Other Bukowski Reviews; Post Office - Factotum - Women - Ham on Rye - Tales of Ordinary Madness - Notes of a Dirty Old Man
While I normally find myself spacing out works by my favourite authors, trying to extend my enjoyment, I enjoyed the last book I read by Charles Bukowski so much that it didn't take me long to pick up the other book of his sat in my to-read pile. My last encounter with Bukowski and his Henry Chinaski, Bukowski's fictional self-projection, was to read about the story of his youth and young adulthood; easily my favourite work by the author yet, Ham on Rye. Stylistically, Ham on Rye is typical Bukowski, but through its layered, rich narrative I found it to be even better; not simply within the context of Ham on Rye, but in the wider reaches of Bukowski's entire bibliography as it crucially builds a backdrop for his unique style of narration. It enabled me to look back at what I'd previously read by the author and gain a new, greater appreciation for it, and when it came to looking at my next full-length Bukowski novel of choice I'm pretty sure it made that a lot better too.
Published just two years before Ham on Rye, Charles Bukowki's Women is the third in his series of semi (or pseudo?) autobiographical novels starring the aforementioned Chinaski. In previous novels Post Office and Factotum (which I'm yet to read, shamefully) Chinaski was, at best, a complete low-life failure drinking, gambling and whoring his way through the dregs of society with no thoughts of self- improvement. Women, however, shows some of the drastic changes in Chinaski's later life at fifty-plus years after he becomes a nationally successful and very well-respected poet, while also focusing heavily on the things that don't really change for him whatsoever; the drinking, gambling and whoring. Like the rest of Bukowski's bibliography it's a completely uncensored voyage through alcoholic debauchery (although, it must be said, not a drugged-up one of the William Burroughs kind).
The thing that really stood out to me from this book that helped it stand out as a particularly enjoyable read within the chronology of the character was the somewhat mellowing change in Chinaski's personality, particularly in light of the psychopathic deviant of adolescence. Now in his late fifties, Chinaski's most obvious traits are still there in spades. As the title suggests, he's a rampant womaniser, the main theme of the book as he drifts from woman to woman like a deranged Casanova, and he's still very capable of furious anger, but this time, to me at least, there seemed a stronger impression of despair and shame with each failed relationship, each lurid indiscretion. Though Bukowski's fame makes it much easier for him to attract new women, his conscious grows with age and his body, ravaged by alcohol, becomes more decrepit and pathetic.
Maybe that's something to do with Bukowki's identification of himself with the Chinaski character. Bukowki's creation, control and development of his alter-ego must have been a very careful one, in terms of creating the image and atmosphere of a blurred window into a real past. Separating the truth of Bukowski's life from his presentation of this fictional one is kind of a fool's game at this point, especially for me, but I do think Women is in some part an attempt by Bukowski to repair some of the potential damage to his own image, so closely is it associated with his character. The fact that Chinaski is here roughly the same age as Bukowski suggests to me that this is the closest meeting of fact and fiction yet. With so many years removed from Chinaski/Bukowski's tumultuous youth, much (though by no means all) of the sheer aggression of the character has been calmed, or at least merged with his unending hunger for more women.
All in all, though not as enjoyable as Ham on Rye or Post Office to me, and certainly a little bit too long for its content, Women is still an alternative American classic with perfect stylistic prose. Perhaps best read after you've already encountered earlier Bukowski, it continues the development of a unique and unforgettable character that mixes reality and fiction to create a suspence of disbelief that adds an extra sharp edge to the sometimes unbelievable onslaught of self-destructive, decadent behaviour.