My dream to become a writer began in 1995 when Transworld Skateboarding ran a couple of interviews with professional skateboarders who praised Charles Bukowski (maybe Marc Johnson and/or Ethan Fowler interviewed by Atiba Jefferson?) . I was 17 and would have done anything Transworld told me to, so the first chance I got I bought a Bukowski book – Septuagenarian Stew.
Aside from some Stephen King novels I had read in Grade 8 and some history books that I stumbled across, this was the first real reading I had done and it changed my life. The changes were both good and bad, the good is that I became a devotee of reading, the bad is that I started drinking. Let’s start with the bad.
Prior to reading Bukowski, I had drank once in my life (fodder for another post). That horrible experience coupled with my desire to avoid the ravages of alcoholism I saw my dad suffer, made me swear off drinking forever. Bukowski’s mastery of making alcohol consumption seem like the most enjoyable and illuminating experience available to mankind cannot be denied. All I could think about after reading Bukowski was getting drunk. I had sworn off my vow of sobriety within a week of purchasing Septuagenarian Stew. I was ready to be a poet drunk, just like my new hero.
The problem of course was I never got around to the first part of that goal. I let alcohol consume me for a decade. I was hospitalized numerous times, one time for three weeks. I damn near died. I hold no grudge, if Bukowski didn’t set me down that path of self-destruction something or someone else surely would have. I cannot be quixotic about my teenage vows, they were made from a position of weakness not strength. I feel thankful, as strange as it may seem, that I chose Bukowski as my guide in alcohol usage, for without his influence I would not have received his second gift: A love of literature.
Aside from making impressionable young men want to drink, Bukowski is a master of telling the reader which authors have influenced him, who is worth reading. As my reading of Bukowski continued so did the authors he led me to. I read Henry Miller ( I remember reading and liking the two Tropic novels, but their influence has faded), he led me to Carson McCullers (I still cherish The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, even after the Oprah book club), and most importantly he led me to Louis-Ferdinand Celine.
When I first read Journey to the End of the Night in 1996 I was blown away. No book I had ever read, or ever even heard of, was so amazing , so jaw dropping. The totality of its protagonist’s disgust with the world mirrored precisely how I felt. Everything and everyone was a target. There was no faith in anyone and an absolute hatred of all sorts of work (for God’s sake the best job the protagonist ever had was when he was a galley slave rowing across the Atlantic). Celine’s writing was the first to show me that other authors could surpass what Bukowski presented, that more could be offered.
I was led to Dostoyevsky, Hamsun, Kafka, and Camus. From there the door was ajar and the journey continued. I was at times influenced by the university and read Canadian fiction voraciously, but with distance the only author that stands tall in my pantheon in Matt Cohen. Independent of the university I have explored, but always with this question in the back of my mind: “What would Bukowski say?”
I know this gift Bukowski gave me via Transworld Skateboarding will remain with me until my dying day. I remember watching Born Into This a few years ago and being amazed at what a dick Bukowski was (I can’t imagine how horrible Celine or Hamsun would come off in a documentary), but this is besides the point. The man’s writing is what is important, and I thank him for it.