Henry Chinaski, who lives alone in a run-down SRO in downtown Los Angeles, has only two goals in life. The first is to get drunk. The second is to write. Every night Chinaski, a loosely fictionalized Charles Bukowski played by Mickey Rourke, goes downstairs to the “Golden Horn,” a sleazy bar where he drinks on whatever money he can beg, borrow, or steal from his friends. Every morning, he wakes up, listens to Mozart, and puts down on paper whatever poetry he can beg, borrow, or steal from the English language.
Henry Chinaski has two demons, each of whom he must conquer in the service of his art.
Eddie, the bartender at the Golden Horn, represents what every unpublished writer fears, poverty, social isolation, and the feeling that you’re just not good enough. He has the power to cut off Chinaski’s supply of alcohol, a necessary lubricant for Chinaski’s imagination. Eddie, who’s played to bullying, Guido perfection by Frank Stallone, might just as well be called “writer’s block.”
Tully Sorenson, on the other hand, a wealthy publishing executive, represents what every unpublished writer desires, money, sex, recognition, a career getting paid to what you love. If Eddie has the power to shut down Henry Chinaski’s imagination, Tully Sorenson has the power to corrupt his desires. A better name for Tully Sorenson, who’s played by South African actress Alice Krige, might be “temptation.”
Henry’s nightly fistfight in the ally in back of The Golden Horn, shamelessly ripped off by the Coen Brothers for their later movie Inside Llewyn Davis, represents the creative process. Henry almost always loses. One night, after a particularly savage beating, Henry goes home, bloodied, and crawls into bed. “There are some people who never go crazy,” he says to himself, repeating one of Charles Bukowski’s most famous lines, “what horrible lives they must lead.” He has finally put one of his most persistent thoughts into words. The next evening, he goes back down to the Golden Horn, and picks yet another fight with Eddie, who expects that, as usual, he will put the drunken bum Henry Chinaski in his place. He doesn’t. Henry has already wrestled with his creative angels, and has come out victorious. This time, he’s more than a match for Eddie.
Buddhists say that when the pupil is ready, the teacher appears. When the poet is ready, the muse appears. In Henry’s case his muse is Wanda, another down and out alcoholic played by Faye Dunaway. Normally, I hate Faye Dunaway. So it’s a testament to Barfly’s success in translating Charles Bukowski’s aesthetic into cinema that I find her more appealing here, in 1987, as a worn-out middle-aged woman, than I found her in Bonnie and Clyde, which she starred in when she only 26. For Henry Chinaski it’s love at first sight, and they immediately begin a relationship.
One night Wanda, whose drinking often impairs her judgment, goes home and sleeps with Eddie, the lady’s man, the bully, the Jersey Shore Guido, everything that Henry Chinaski hates. Into the film steps Tully Sorenson, who has hired a private detective to break into Chinaski’s apartment, and photograph one of his manuscripts. Chinaski, who normally writes only for himself, is vulnerable. If Wanda represents his rough, earthy sexuality, Tully Sorenson represents the desire for success, the high-class woman who proves that you’ve “made it.” After she offers to publish one of his short stories, gives him a cash advance, and lets him get behind the wheel of her Mercedes, they both go to her palatial estate in the Hollywood Hills. They get drunk. They have sex. She offers him the use of her guest house, where, she insists, he will “be able to write in peace.”
“No man who could ever write worth a damn,” Chinaski says, “can write in peace.”
The typical failed writer, bum, drunken misfit, loser, gets tested by Eddie every day of his, or her life. But Henry Chinaski is not only a failed writer. He’s a a failed writer with real talent. So he faces the trial most of us will never see, the opportunity to sell out, to live in a cage with golden bars.
That Charles Bukowski did, in fact, sell out, market his screenplay to director Barbet Schroeder, Francis Ford Coppola, and Golan Globus films is, perhaps, better left unsaid. Does it matter? Bukowski was an old man in 1987, near the end of what had been a career on the margins of the literary world. I think it does. Charles Bukowski was a great writer, but there’s no question that he owed much of his fame to his talent for branding himself as a great, alcoholic writer. Self-branding, these days, is the bane of the literary world, the gateway drug to specialization. Bukowski, a member of the conformist “Greatest Generation,” probably saw no contradiction between an identity as an alcoholic bum, and his integrity as a literary rebel. For Generation X, my generation, and for the Millennial Generation, it’s become a cliché.
We write about what we can’t do in real life. Henry Chinaski is not Charles Bukowski. He’s what Charles Bukowski would have become if he had crawled back into the gutter, and stayed here. Henry Chinaski does not represent the aspiring writer who eventually finds success. He represents the triumph of the failed writer. After leaving Tully Sorenson, he goes back to the Golden Horn. Tully follows him, hoping that she can talk him into a life of comfort and ease. She can’t. Chinaski and Wanda reconcile, and Wanda, Chinaski’s true love, is ready to defend his life on skid row against this beautiful she-devil who will take him away to her mansion in the Hollywood Hills. They square off. The fight, this time, isn’t between Henry and Eddie, between an aspiring writer and the demons who won’t let him write. It’s between Henry’s healthy, earthy, non-conformist sexuality, and the ruling-class woman who wants to dominate him. Tully puts up a good fight, but Wanda eventually emerges triumphant, pulling out a chunk of Tully Sorenson’s hair and sending her back to the gilded cage where she belongs.
Henry Chinaski will remain, thank God, a misfit, a loser, and a drunken bum.