When Charles Bukowski starts to write his first novel, most of his life has already passed by. Among humiliating jobs, nights spent awake or drunk in the park, life has already consecrated Charles Bukowski, not yet Henry Chinaski, his literary alter ego. He will need the almost divine intervention of John Martin, the one who will become the editor of Bukowski and his true man of Providence. Let’s try to tell this story of ordinary madness. When Bukowski became a writer for 100$ per month.
It’s 1965 and John Martin makes his proposal: a hundred dollars every month and the pen of the unknown Bukowski would write for him. At that time, with that amount you could pay the rent, the spousal support for your ex-wife, you could buy some food and alcohol and perhaps you’ll have some dollars left for cigarettes. If you’ve spent your life working in a post office, if you’ve already seen death in a hospital, if you’ve worked at night, hanged posters on the subway, if you lived like an outcast for more than forty years, then a hundred dollars will be enough: it will be enough to leave your life behind, to seek refuge in the only thing you can do, to fly away from the planet that treated you as an outcast. It will be enough to play your first real chance to become a writer.
In short, those hundred dollars are born like this: John and Hank sitting one in front of the other, making a list of necessities. With his work, Martin was collecting about 400$, a quarter of which was destined for Bukowski and the rest to his collection of first editions. When he decides to found Black Sparrow, it’s like he decides to jump in the void. And yet Martin is sure that he has wings: he sells his collection and, adding his residual savings, he founded the publishing house. The whole bet is on Charles Bukowski.
Becoming a writer. For those like Hank – don’t call him Charles, too pompous; don’t call him Henry, that’s how his father called him – “to become a writer” is a wrong phrase, a stretch. Bukowski is a bit like born in a bathtub, immersed in literature. And he seems to have filled that tub with good wine, beautiful women – or at least women with beautiful legs – and good stories. Charles Bukowski has always been a writer.
“Mr. Rolls meets Mr. Royce.” That’s how John Martin likes to define his meeting with Bukowski. He inserted the key in the lock: he decides to publish five Bukowski poems and print them as flyers. Bukowski gets thirty dollars for each poem, Martin the best blessing that could come from heaven. Bukowski’s name starts to spread. When Martin decides to publish a collection of poems titled At Terror Street and Agony Way, the 750 copies are sold out in short time. It is the unequivocal sign that Martin has unearthed a gold nugget: suddenly both he and Bukowski quit their jobs: a company that produced office stuff for the first, the post office for the second. A luxurious car is born, a car that will bring the roar of its engine further and further, higher and higher in the literary Olympus.
In 1971 he releases his first novel, Post Office. Elapsed time: nineteen days. Martin himself tells it and it doesn’t have to amaze that much. “I studied Dostoevsky and listened to Mahler in the dark.” Bukowski’s life was following his own destiny in a more or less unaware manner. That first novel existed already in the darkness of his existence, in Mahler’s light. In those nineteen days Bukowski does nothing but transporting on paper what has always existed.
In 1971 Charles Bukowski is 51 years old. He knew life and sometimes he fought with it. He met hunger, humiliation and loneliness. And if you are Charles Bukowski – and you are him since the beginning – a torrent of words will be ready to gush out at the first opportunity, and you will be grateful to the one who blew the dam. “Dear Johnny, you’re the best boss I’ve ever had.”
The Bukowski narrated by Martin is light years away from the image of the drunkard that emerged from his literature. When you think about Bukowski, the first image that comes to mind is a junkie, who prefers the bottle rather than work. Rather than wasting his life playing the role of the puppet in a game owned by others, he decides to consume his time (and his liver) drinking in bars, catching flies, triggering brawls and boarding hookers. For John Martin, however, Charles Bukowski is the nicest person he ever met. He tells about a man worried about having every guests comfortable, deep behind his cynical surface, always keen on getting poetic along the conversation, when the words take over and the tough Hank gets lost into them.
The collaboration between Martin and Bukowski will go on until Bukowski’s death, in 1994. They will be intense years, when Bukowski writes a lot, meets fame and will become very rich. He will even sell the rights of some of his novel to the movie industry, and make fun of that world in Hollywood, Hollywood.
There are many detractors for Charles Bukowski, especially for the misogynist, alcoholic and cynical Bukowski. As Fernanda Pivano explains:
“Readers and especially critics sometimes capture only the sensational, the “obscene” aspect, but under his masks, behind the Clown, Bukowski has always exposed the most disconcerting obscenity through exaggeration, sometimes deforming, sometimes enlightening, in the tenacious purpose of telling himself.”
Charles Bukowski is now considered one of the most important writers of the twentieth century, a cult artist who probably would never have met the place he holds in the literary firmament, if a brave man like John Martin had not illuminated his star. It’s legit therefore to celebrate this man, able to recognize the flame that rested, just dormant, in a dusty post office. Mr. Rolls meets Mr. Royce.