Bukowski anthology is literary biography

July 11, 1993|By Gary Dretzka | Gary Dretzka,Chicago Tribune

RUN WITH THE HUNTED: A

CHARLES BUKOWSKI READER

Charles Bukowski

HarperCollins

! 497 pages, $27.50

Charles Bukowski, survivor and unlikely literary lion, sits out there in San Pedro, Calif., far from the literary Establishment but close to the racetracks and skid row bars that once provided the material that filled his books and magazine scribblings.

He also isn't all that distant from Hollywood, which in 1987, with the movie "Barfly," helped elevate him from cult status to a position of grizzled eminence.

Born in Germany, Mr. Bukowski was raised from the age of 3 in Los Angeles. He published his first story at 24 and began writing poetry at 35.

His total now includes 45 books of poetry and prose, and a screenplay, published almost exclusively by small presses. The compiler of this anthology, John Martin, started Black Sparrow Press in 1966 specifically to publish the pock-marked bard's picaresque works, and Mr. Bukowski's oeuvre has grown considerably since then.

By now, most followers of contemporary fiction know the details of Mr. Bukowski's harrowing seven decades of life -- or, frankly, they're sick of hearing about why they should care. He's not for everyone, after all.

Devoted followers of the author and his misanthropic alter ego Henry Chinaski will have already read most, if not all, of what's collected in "Run With the Hunted." What Mr. Martin and Mr. Bukowski have accomplished here, however, is to anthologize pieces of his oeuvre in chronological order, creating, in effect, a literary autobiography.

The prose and poetry memoir begins with young Henry as a toddler and moves through his school years. From "Ham on Rye" comes this look at tortured youth: "The first children of my age that I knew were in kindergarten. They seemed very strange, they laughed and talked and seemed happy. I didn't like them."

Not hard to imagine that this angry little boy would grow up to be a man who would admit loosely, "Now, I'm a man of many problems and I suppose that most of them are self-created."

There's no denying that Bukowski/Chinaski has had more than his fair share of problems in a life littered with dead-end jobs, outrageous romantic encounters, an ocean of booze and a mountain of losing betting stubs.

But it clearly has been one lived fully and not without some success and recognition -- especially now, as Mr. Bukowski is worshiped as a counterculture hero here and in Europe.

In its reflective and observant tone, "Run With the Hunted" celebrates a career that many writers would envy, even if they weren't able to physically maintain Mr. Bukowski's pace.

Certainly, he made the word every bit as important as the act -- however garish -- and was able to translate this literary compulsion to a generation that seems more naturally inclined to record albums and navel gazing.

With the recent release of Neeli Cherkovski's fine biography, "Hank," the movie "Barfly" and Bukowski's own "Septuagenarian Stew," it would seem as if someone were trying to encapsulate the grand old man's life and career, leaving his readers to merely wait for an obituary to appear as a final punctuation mark. Cruel, if that's so; I imagine, however, that the geezer still has some gasoline left in his tank and Black Sparrow will add another volume or two to his shelf.

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