Charles Bukowski was many things. He was a wildly prolific author, a generous and caring father and a confidently ugly man. He fucked, farted, smoked, gambled and drank, all prodigiously.
He had a habit of surrounding himself with eccentrics and castaways. His first wife lacked vertebrae in her neck that made her look like she had no neck at all. Then there was the 300-pound whore who popped his cherry when he was in his early 20s. Not to mention the snaggletooth patrons of countless bars and horse meets.
But these are all superficial traits, the way Hemingway fished for marlin, or Kerouac listened to jazz. Underneath Charles Bukowski's genius and greatness runs a current of vulnerability.
The new film Bukowski: Born Into This reveals this flow running under the writer's acne-scarred surface. It reveals the hesitation. The boy who was beaten by his father with a leather strap on a weekly basis. The neophyte celebrity who is able to share a laugh and a pocket bottle of brandy with Shel Silverstein. The autumnal man who nearly weeps while reading a poem written for his wife. The two-fisted, Skid Row poet laureate who once wrote a poem about a bluebird trapped in his heart.
By sharing his fragility, Buk showed us each a little part of ourselves. The courage to share his vulnerability, and not live in the fear and sadness, is what inspires people like me to wake up in the morning.
His proficiency and number of published volumes are what made him a writer. His tenacious soul elevated that writing into the shared realm of art, truth and beauty.
"The thing about Bukowski is, when you read what he has to say: he's right." Sean Penn said that.
When you see the film, you'll be in the theater with young, leather-clad turks, some longshoremen, a few college professors with their wives and a woman or two who will claim to have slept with Buk in the glory days. Many will be drunk. Many will be hungover, ready to puke.
It will be a lusty, bawdy affair.
The crowd will react big as Buk rails against Mickey Mouse while drinking out of a Mickey mug (he hated Mickey Mouse because he only has three fingers and no soul, and Buk couldn't relate to anything that lacked a soul.)
On Buk's simple grave in his beloved L.A. is the epitaph "DON'T TRY." I like to think, deep in the night, after countless bottles, that it means, "Don't piss on my grave." The more accepted notion is that it paraphrases what Buk would say: "If you're trying, you're not doing."
He always did.
Charles Bukowski was many things. He was never a coward. He was never at a loss. He was never alone.
He was always unflinchingly honest with fist, word and voice. He was an American prototype, the mold long since trashed.
His bluebird has flown.R.L. Buss is a poet who lives in San Diego. Bukowski: Born Into This shows through Thursday, Aug. 12, at Kensington's Ken Cinema.