Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life

By Howard Sounes

Grove. 309 pp. $26

Reviewed by Bruce Cook

A funny thing happened to me on my way to reviewing this book. It was stolen. I remember reaching into the mailbox for the package with the familiar Washington Post label and finding it alarmingly flat. And no wonder! One side of it had been neatly slit open, and the book it was supposed to have contained -- this book -- was simply gone, utterly vanished, absolutely absent.

I couldn't help wondering who had taken it. I exonerated the mailman, who'd never shown the slightest interest in the many books he'd delivered to me in the past, and I focused instead upon the big post office in Los Angeles -- the Terminal Annex Building downtown. I knew very well what sort of evil deeds were perpetrated there. Theft would have been the least of it. Why, I'd read all about it once in a book.

And as it happened, Charles Bukowski wrote that book. Post Office (1971) was his first novel, though he had by then published over a dozen books and chapbooks of verse (note my reluctance to call it poetry) and had come to be accepted as a sort of latter-day, Los Angeles-based member of the Beat Generation.

Because he sought fame single-mindedly and rather unscrupulously, Bukowski left a few bruised and bleeding bodies along the way. How was he to know that English biographer Howard Sounes would discover them all -- editors to whom he had broken promises, poets he had pushed aside, women he had brutalized -- and get them to talk? Bukowski has been cursed here with a good and thorough biographer, and the portrait of the subject that emerges, while verifiably accurate, is not a very pretty one.

After Post Office, Bukowski wrote many more books -- verse, novels, short stories and miscellaneous writings of all kinds -- so that eventually his total output exceeded 50. If he was as hard-working as that indicates, it was because he was extremely ambitious. From the time he published first in Whit Burnett's Story magazine (1944), Bukowski wanted desperately to be known, to be famous, and writing seemed to him about the only way he was likely to achieve this.

Even so, he had to do it the hard way: He was condemned for years to publish his crude short verse and stories in literary magazines of the kind that are unread and ignored by the makers of literary reputations in America. Yet, against the odds, Bukowski did gain a sort of fame writing only in these little magazines (he never became known to the general public here); it brought him a specific American audience for his work and, eventually, even an international following.

How to account for his rather singular success? It was perhaps a matter of the man coming along at the right moment. During the 1960s and '70s, when Bukowski achieved his breakthrough, a great cultural battle was being waged to make American literature safe for four-letter words. Charles Bukowski benefited more, though indirectly, than any other writer from this conflict, for without much talent he put himself forward as the champion of expletives and found himself embraced as a serious poet and novelist. He named the role he had chosen for himself when he undertook the writing of a weekly column for an underground L.A. newspaper; he called it "Notes of a Dirty Old Man." Then, following Post Office, came five more novels. Of them all Women sold the best, and it was by far the sexiest -- no, wrong word -- call it the raunchiest.

His crudity accounts, to some extent, for his even greater international popularity. I don't want to sound cynical, but it does seem that Europeans, at least, are ever eager to present Americans in our more barbaric aspects.

Charles Bukowski died five years ago at the age of 74. Perhaps his spirit still haunts the big post office in downtown Los Angeles. Could he have worked a little ghostly magic to make this unflattering biography disappear from my mailbox?

Bruce Cook has written many books, among them "The Beat Generation."