BOOK REVIEW: Portions From a Wine-Stained Notebook: Uncollected Stories and Essays, 1944–1990 

More from the Dirty Old Man: New collection of uncollected pieces of Bukowski’s ‘protean creativity’

Portions From a Wine-Stained Notebook: Uncollected Stories and Essays, 1944–1990 [Buy Now]
By Charles Bukowski
City Lights, 284 pages, $17

Many readers only recognize the late Charles Bukowski as the Dirty Old Man — a lecherous, wasted old poet scrawling doggerel across the backs of bar napkins.

The sordid details of his personal life did little to diminish such characterizations, but Bukowski was first and foremost a serious writer dedicated to his craft.

Of course, it was just those details, as well as Bukowski’s raw, take-no-crap attitude, that initially drew me to his work. (Give any 18-year-old male reader a copy of Factotum, Hot Water Music, or Septuagenarian Stew and you’re likely to find a fast Bukowski fan.) It took a closer look to unearth much of the genuine wisdom in his writing, specifically the plainspoken, forthright approach that often eludes countless so-called literary writers.

In digging up more fragments from the author’s vast (and uneven) library, editor David Stephen Calonne — an English professor at Eastern Michigan University who previously edited a volume of Bukowski’s interviews — reveals many of the Dirty Old Man’s less-than-savory peccadilloes, but also his singular significance to 20th-century American literature.

In “Basic Training,” the poet and novelist pinpoints the essence of his style: “I hurled myself toward my personal god: SIMPLICITY. The tighter and smaller you got it the less chance there was of error and the lie. Genius could be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way.” Few of his contemporaries could equal the immediate, self-assured simplicity of his writing, and he earned plenty of scorn for his attacks on the literary establishment.

But Bukowski had little use for pretentious elitists. As Calonne writes in his elegant introduction, he had zero tolerance for those “who tried to domesticate the sacred barbaric Muse: the disruptive, primal, archaic, violent, inchoate forces of the creative unconscious.” Over the course of the 35-plus pieces in this collection, Bukowski makes full use of his Muse, touching on nearly all his favorite topics: drinking, women, sex (“Workout” could carry an X rating), fighting, horse-racing, the drudgery of the nine-to-five.

Selections from his “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” column — which appeared in various forms in the Los Angeles Free Press, National Underground Review, High Times, and other publications — form a rough connective thread, but the most potent essays focus on the process of writing.

“Basic Training,” “Distractions in the Literary Life,” and “Upon the Mathematics of the Breath and the Way” all chronicle Bukowski’s constant battle with the ebb-and-flow of the writer’s life. With brutal honesty, he examines what it takes to make it work — the long hours of solitude, the often-painful introspection, the sheer stubborn determination to sit down once again with just a pen, notebook (or typewriter), cigarette, and bottle of whiskey: “I write as a function. Without it I would fall ill and die. It’s as much a part of one as the liver or intestine, and just about as glamorous.”

He also proves a lucid literary critic, deconstructing the genius of Ezra Pound (“Looking Back at a Big One”), schizophrenic French poet and playwright Antonin Artaud (“Artaud Anthology”), and his personal literary hero, John Fante.

His homage to Fante, “I Meet the Master,” is one of Bukowski’s more touching — even, dare I say, sentimental — pieces of writing, demonstrating clearly the elements of Fante’s writing that would influence Bukowski throughout his career: “The words were simple, concise, and they spoke of something happening right there! ... The words were almost like a voice in the room ... I felt as if the pages would leap from the book and just start walking around or flying around. They had a remarkable force, a total reality.”

As can be expected in any “uncollected” compilation, there are few stunted, ill-formed rants that may find appreciation only from completists. But for every misfire, there’s a wholly enjoyable lost gem like “Jaggernaut,” his peripatetic, New Journalism–style review of a Rolling Stones concert.

Portions From a Wine-Stained Notebook is a welcome addition to the growing Bukowski library — probably not for novices, but certainly an apt reflection of his “protean creativity.”

Eric Liebetrau, a Charleston native, is the managing editor of Kirkus Reviews.


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