Tag Archives: Charles Bukowski

Barfly (1987): The Triumph of the Failed Writer

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Eddie, the bartender at the Golden Horn, represents what every unpublished writer fears, poverty, social isolation, and the feeling that you’re just not good enough.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Tully Sorenson, on the other hand, a wealthy publishing executive, represents what every unpublished writer desires, money, sex, recognition, a career getting paid to what you love.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.

On Being a Failed Writer

At the age of 50, I am a failed writer. Except for a few articles on CounterPunch, everything I’ve published has been self-published. I’ve worked tens of thousands of hours, written hundreds of thousands of words, and have never made a dime. Had I spent the same amount of time at a minimum wage retail job, I’d be rich, or at least a shift-supervisor at Starbucks. I haven’t been able to find an audience. You probably won’t even read this.

So why don’t I quit?

I tried. From the age of 25 to the age of 50, I had one goal In life, to cure myself of the urge to write. But I failed. Let me explain.

The urge to write should never be confused with the ability to make a living by writing, or even the ability to express yourself by putting words down on paper. T. S. Eliot is rumored to have answered the suggestion that “most editors are failed writers” with the quip that “yes, but so are most writers.” For many working journalists, writing is both a day job, and an impossible dream. Most people at Buzzfeed don’t want to be writing listicles. I doubt even the most cynical daily newspaper reporter grew up dreaming that someday he would be writing hit pieces on a mentally ill homeless man for the New York Post, or smearing a teenager the local police for the Indianapolis Star to protect the local police. It’s simply a way to pay the bills until the big story that will make you another Woodward or Bernstein comes along, or until a Hollywood studio buys your film script. I am not being a moral scold. If I had the social connections to get hired by Vice, Buzzfeed, or the NY Post, I’d probably jump at the opportunity. What’s more, some of the best writers in American history have written for money, and only for money. Ulysses Grant, for example, started writing his memoirs in 1884 after he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Sick, destitute after losing most of his assets in a Ponzi scheme, the 18th President of the United States wrote mainly to to pay old debts, and to leave enough money left over to provide for his wife and family. Yet the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant remains the greatest autobiography ever written by an American President. It’s so good that, to this day, there are conspiracy theories that it had actually been ghostwritten by his good friend Mark Twain.

In my mid-20s, I decided to become a novelist, mainly because I realized I was unfit to do anything else. For a middle-aged man, 25 seems young, but let’s face it. If you’re not already on a solid career track, or have some kind of specialized, highly sought after skill, you’re going to end up struggling for the rest of your life. I’m 50 years old, but 25 doesn’t even seem that long ago. It feels like yesterday. Not only had I run out of career options, I had never had very many in the first place. I had been slotted. I had found my place, and I didn’t like it. I was already picking up the pieces of my broken life, wondering what happened.

For most of my childhood, I had planned to join the United States Marine Corps, just like my father. I gave up on the idea when I became socialist in college. How could I make a career out of defending the American empire?

Note: I was also soft, and weak. A summer at McGuire Air Force base at a Civil Air Patrol encampment had already convinced me that I wasn’t cut out for the military life. But “I declined to serve the interests of American imperialism” sounds much better than “I was scared that when I got to basic training the other guys would call me a fag and beat me up.” So that’s the version of the story I usually tell.

Later on, I toyed with the idea of becoming a high school English teacher or a college professor, but I had been miserable in high-school. Why would I have wanted to spend the rest of my life in a place I already knew I hated? Tenure at Harvard would have been great. But I couldn’t even understand Foucault or Derrida, let alone teach them. I did not have the academic ability to become a lawyer, or the temperament to become a political activist. So at the age of 23, I dropped out of graduate school, and got an entry-level job as a “Production Editor” for a small, scientific publishing in New York City. I made a little under $15,000/yr preparing scientific manuscripts to be published in books that almost nobody would ever read.

It didn’t take me very long to decide that since I was unlikely to get a better job, I could at least have a better identity. “Writer” sounded good, but there was only one problem: I couldn’t write. Not a novel, not an essay, not a review, not a short story. I could barely even write a note on a birthday card. Indeed, I spent most of my 20s thinking of myself as a writer, but unable to come up with anything much more than a diary, which I’m glad I lost. The only thing I remember about it is that it wasn’t worth keeping. I had a massive case of writer’s block, which correlated to my inability to relate to other people, or get my life together. Nevertheless, not being able to write was a good also excuse to stay put. My entry-level publishing job didn’t pay much, and it didn’t have much room for advancement, but it also didn’t involve much work. The hours were steady, and I never had to worry about getting cheated out of my wages. These days it almost seems like a good job. In any event, I decided that since I didn’t know how to write, I would use the time after work to teach myself how to write. Progress was slow, but I did make it. I read just about everything I could, and did manage to fill in the gaps in my education that I had noticed during my abortive two years of graduate school. Eventually I found my subject, failure. I identified with the narrator in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground, and with the hero of George Orwell’s early novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Unlike Orwell’s Gordon Comstock, however, I couldn’t find a way back into the lower-middle-class, and unlike Dostoevsky’s underground man, I couldn’t make failure sound interesting.

So I concluded that if I was going to write about failure, I had to fail a lot more.

After I got fired from my job as a Production Editor – It was a combination of incompetence and just a very obvious lack of interest in my work. – I failed at just about everything I tried. I couldn’t make friends, establish a relationship with a woman, break away from, or maintain friendly relations with my parents, complete psychoanalysis, or hold a job. Over the next few years, I worked as a telemarketer, fish gutter, a sheet metal worker, a data entry specialist at the last unionized textile company in Seattle, an administrative assistant, a sales associate at an office supply store, a sheet metal worker, a day laborer at a recycling plant, a low-level systems administrator for a small ISP, and a customer-service support technician for three failed e-commerce companies, and a barista at Starbucks.

The last job turned out be a lucky accident, since it provided me with the material for the first thing I ever wrote worth reading, a mildly successful knockoff of Notes from the Underground, a long short story called “How To Under Ring.” I am a bitter Starbucks barista, the “underground man” serving coffee and pulling espresso while I wait for the chance to be put on a cash register. Then I can follow his true calling of small-time embezzler and petty thief. How much is fiction, and how much is autobiography I leave to any readers, and potential employers, to decide. These days it seems dated, and almost cliché, and I can just see the typical social justice warrior’s reaction. “Angry young white male from a middle-class family hates his job and can’t get laid, so he acts like an asshole. Cry me a river.” But, at the time, actually finishing a short story felt like vindication.

I also concluded that since I had actually proven I could finish a piece of writing, but knew deep down inside that I didn’t really have much talent, I’d try in earnest to quit trying to write. But I failed. The biggest thing I failed at in my 30s and 40s was my renewed effort to quit writing. I studied programming and information technology, got certifications from Microsoft, Comptia, and Cisco. It worked for awhile. Jumping from one e-commerce job to another left me little time to think about writing, but then the bottom fell out of the tech industry in March of 2000. By the time the tech economy got going again, I was too old, and too poorly trained to get back in. I tried to replace writing fiction with a more harmless creative pursuit, photography, but I was even worse at photography than I was at writing fiction. Smart phones made professional photojournalists obsolete anyway. When George W. Bush was President, I threw myself into the anti-war movement and the pro-impeachment movements. But the Democrats took back control of Congress. Nancy Pelosi declared impeachment to be “off the table,” and when Barack Obama was elected President, the anti-war movement exited the political scene, stage right.

By the time I hit 45, I realized I would never quit writing, since to quit writing meant that I would have to succeed at something other than writing, and that would never happen. For 20 years, the more I had tried to quit writing, the more I had kept coming back to it. It was the only thing in my life that I ever stuck with, impossible to fail at, since it was identical with failure. When failure is writing and writing failure, how can you fail at writing? What’s more, while I didn’t actually like to write, I needed it, needed to write the way a heroin addict needs his fix. The reasons are the same. The heroin addict and the failed writer both want one thing, to be alone, to forget reality, and live inside his imagination. I would give up literature for heroin, if I could, but heroin is too expensive.

In 2011, my father died and I lost my last full-time job, both within a few weeks of each other. I also lost the writer’s block I had for most of my life. Suddenly, I could speak. I wrote a full length novel. I wrote over 500,000 words of film reviews, autobiographical essays, and opinion pieces about politics and history. At the age of 25, I could barely write my own name. At the age of 50, I can write just about anything I want. If there’s a thought somewhere in my head, I will eventually find a way to put it into words. If there’s a film or a book I want to review, a political event I want to analyze, childhood demons I want to banish from my memory by speaking their names, or a story I want to tell, nothing will stop me from doing it. The only problem is that good, steady low-paying jobs, with predictable schedules, and paychecks that show up on time every two weeks are a thing of the past. I always laugh at Charles Bukowski whenever I read Post Office. These days, working at the post office is the kind of “good job” left-wing Democrats like Bernie Sanders are always promising to bring back. The post office? Henry Chinaski, check your privilege.

In 2015, you can no longer become a failed writer because you’ve failed at everything else. Writing takes time. It takes leisure. It takes the ability to hack together a life where you’ve got a few hours every day to sit down at your desk, or at some table at some coffee shop somewhere, and not be disturbed. My employment options at age 50 are far more limited than they were at age 23, not only because the job market is so much worse now, but because I’ve already demonstrated to the world that I’m not a good employee. My credit is bad. My resume is spotty. The Internet is full of my self-published rantings. They will never go away. My next job, if I’m even lucky enough to get one, will have to be one of those “we’ll hire anybody who can pass the drug test” kind of jobs. I’ll be a temp worker at an Amazon warehouse, or a low-level retail worker “on call” who works for 15 hours a week, and worries his head off waiting to work for another 50. Maybe I’ll go back up to Alaska and gut fish. I’ll be that strange dude in his 50s with no hair and a grizzled beard, the guy all the college kids laugh at one moment, then speculate how many years he did before his parole the next. I don’t know what my next job will be, but I’m fairly sure it will leave me little time to read, and to write. In my 20s, I became a failed writer because I couldn’t do anything else. In my 50s, if I want to stay a failed writer, I’ll have to fight for it.

But it really doesn’t matter because I finally understand. I’m not a writer at all. I’ve never been. I never will be. I am exactly what I wrote my first real short story about, a small-time embezzler and a petty thief, only this time I don’t want to steal a few hundred dollars from a cash-register at Starbucks. I want to steal something far more valuable, time, the time to write, the time to read, the time to watch interesting art house movies with subtitles, and ride my bike through the mountains of Northwest New Jersey, to debate politics on the Internet. I am small time embezzler and a petty thief, stealing ticks of the clock back from capitalism. I will lie, freeload, cheat, steal, mooch off the government. I will do anything to fight back against being pressed into a routine that snuffs out my voice for good. I will continue to speak, even if I’m the only one listening. Henry David Thoreau once said that you cannot kill time without injuring eternity. I will do my best to spend the next 25 years of my life without injuring eternity.

But I will probably fail.