Homage to Charles Bukowski | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist


Louis Proyect
 

Among my favorite writers, Harvey Pekar and Charles Bukowski share an uncommon distinction. Despite having lowly jobs as a Cleveland veterans hospital file clerk and sorting mail in the post office, they received the highest accolades for their work. In a 1985 New York Times book review, David Rosenthal wrote that “Mr. Pekar’s work has been compared by literary critics to Chekhov’s and Dostoyevsky’s, and it is easy to see why.” As for Bukowski, Jean-Paul Sartre described him as “America’s greatest living poet today,” although his biographer Howard Sounes discounts that as a tale Bukowski circulated. As for me, I don’t need Sounes’s imprimatur to evaluate Bukowski’s literary merits. I regard him as one of our best writers of the past half-century, and the kind of writer that helped me keep me feeling less isolated in a mammon-worshiping nation. Writers who have held down regular jobs like Herman Melville on a whaling ship or Jack Kerouac as a railway brakeman are closer to our reality than those churned out on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop assembly line.

Charles Bukowski died in 1994, not from cirrhosis of the liver but leukemia. Well-known for his alcoholism, it surprised me that he made it to the age of 73. As was also the case with Pekar, it was like losing a friend. As I read all of Pekar’s comic books, I always made time to read a new Bukowski novel. Since both writers mined their workaday lives, disappointments, and loneliness for deeply affecting literature, you felt as close to them as if they were good friends. Moreover, once they became celebrities, you appreciated how ambivalent they were about such glory. Pekar refused to make any more appearances on the David Letterman show, even if it meant cutting into comic book sales.

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