It was a good summer for Bukowski fans, with two new posthumous books out. First On Writing, a collection of letters and letter excerpts about the process and ‘biz’ of writing, from Ecco Press, which I reviewed recently. Now comes The Bell Tolls for No One from City Lights Books, with previously uncollected early short stories and what may or may not be essays collected from his “Notes From A Dirty Old Man” weekly newspaper column in (mostly) the LA Free Press from the 70s.
Known for his poetry in America, and his novels in Europe, and for being the most famous underground writer in the world, Charles Bukowski also wrote a lot of short prose, both essays and short stories, the lines between some of which are blurred. Actually, he just wrote a lot, period. But he’s never gotten the recognition for his short fiction like I feel he should have. In fact, he could be a better short story writer than he is a novelist. Blaspheme to some, though if you like Bukowski, you tend to like everything he does, and I do. But read The Most Beautiful Woman In Town and Tales of Ordinary Madness, both published by City Lights, and tell me he’s not up there with Raymond Carver.
If you don’t like Bukowski—and there are many who don’t, for all the wrong reasons imho—you won’t be won over by The Bell Tolls for No One: these are not his best short prose pieces, and many of them, the outright short stories, were published in 70s men’s magazines like Oui and Fling. There’s even one from Hustler. So, there’s a lot of sex. And drinking. And, while the haters will say that Bukowski portrays women badly, especially here, I have always argued that he portrays everyone badly. That is, honestly. Including—especially—himself and/or his fictionalized stand-in narrators. These are tales from the lower class and underclass, in all their glorious craziness and absurdity. It’s not pretty, and yet, somehow, there is joy in reading these stories, and somehow too, Bukowski ends up being a good buddhist, finding the larger beauty in these dismal lives.
The Bell Tolls for No One was edited by David Stephen Calonne, who writes an introduction placing Bukowski in the tradition of the ‘pulps’—the cheap paperbacks and seamy detective novels of the 40s and 50s, and the book is designed to have a pulp-ish look. Which is fine, Bukowski’s last novel, Pulp, was an homage to the genre. Though Calonne seems to want to ignore the huge influence literary writers (Hemingway, Hamsun, Dostoyevsky, et cetera) had on Bukowski: He wrote a lot of poems about them, but none that I know about Raymond Chandler.
The book, fittingly, has a drawing of Bukowski by Robert Crumb on the cover, who illustrated some of Bukowski’s work over the years, as well as the Bukowski for Beginners graphic novel. I wish a little more care had been taken in the actual editing—typos abound and periods and apostrophes float out in space sometimes. Also, in particular, the lack of a Table of Contents. Some stories even lack titles—I wasn’t at first sure when one started and another ended. There is a Bibliography showing where and when the stories were originally published, which is how I know some actually had titles. City Lights put such great care into its other collections of Bukowski stories that this one is somewhat just visually disappointing.
Still, it’s a pleasure to read a new batch of Buk’s irreverent prose. Some of the Notes of a Dirty Old Man selections are interesting in that they are obviously, and sometimes surreally, fiction. Others seem just short non-fiction glimpses into his life, using real names (like his own and his daughter’s Marina). But they’re all stories, even his poems tend to be narratives. And there are some moments of real beauty, up with the best he’s written, like one of the untitled Dirty Old Man columns from 1972, which could be a sort of ‘outtake’ from his novel Women, but stands on its own.
Also, just some great dialogue and humor, like this from another untitled 1972 column:
Judy walked over and opened the closest door. “Her clothes are still here. She’ll kill me if she finds me here.”
“She doesn’t own me.”
“Are you sure?”
“Sure I’m sure.”
“How long have you been with her?”
“She owns you.”
It’s significant that this collection came out from City Lights Books, which has always been willing to publish Bukowski at his most grungy. Much of the posthumous work put out by Black Sparrow, and now Ecco, seems to have been cleaned up by Bukowski’s long-time editor John Martin (especially taking out references to drinking) as if that will raise Bukowski up out of the underground and into the mainstream. (See my review of On Writing for more about this).
I do agree Bukowski deserves mainstream recognition. This may not be the book to give it to him. If you’re looking for some good short fiction by Bukowski, both gritty realism, and sometimes hilarious weird stories, I recommend The Most Beautiful Woman In Town. Once you’re hooked, you’ll eventually come back around to The Bell Tolls for No One. For the rest, who already love Buk (rhymes with puke), this book will leave content, drunk, smiles on our faces.