At age 13, Charles Bukowski took his first drink.
“It was magic,” he would later write. “Why hadn’t someone told me?”
It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Buk never stopped boozing—not when flat broke, not in old age, not even when diagnosed with a bleeding ulcer and warned by doctors never to drink again. That he produced some 50 books in his lifetime (with still more published posthumously) while constantly on the sauce is just one measure of his greatness.
Liquor helped young Bukowski cope with a grim adolescence that would make Oliver Twist look pampered. His father regularly beat him with a razor strop and, when he discovered his son’s writing aspirations, threw his typewriter and short stories out of a window. A case of teenage acne turned so horrific that doctors took to bandaging his entire face like the Invisible Man. An outcast at school, Bukowski brawled with his classmates and was disciplined by a principal whose method was to lock him in an office phone booth.
While other young American lads were marching off to fight Hitler, Bukowski’s draft board declared him “too anti-social” for the army. His war would be against Respectable Society. He lived in flophouses, drank in dives, dodged the cops, spent time in jail—and wrote, even if it was just a few lines scribbled in a newspaper margin. For such a chaotic life, Buk was incredibly disciplined when it came to writing. His squalid hand-to-mouth existence inspired much of what he produced.
Buk was persistent. At age 40 he wrote in a letter to a friend, “I’ve earned $47 in 20 years of writing.” His first novel was published in 1971 when he was age 51, long after most people would have given up. By then he at least had a cult following of admirers, and he earned beer money giving drunken poetry readings, which The Los Angeles Times politely described as “raucous affairs.” The 1987 movie Barfly (based on his own life experiences, and for which he wrote the script) helped turn him into a minor celebrity and eased the financial pressure.
Critics called Buk’s work obscene. A better word is honest. He had no qualms about describing jerking off or puking down his shirt. But it was never gratuitous: If that was the way he felt or what he saw, that’s what he wrote.
There wouldn’t have been much worth reading without the booze, his daily companion and inspiration. Cheap wine was a favorite—he claimed wine made him more creative. Rotgut whiskey and beer were his other usuals, and he had a strange fondness for Schlitz. After he built up a fan-following, devoted Bukowski disciples around the world began showering him with gifts of more upscale stuff. No doubt this was much appreciated, but Buk was never snobby about how he got hammered.
“When you drank the world was still out there,” he famously wrote, “but for the moment it didn’t have you by the throat.” Abiding words from Charles Bukowski, our High Laureate of Cheap Liquor.