Top critical review
on 18 April 2014
Heavy drinking and alcoholism definitely occur in the writing profession and the condition is occasionally described at book length. If so, then in a far more artful manner than by Charles Bukowski (CB; 1920-1994) in this collection of short stories. Earlier in life, CB survived a decade-long drinking binge, then sobered up or shifted down his intake, worked jobs, e.g. 14 years in a post office and put his boozing memories on paper, time and again. All CB’s writings saw the light via small underground publishers. He also became a cult hero performing on stage to sympathetic audiences. Forgive me for getting any of this wrong.
Is CB an important writer? In my humble opinion, no, not at all. This collection lacks substance, gravitas, anything approaching art or beauty or wisdom. The stories describe couplings, complacency, boredom, violent incidents and -endings without feelings or a sense of a possible future. They are crude, one-dimensional stories. Not a single one holds a promise of more depth if turned into a novel. But judging from ratings on several sites, CB still has a solid fan base, giving top marks to this book… I disagree.
Consider instead some alternatives: one alcoholic classic is Malcolm Lowry’s “Under the Volcano”. More recently, Patrick deWitt’s “Ablutions” and Venedict Jerofejev’s “Trainride to Petrushki” (available in e.g. French and German, not in English). They describe everyday life with booze far more interestingly. Or read Lawrence Block’s novels about his struggling hero Matt Scudder … They all tell great stories, remain focused throughout and end their novels with a bang or a flourish. Bukowski ‘s “dirty realism” is no match to these writers. It is simply inferior.