The New Li Bai


Like many writers in college, I spent a great deal of time looking for a voice. When I was younger writing was a thing I just did. I didn’t worry about voices, I simply used my own. But in college, I was introduced to a bunch of writers through classes and instantly realized that if I wanted to make it as a writer, I had better sound like one of them. And, for about 10 years, everything I wrote read like the last writer I had read.

After a Farewell to Arms, I went through my Hemingway phase. And so for some time everything read like this. I wrote and it was good. I wore earthtones. And I drank. In the rain.

Lord of the Rings brought forth my sage voice. For down a merry round in the area called Oakland on a way called York Avenue, there existed a young man, a boy merely, who lived in the most awful of hovels, and who tried and tried to put pen to paper, where before him a woman had done the same and before her a man had done the same and before him another woman, but when she did it, the place was called Broke Bench Alley after the singular bench left over from the time before when the city’s denizens slept on one bench. And then that boy lost consciousness trying to read one of his sentences aloud and moved on from Tolkien in a hurry.

When he found himself in his Raymond Carver phase. Where he wrote like this. Too many times. Indeed. He only wrote a normal sentence. And then split it. Into about four more. By simply adding periods. And removing adverbs. And it was. Good.

Unfortunately my sophomore self found Donald Barthalme and was too dumb to understand him, but on the bright side, three hundred pancakes and a tomato and a dwarf were found riding the City Elephant out of Minola and saw the third face of the conductor. When he had stripped off his third body and made for the caboose, we all danced taps and some elf set a bonfire and lasered a hole in the roof with his indignation. And then, at the end of this phase, the sophomore’s friend-not-friend poked her face into the window and – images being larger than in real life – mentioned in passing that for a few weeks she hadn’t understand a fucking word the sophomore had put down onto paper and, for good measure, shave that dumb fucking beard.  

But then at some point in my second junior year, I found Charles Bukowski. I’d like to report that I found him in the exact place Charles Bukowski would be, like a torn copy at the bus station, or at the bottom of a used book store’s $2 bin. In reality, someone told me about him and I went out and bought a book of his stories Tales of Ordinary Madness.

Soon my writing was narrated by drunks and filled with other drunks and all the drunks were drinking. There were people reading newspapers in the bathtub and befriending similarly down and out cats and ruining their lives with various decisions all related by their stupidity and apocalyptic consequences.

It was all part of the mystique of being a writer, rather than actually sitting down to work every day and developing voice and language and narrative style. No. instead, many of us emulated those that seemed to be writers and more to the point, what we had to do to get there. Bukowski (or any actual writer) wouldn’t have spent a second on us.

On August 12, 1969 Bukowski wrote a letter to John Martin, the owner of Black Sparrow Press. Martin was one of the very first to realize Bukowski’s genius or potential and famously arrived to publish him. When he did so Bukowski pointed him to a closet overflowing with notebooks overflowing with poems and stories. For years, each night he had just written them and put them in there. He worked each day at a job he hated and then drank alcohol all night and wrote stories and poetry. That’s what he did. He was a machine. A perfect drunken machine.

And so when John Martin wrote him a letter promising him $100 a month for life if he quit his job at the post office and wrote full time, Bukowski took the chance. What followed was decades of alcohol-fueled stories of alcohol-fueled people making alcohol-fueled decisions. And alcohol.

Another alcoholic writer, you say? Oh, how unique, you say.

True. The alcoholic writer is a motif so tired that plopping one into a story is as predictable as a rainy funeral or a toothpick chomping cop who rejects a rookie partner because he ‘works alone’. But Bukowski isn’t an alcoholic writer. He was the alcoholic’s writer. The list of alcoholic writers can be printed in font size 8 in neat lines on twenty feet of paper. Hemingway. Joyce. Highsmith. Yadda. Yadda. Yadda. And no doubt absinthe and gin and whiskey and beer dot Hemingway stories and a dusty road in a Faulkner story represents his childhood innocence gliding away in a mint julep. Bukowski on the other hand pulls no such allegorical punches. He was an outsider who didn’t have time for allegory, he was a cynical and a misanthropic rogue. And he wrote that way.  

For this he arguably took over for writers like Jim Tully, who was another outsider who wrote about the Hollywood that was to be left unwritten about in the early 20th century. Tully wrote about prostitution, gambling, being a vagabond. In other words, what he had experience with. The same as Bukowski. Perhaps this is what separated the wannabe college writers who fancied themselves boozehound writers and people like Bukowski and Tully – if things went sideways for me I could go into accounting. They would die.

We can trace Bukowski writers all the way back to Li Bai, the 8th century Chinese poet whose poems include Drinking Alone under the Moon. Sure, Bukowski was wracked by self-loathing and depression and a host of other problems, but he never shied away from his love or need of alcohol.

It’s hard to say where Bukowski would fit these days. He was always an outlier, and in the current social climate he would be more so. However, he never asked to be part of the group. He tried and failed to achieve mainstream notice in the 50s and then drank for a decade and came out the Bukowski we now know. Surely he was a shy, sad abused kid who turned to booze for solace. He lost the love of his life early on and cocooned himself in alcohol. But now in 2023 if certain swaths of society were to read Bukowski, they would keel over of a heart attack on the spot. His work is undeniably sexist, grotesque, profane to a degree no barometer can measure. The women are often called by their age (a 24 year old and a 25 year old blonde fought in my apartment). He wrote about his large prick and his hemorrhoids and his herpes and always somehow included both vomit and blood into his stories.      

Chances are, if he were still writing he’d smile his shy smile at everything and throw up his arms in a shrug. In a day and age marked by people – mostly celebrities – who have a wild old time and then get sober and then tell everyone about how great sober life is, I do hold hope that Bukowski would not be one of them. He was a drunk to the end. Even Hemingway knew that drinking had had a hand in destroying all he loved and wanted and no doubt other writers did too. But Bukowski took his money and ran. All the way to the bar. And for that I have some admiration for the man. Even if I could never write like him.  

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