Hank, can I call you Hank?
Now, to be honest, I didn’t have the highest regard for your work. I’d been told often that you’re crass, vulgar, disgusting, unfit for reading — and to be entirely truthful, Hank, I didn’t read any of your stuff until I was in my mid-20s.
It doesn’t help, Hank, that a guy I dated told me that your were his favorite of all time. He and I were sitting together on a rooftop in Los Angeles, looking out over Echo Park. It was a dark liquid night. He had dragged a record player out the window, we split a couple bottles of something cheap, and we slurred through a conversation as the sun chased away our moon and full ashtray.
His favorite book? Ham on Rye.
Don’t chuckle. It’s hard to do that with words. Cut people raw, I mean. Ham on Rye does that, cuts people raw.
Anyway, as those things go, he and I went separate ways and my opinion of you clouded, because of him.
When in bookstores and libraries, I still found myself drawn to your section. My hands would flip open to pages of your poetry and at first I was shocked by someone who ended their poems with words like “motherfucker.” Then So You Want to Be a Writer came to me. You called writing a wind, a call, a battle cry, something that “roars out of you” and that if everyone kept trying to write like everyone else,
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
I thought I understood. So, Hank, I sort of started to like you then.
There was a flight a few years later, from Los Angeles to Michigan. It was grounded in Ohio and then delayed for three hours. Milling around the airport, I looked for a bookshop. You can tell a lot about the world by what books are in an airport bookshop.
The one I found that day was strange, filled only with fiction: Shakespeare, Dickens, Nabokov, Ginsberg, Jefferson, Steinbeck, Rushdie. It was the best airport bookshop I ever had seen and never saw again. On a shelf they had Women. I bought it that day. It remained unopened for a year.
It went with me on an eleven or so hour flight. It was the only book I hadn’t read; it was still sitting on my shelf. I cracked the spine at thirty-thousand feet.
In Women, people want to see Henry Chinaski as the negative embodiment of a dirty old man. It would be simplistic to characterize him as a drunk, raunchy, perverted. He — the type of man eyes narrow suspiciously at, the type of man who eyes his friend’s wife.
Henry is straightforward. He speaks of his women candidly. Each one, as they rise from his couch or fall into his sheets, is described as if he himself were their mirror. No detail is lost, attractive or unattractive. His own sloppiness, his unkempt appearance, his unattractiveness are treated exactly in the same manner.
It is not surprising that he is dumbfounded that so many beautiful women would find him attractive. He describes an evening in Texas with a woman named Katherine as being frightening and confusing. He could not comprehend that any amount of writing from his hand could bring a woman who “radiated beauty” to his bed.
It is that sincere incredulity that leads to his voracious appetite for women. As his eyes pour over them, his desires rise and he repeatedly is ensnared in his own downfall: his lust.
Failures grace the page as many times as conquests and victories. Henry’s faults are treated as much as, if not more than, his moments of purity.
For Thanksgiving, he finds himself in the throes of having accepted three different women’s offers to share the holiday.
I could certainly play some nasty unreal games. What was my motive? Was I trying to get even for something? Could I keep on telling myself that is was merely a matter of research, a simple study of the female? I was simply letting things happen without thinking about them. I wasn’t considering anything but my own selfish, cheap pleasure.
He concludes that he is not a good man and begins to cry. His lust has again gotten him into trouble. Instead of avoiding the problem, he begins a deep self-examination and tries to solve the problem immediately.
Henry’s solution is to have Thanksgiving with a belly dancer from San Francisco and to decline the other offers. His declines, however, are not excuses. They are honest. He says he’s spending the holiday with another woman.
There is little pretension in the life of Henry Chinaski as depicted by Charles in Women. As difficult as it is to imagine leading a life as he does, it is easy to see how Bukowski touched Henry’s life with a bit of his own, a bit of the dirty old man but also a lot of the hard-lived life in glaring Los Angeles reality, the type that is impossible to escape, to rose-color over.
Henry, indeed answers over and over to “dirty old man” from numerous bedmates. In each of its incarnations, it’s a slur and also a sweetheart’s call, the truth and also just a beginning.
The difference is you, Hank. You’re honest about it all.
The things that you say are the things that most people think. The things that you say are the things that most people secretly do and don’t tell their loved ones about. The things that you say are the frustrations, the longing, the pain, the depression, the anxieties, the passion, the disappointments that are part of being and being with other human beings.
The self-examination, doubt, lust, desire — the fact that at one point or another each and every one of us may have qualified as a dirty old man.
It’s all written plain as day, as if we were just having wine on your couch. That type of honesty allows you to tear everyone apart and be torn apart, to stand up, as real as you ever could be.