Women by Charles Bukowski – Love in the Face of Mortality

Women by Charles BukowskiBukowski’s Women is a ribald comedy about a poet, Henry Chinaski, who’s reached that point in mid-life where you find yourself thinking a lot about your own mortality. Here’s a self-description (on his way to a poetry reading) that reminds me of Yeats’ description of himself, at 60, as an old scarecrow:

I had on my dead father’s overcoat, which was too large. My pants were too long, the cuffs came down over the shoes and that was good because my stockings didn’t match, and my shoes were down at the heels. I hated barbers so I cut my own hair when I couldn’t get a woman to do it. I didn’t like to shave and I didn’t like long beards, so I scissored myself every two or three weeks. My eyesight was bad but I didn’t like glasses so I didn’t wear them except to read. I had my own teeth but not that many. My face and my nose were red from drinking and the light hurt my eyes so I squinted through tiny slits. I would have fit into any skid row anywhere.

What sets the novel in motion is his newfound success as a writer. Whereas Chinaski has lived in poverty his whole life and never had much success with women, suddenly he has some financial security and is getting hit on everywhere by poetry groupies. After a life of Thunderbird and no sex in four years, he suddenly has all the women he can handle and they’re pouring him fine wine.

I was finally getting everything the boys in high school had gotten, the rich pretty well-dressed golden boys with their new automobiles, and me with my sloppy old clothes and broken down bicycle.

At the beginning of the novel he has met Lydia, one of the three or four most important relationships in the book, and is strongly attracted to her. The relationship is stormy. Lydia is manic, highly sexed, and violent. She takes off with other men. Chinaski’s an alcoholic who has groupies now, and sometimes he’s the one who breaks it off. But they keep getting back together, often with Lydia running some groupie off the property, or Chinaski leaving some other groupie suicidal.

In between fights and reunions with Lydia, Chinaski downs a pint of scotch while giving a poetry reading, then goes down on a groupie back at his hotel. He is also pursued by a collection of rich women who seem to regard him as an exotic pet—something to housebreak. One of the women flies him to Catalina, another has him start moving around furniture for her. Still another is classy, kind, and beautiful and has genuine affection for him. He finds himself thinking about marrying her:

Maybe I would move in? Where would I put the typewriter?

But she departs because she can’t cope with the actual details of his life—the drinking, the low-brow taste, the slovenliness.

After breaking it off for good with Lydia, he falls in love with a speed freak whose red hair enthralls him. Through it all, Chinaski writes, or fails to write, grapples with his transition from poverty to financial security, and works at his system for betting the ponies. Meanwhile, it’s standing room only at his poetry reading in New York.

The novel is full of sex scenes, some tender, some written with hilarious swagger—like a literary version of Tim Allen’s cave man schtick.

No oral sex. My stomach was too upset. I mounted the famous doctor’s ex-wife. The cultured world traveler. She had the Brontë sisters in her bookcase. We both liked Carson McCullers. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. I gave her 3 or 4 particularly mean rips and she gasped. Now she knew a writer first hand. Not a very well-known writer, of course, but I managed to pay the rent and that was astonishing. One day she’d be in one of my books. I was fucking a culture-bitch. I felt myself nearing a climax. I pushed my tongue into her mouth, kissed her, and climaxed. I rolled off feeling foolish. I held her a while, then she went into the bathroom. She would have been a better fuck in Greece, maybe. America was a shitty place to fuck.

But he says more than once that what he likes best about the sex is the kissing and cuddling. He’s looking for a real partner, for that intimacy that wards off the fear of the end, but he’s afraid of the price, and he doesn’t necessarily want to find that partner without a bit more time enjoying the search:

When I came it was in the face of everything decent, white sperm dripping down over the heads and souls of my dead parents. If I had been born a woman I would certainly have been a prostitute. Since I had been born a man, I craved women constantly, the lower the better. And yet women—good women—frightened me because they eventually wanted your soul, and what was left of mine, I wanted to keep. Basically I craved prostitutes, base women, because they were deadly and hard and made no personal demands. Nothing was lost when they left. Yet at the same time I yearned for a gentle, good woman, despite the overwhelming price. Either way I was lost. A strong man would give up both. I wasn’t strong. So I continued to struggle with women, with the idea of women.

There are some funny takes on this novel out there on the web. I’m sure you can imagine what the prudes think of the book—there’s lots of moralizing about how, as an open alcoholic, Bukowski sets a bad example for young writers (who gives a fuck?), and lots of complaints that Bukowski doesn’t show any regret at the end of Women for all the sex. (Why should he?)

Some reviewers give up on any attempt to actually make sense of the novel, and resort to providing 20 or 30 brilliant quotes from the book.

My favorite goofy take on the novel is at Brad Branson’s “Dating and Lifestyle Advice” website. Brad Branson says the novel is well worth a read, because “You’ll get a good view of how your life can be, the dramas, responsibilities, and mayhem that go along with being incredibly successful with women.”

Writers take note: Once your novel is out there in the world, all kinds of people are going to opine on it.

In any case, Women is neither a novel of sin nor a guide on how to be a player. It’s a comedy about a lonely man’s search for love and integrity in the face of mortality.

A man didn’t have to have a woman in order to feel as real as he could feel, but it was good if he knew a few. Then when the affair went wrong he’d feel what it was like to be truly lonely and crazed, and thus know what he must face, finally, when his own end came.

It’s filled with Bukowski’s poetry and brilliant insights on writing, poverty, and sexuality. Especially enjoyable is Bukowski’s depiction of all the little secret thoughts you have as you evaluate your compatibility with someone new. It’s a funny, beautiful book that will live forever, and by the way, my wife loves it too.

 

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You May Also Be Interested In

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Risk of Ruin is my novel about a professional gambler who ignores the odds and falls in love with a young woman who believes she’s God.

And Transplant is a short novel you can read here on Write-aholic (first chapter starts at that link) or buy at Amazon.  It’s about the love affair of a plant in a man’s body with a woman in a plant’s body.

You can read more about Transplant and the other short novels in my Smut4Nerds series here.

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