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This review is taken from PN Review 51, Volume 13 Number 1, September - October 1986.

THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye (Black Sparrow Press)

'I am a sick man ... I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man. I think there is something wrong with my liver.' Dostoyevsky's opening to Notes From Underground is a natural preface to Charles Bukowski, whose work consists of hungover bulletins from the ugly comedy of American life. In forty volumes of poetry and prose, he has chronicled the sickness and insanity of what passes for normality there with a brutality in direct proportion to his sensitivity. Like Celine - another of his masters - his subject is 'the ordinary madness of the world', a phrase relocated from Journey to the End of the Night into the title of Bukowski's most celebrated collection of stories, Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness (1972). His only rival in this tradition was fellow West-Coast resident Henry Miller, whose Tropic of Cancer brought Spenglerian doom and visceral European disgust into energetic contact with the New World. The nation of winners, the culture of enraptured velocity, is reminded of its common destiny and unique self-deception: 'There is no escape. The weather will not change.'

Bukowski's is a black-and-white world of rented rooms with peeling wallpaper, the endless torments of physical labour, and the maddened embraces of women and wine - a low-key world shot through with bellowing noises and flashes of colour. His fictional alter-ego, Henry Chinaski, speaks for him in his stated preference for 'somebody who screams when they burned'. He insists that the odds ...


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