that combines detailed panels with famous quotes and poems. One of the most recent is the above, #122, which uses the story of an overzealous Game of Thrones fan to illustrate the poem, “Roll the Dice.” I’d never read this particular poem before, but it didn’t surprise me when I got to the end and saw that it was by Bukowski. It definitely has the hallmarks of his poetry, the wizened, old man giving advice to an unseen audience.
[Read the comic first, then continue on.]
When I first read the comic, however, I felt this was one of the rare times Gavin Aung Than really missed the mark with his illustration. In the comic, a man is sitting with his wife/girlfriend watching Game of Thrones, and then becomes obsessed with it to the point of growing out a thick beard, buying a real sword and, eventually, losing the wife/girlfriend. It’s all pretty ridiculous (and insane) until the last panel where the protagonist comes across a real dragon and… I don’t know. I guess that’s… cool?
Having thought on the poem more, though, I can see how Aung Than’s comic can work, but only if you lose the last panel. I get why that’s there, as it gives a kind of hopeful end to the story that would otherwise be pretty dire. But there’s a big difference between devoting yourself to an artistic or scientific endeavor versus obsessively dedicating your money and well-being to the pursuit of imaginary dragons. I know the comic is supposed to be symbolic, but there really are people who become so obsessed in their fandom that it destroys their life. The final dragon panel is a cop out, in my mind.
If you do lose that panel, though, I think the comic works better as an illustration of what all artists who go out on a limb think from time to time: Maybe I am just an obsessed idiot.
“Isolation is the gift.”
That one line from “Roll the Dice” is what made it ring so true for me. If there is one adversity that has pummeled me harder than any others throughout my 8 years in this project, it’s the insidious isolation of the road. Financial concerns have come and gone, as have health and mental issues, but even in the best of times, there has been a dark cloud of isolation over my life.
I recently confessed this feeling of isolation to someone, and as if to dramatically hammer home the point, they flitted away without even giving acknowledgment. It’s been a rough year filled with just these sorts of desertions, and it has made me question my resolve. After Seattle, I felt re-energized and excited for the last 3 years of this project. Now, coming towards the end of New Orleans, I’m feeling more burnt out and aimless than I have in years.
And that’s where Bukowski comes in. Reading “Roll the Dice” was like a splash of ice water. “Go all the way.” “This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives, jobs and maybe your mind.” “You will be alone with the gods and the nights will flame with fire.” To read these sentences was like finding out I had a narrator following me around. Here was my life condensed to a couple dozen lines of free verse. And right in the middle, on its own line, the word of the era: Isolation.
“Isolation is the gift.” Isolation can be a curse, it can be the thing that drives a person to finally plunge over the edge. But, yes, in another way, I get what Bukowski is saying (or I think I do). When you’re isolated, all you have is yourself. No one to shit on your dreams, no one to abandon you, no one to use or abuse you. Having no one to listen to but the voice in your head can be a frightening proposition, but when that is the same voice that told you to take the risk in the first place, it can be an odd comfort.
I’m still going. I’m looking for a place to live in Boston and I’m ready to put the bow on a very trying year. I hope Boston is a better year, but ye god, it has to be, right?
Maybe I am crazy. Maybe I’m sacrificing everything and everyone for a dragon that doesn’t really exist. Maybe what awaits me is “jail, derision, mockery, isolation.”
But maybe not.
"Roll the Dice" by Charles Bukowski if you’re going to try, go all the way. otherwise, don’t even start. if you’re going to try, go all the way. this could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives, jobs and maybe your mind. go all the way. it could mean not eating for 3 or 4 days. it could mean freezing on a park bench. it could mean jail, it could mean derision, mockery, isolation. isolation is the gift, all the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. and you’ll do it despite rejection and the worst odds and it will be better than anything else you can imagine. if you’re going to try, go all the way. there is no other feeling like that. you will be alone with the gods and the nights will flame with fire. do it, do it, do it. do it. all the way all the way. you will ride life straight to perfect laughter, its the only good fight there is.