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Who is Charles Bukowski?

By Garry Crystal
Updated May 23, 2024
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The writer Charles Bukowski was born in Andernach, Germany in 1920. His family moved to Los Angeles when he was three years old. His father was a bullying parent who used to violently punish his son for trivial mistakes. He published his first story at the age of 24 and began publishing for profit in his 50's.

Charles Bukowski lived a life which some would describe as seedy. For two years of his life, he roamed around America working at manual jobs. Most of the jobs gave him just enough money to rent a room, drink and write. The experiences he gained on the road were used in his poetry and prose. It is writing from the heart about street people, hustlers and a life of women, drinking and gambling.

Afflicted with extreme acne, Bukowski was painfully shy. The novel Ham on Rye describes his early and childhood years, the loneliness he felt and his awkwardness with women. After his travels around America, he took a regular job as a postal worker. The mind numbingly boring work afforded four-day weekends in which he could drink, gamble on horses and write.

At the age of 50, Charles Bukowski quit the post office and became a full-time paid writer. His first novel, Post Office, describes his experiences while working there. He was a very prolific writer. He is the author of more than forty-five books of prose and poetry. His non-conformist, very honest and painfully funny writing has won him fans the world over.

Another big influence on Charles Bukowski were the women in his life. Often matching him drink for drink, they frequently got him evicted from his apartments due to fights and bad behavior. He was known for his jealousy and would either fly into rages with women or simply act as if he didn't care. These women often ended up portrayed in his novels and poetry. One of his most popular novels, entitled Women, chronicles his experiences with some of the women he knew.

When his popularity grew, Hollywood came knocking on Bukowski's door. A film entitled Barfly was made about the middle years of his life. Mickey Rourke played his alter ego, Henry Chinaski. To date, there have been four films made based on the life or stories of Charles Bukowski.

In his twenties, Bukowski was told to give up drinking or he would die. He never did give up drinking and he lived until he was 74. His gravestone bears the simple inscription "Don't try" -- possibly as a warning to the numerous writers who try, but fail, to imitate his writing.

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Discussion Comments
By rjh — On May 10, 2011

I believe the inscription on Bukowski's gravestone is actually a shortened version of his advice on how to write or perhaps even his philosophy on life: "You don’t try. That’s very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more."

My favorite Charles Bukowski poems would have to be "The Secret" and "Alone With Everybody", but in general I don't think he was much of a poet. I think the best thing he ever wrote is probably the short story "The Most Beautiful Girl In Town".

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