Jackson and Bukowski: Drunken Literature

Recently, I’ve been thinking about drunks. Specifically, I’ve been thinking about literature written by drunks and/or about drinking. The positive reaction to a piece on this topic called Ten Best Books by Drunks that I posted on Legs McNeil’s and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me website tells me it’s a subject that occupies many others besides myself.

Self-destruction with booze seems to go hand in glove with pen and paper.

Two recent biographies have helped catalyze my thinking on this, boiling it down to one large question, with many residual ripple-like queries. The two biographies are Farther and Wilder: The Lost Weekends and Literary Dreams of Charles Jackson by Blake Bailey and Charles Bukowski by David Stephen Calonne, a part of Reaktion’s “Critical Lives” series of biographies. The large question these books — and the ten books cited at the link above — raise is this: Why does literature about self-destruction in general (booze, drugs, sex, madness, etc.) captivate us so? The residual ripples: Are we captivated by the “there but for fortune go I” aspect of the finished work? Do we admire the sheer madness of such lives—the breaking of every taboo in sight—and are self-protective enough not to “follow them down”? Are we secretly jealous? And then, what about the biological matter of alcohol’s effect on inspiration: Does alcohol fuel inspiration or does it merely cool the engine down after the creative spark is spent?

Perhaps it’s as simple as what my friend and frequent collaborator Parke Puterbaugh said about taking LSD. While he loved the music, art and some of the literature inspired by psychedelia, he did not want to take acid for one simple reason: “I was afraid that I’d make like the Linkletter kid and try to fly out a fourth-floor window if I took acid … I think you knew intuitively if this was something you could handle.” I felt the same way, and perhaps that’s why Parke and I were drinking buddies, and not drug buddies, in college and for many years thereafter. We could “handle” booze.

I always envied my friends who, like Parke, knew when to stop; who could stop, take breaks, repair themselves between bouts with healthy eating, exercise and non-morbid thoughts. Personally, I could not “handle” booze, as it turned out. Alcohol, and literature to a lesser extent, was my blanket, my solace against a shitty childhood, rejection by editors, girlfriends, job providers and boo hoo hoo, right?

Though I always gravitated toward writers who salved their wounds with booze (Kerouac, Thompson, Exley, Morrison, etc.), I did not drink to find literary inspiration or to augment a romantic melancholic image, which I believe is behind a lot of alcoholic posturing, especially with younger writers. At my bottoming out point, I wrote a long poem called “Drunk” and, on a whim, sent it to Allen Ginsberg. True to his generous nature, Ginsberg responded with a friendly, encouraging handwritten letter, taking pity on me, I believe. Of the poem, Ginsberg said, “It is interesting and inventive, spotty, eccentric, sometimes quite honest—the end is disappointing, somewhat repetitious (like alcoholism) …”

“Somewhat repetitious (like alcoholism).” I couldn’t have summed it up better if I’d tried for a hundred years. I hadn’t realized, until years later, that Ginsberg had had to deal with Peter Orlovsky’s chronic drinking problems, so he was speaking from firsthand experience.

The dilemma of the booze-fuelled writer is graphically illustrated by Blake Bailey’s biography of Lost Weekend author Charles Jackson, just as it was in the same author’s haunting biography of John Cheever of two years ago. Bailey seems to echo what Ginsberg said when he writes this about Jackson: “Aside from the occasional calamity, the outward reality of a drunk’s life is nothing if not tedious.”

Indeed, Charles Jackson was the drunk’s drunk. His The Lost Weekend, which later became a classic film about an alcoholic’s agony, is a near textbook account of what an hard drinker’s bottoming-out feels like. The story is fictional, but it’s based on Jackson’s experiences. Like the novel’s, Don Birnam, Jackson found himself adrift on an ocean of booze. Alcohol fueled gargantuan pipedreams and big ideas and opened up entire worlds to him — until the next morning, or at the end of the weeklong bender, when the hangover would crash him back down to earth.

Once he got sober, though, Jackson became a willing public exemplar of the success of Alcoholics Anonymous. And, in Bailey’s telling, he became what he felt he really was: a “humdrum mediocrity.” One of Jackson’s former college faculty colleagues, when she saw him after he got sober, “wondered what had become of the wistful, brilliant outsider she’d met a decade ago.”

For Charles Jackson, “the ‘rarefied heights’ of great art” were a thing of the past. He was fully aware that his retreat from the bottle may have saved his life, but it had a down side. Of his sobriety, he wrote, “They were years of a kind of grey, bleak, empty well-being…apathy, spiritlessness, blank sobriety, and a vegetable health.” He instinctively knew, as any “recovered” drunk does, that returning to drink to rekindle lost fires was a sure road to Hell, if not a quick and precipitous plunge toward Death.

And, alas, this is exactly what happened to Jackson. In hopes of recapturing the lightning in a bottle of The Lost Weekend, he separated from his wife, moved to New York City’s Chelsea Hotel, where before him Dylan Thomas took his own fatal last drinks and after him Sid Vicious stabbed to death Nancy Spungen, he returned to “booze and pills.” He hung on for a couple of years, pretending to complete the epic novel cycles about which he’d long dreamed. By age 65, he overdosed on barbiturates, washed down with copious amounts of booze, and his death was ruled a suicide.

* * * * *

Charles Bukowski, on the other hand, never turned his back on booze. Booze was his life blood, augmented with regular transfusions of Brahms, Bach, Sibelius, the race track (horse racing), John Fante, William Saroyan, Robinson Jeffers, Li Po and Catullus, and spiced with volatile relations with women. His drinking was the main subject matter of his poetry and prose, however, and in an odd kind of way, this was/is the lure and “charm” of Bukowski’s writings. No apologies made, no prisoners taken. His message is: If you don’t like what I’m doing, take a hike. The wonder is that Bukowski, like William S. Burroughs, lived such a long and robust life right up to the end.

Bukowski was the rare funny drunk, which brings up another irony of our fascination with drunken writers. Drunks can be hilarious on the page but, as everyone knows deep down, they are not so hilarious in our everyday personal lives. Ever live with a drunk? There is no better illustration of this than a four-hour collection of filmed interviews with Bukowski done by the German director Barbet Schroeder, released in 1987 under the title The Charles Bukowski Tapes.

Shroeder’s documentary is comprised of numerous short segments (none longer than ten minutes) that are brutally honest, both chilling and hilarious and, in the scenes when Bukowski is both pissed off and drunk, truly frightening. Schroeder would go on to direct a creditable and fairly faithful screen version of Bukowski’s novel, Barfly (though I don’t imagine the women Bukowski stumbled upon were anywhere near as attractive as Faye Dunaway).

One of my favorite Bukowski poems is a work that I’ve only heard on a live recording (the great album Hostage). I have never been able to locate that poem in his prodigious printed output, or in any of the 10 or 15 of his books that I own. It’s a later poem, commenting on his image as a boozy writer, and it sardonically lets the reader in on his secret: he has kept a young writer enslaved inside a cage in his basement. He feeds him “raw meat” and “whores” and booze and the caged younger man “writes all my stuff for me now.” The kicker to the poem is the last line, about how “the critics” are saying that his writing “has never been better.”

It’s the quintessential Bukowski poem, and he reads it deep in his cups, after half an hour of alternately entertaining and horrifying his Redondo Beach audience and trading increasingly nasty barbs with hecklers. The joy in Bukowski’s voice as he reads that last line says something about this connection to alcohol and writing. I am not sure what it says, good or bad. It just is.

Much like, come to think of it, Bukowski’s writing, and all of writing of this genre. Take it or leave it.

17 Responses

  1. Please share the title of the
    Please share the title of the Bukowski poem you’re referring to here. It sounds familiar. Being drunk, I have to disagree with Bailey’s sentiments. A drunk’s life ain’t tedious, I’m feeling pretty damn good right now. And I drink too much to be hungover tomorrow. Nothin’ a little coffee and scrambled eggs can’t solve. Cheers to you Mr. Bisbort!

  2. I wish I knew the name of
    I wish I knew the name of that poem Bukowski was reading during the “Hostage” recording. I’m not even sure he gives the titles of his poems on the recording I heard. But if you Google Bukowski and YouTube, you are likely to find some footage of the occasion. It’s all good. To your health!

  3. Really enjoyed reading this.
    Really enjoyed reading this. The lines from Jackson really hit home for me being in that stage of recovery he describes as a “humdrum mediocrity”. I might add the emphasis on the self imposed isolation and absolute drowning in ego that can overcome some drunks, and Ginsberg’s categorizing of the poem is more apropos towards alcoholism in general as (for me at least) “repetitious” is both simple and true. I can appreciate that a lot of people can drink and be creative (I’ve always wanted to try a green fairied experiement with Absinthe, alas), but for me it was just an attempt to capture the muse in a mist of gin vapor and take the easy way out. It was just a crutch for me and an excuse when things didn’t work out, which then fed more self, which fed more drinking, lather rinse repeat. My opinion on why people are captivated by authors that ride the white lightning, so to speak, is that we everyday people don’t feel comfortable examining that darker half we all have, the polar opposite to the sunny, positive side of ourselves we’re taught from day one to focus on and deny our “darker angels”. This makes us unbalanced, in a way, as even in nature it’s not sunny all the time, the storm rolls in. Unlike nature that benefits from the symbiosis of the rain and the sun, most don’t seem to handle the storms of their lives as well as the sunshine and want to flee from darker times as fast as possible, missing out of the lessons to be learned about ourselves when we’re in those darker nights, lessons that make us more balanced people. So my theory as to what captivates us when we see the darker half of someone else’s life splashed for us across pages or the big screen is the compulsion to know that darker half of ourselves that we deny. The “taboo” nature of that other person’s exploration fascinates us because we probably fear what we’ll find in ourselves, the classic “I can’t look! But…I…must!!” Thanks…

  4. I got a note from a well
    I got a note from a well-known poet who was angry about being so sick and depressed. I suggested she read books by a couple of mutual friends about addiction. I read them when I was very sick and depressed; and the stories helped. Seems to me that overcoming addiction is almost identical to fighting depression. These guys – alcoholics and heroin addicts on death’s doorstep – somehow made their way back when a lot of people mentioned in their books didn’t. So to me, it’s a tale of hope.

    Dan Famte’s book Chump Change in particular is like must reading because I figure everyone’s gonna feel suicidal at some point in their lives; and Fante talks about what needs to happen when you do. Not a lot different from Priestly’s play An Inspector Calls or Hilary Clinton’s “it takes a village.” The concept – if we help each, we can maybe make it. If we don’t – sayonara.

    The only difference is the compelling way this can be presented in literature or film or theatre. Some people go to AA and leave feeling – go screw yourself, why would I listen to that jerkwad. But in literature, the story captures us and compels us to listen in a way that live testimonials may not. Though I suppose some methods work for some people, others work for other people.

    Generally – I find addiction, substance abuse, to be sickening to think about. Let’s see… so far I’ve lost an uncle a cousin a sister and a daughter. And I wrote about how – being a hip cool drug user when I’se a kid, influenced other kids to emulate that and die on the highway or w a needle in the arm. Yeah…something to be proud of. We all leave a legacy, so…

  5. A great article, though
    A great article, though having read your summary of Charles Jackson’s life, I can’t help but think that he was always a mediocre writer who, one day, got lucky (eg. Harper Lee / TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD) and wrote something where everything clicked (it’s a great book, too). That, and the deeper problem of recovering addicts, namely, the total loss of confidence, which can be castration for any artist.

    Funny, you didn’t mention Faulkner, a binge drinker (like Hank Williams). Sure, he claimed that he never drank while writing, but Hemingway (the prick that he is) said he could tell on what line the booze was kicking in. Faulk’s output is nothing but heroic in sheer quantity, let alone complexity of plot and experimentation.

    Two of my favorite drunk novels are Stephen King’s Cujo and Tommy Knockers. Written on GONZO-level cocktails of booze, pot, coke and mouthwash. The metaphors are brutal. A rabid dog out of control. An alcoholic drinking himself to death digging up a radioactive spaceship, which might be a cosmic Energizer battery. The latter was his crack up book, the one he wrote before going to rehab. Went straight and never looked back.

  6. Drunkard writers. Pretty
    Drunkard writers. Pretty darn common.

    Who are the well-known writers who were always tea-totalers?

    Are there any?

  7. Truman Capote said that
    Truman Capote said that nobody can write well when they are drunk, and I agree with him. Now, if you get hopped up on amphetamines or coke, you might write well for a while, and it will take the booze longer to slow you down, but that’s very bad for you if done with any regularity, you will likely burn out and your brain may even lose it’s ability to produce endorphines, meaning you can’t feel happy. A good writer can write sober.

    I stopped drinking a few years ago and my life isn’t tedious at all; in fact, I’ve never been happier. Drinking on a daily basis clouds your mind and you don’t function at your true level of capability. You don’t even realize it until you’ve been sober for about a month. Also, when you drink all the time, you cut yourslef off from reality. Pretty soon you start thinking you and your two friends are the next big thing, the New Beats. I think one reason people quit drinking and then return to it is depression. Clinical depression is very treatable now. Once in a while you hear a story about someone doing something terrible while they were on, for example, Zoloft. But Zoloft has never done me wrong. If you enjoyed Alan Bisbort’s artilce today, or yesterday’s article by Michael Norris about writers on drugs, you should read the middle part of the AA “big book,” with all the true stories about drunks. It’s fascinating. You got a doctor prescribing medicine during a blackout, a guy who hears organ music coming from the walls, another doctor taking tranquilizers in a desperate attempt to curve his booze habit, all kinds of stuff.

  8. James Baldwin comes to mind.
    James Baldwin comes to mind. He said he didn’t know one writer who didn’t drink. But also admitted he was unable to write while drunk.

    I think of Hunter S. Thompson who probably never wrote unless he was under the influence. Jim’s point makes me wonder, out of all the writers who are drinkers/druggies, how many of them actually worked while high?

    Me personally, I like to get to that point where I won’t drive, but I can still move the pen.

  9. Let me add that I think
    Let me add that I think marijuana should be legal and LSD can be therapeutic if taken in a semi-controlled, non-threatening environment.

  10. Illicit drug use kills people
    Illicit drug use kills people. But it’s like guns. If nobody you know’s been shot, no big deal. If u got kids in middle school, tell them marijuana is fine as long as u wanna be uneducated forever and ever. Been that – done there. “whoa had these fantastic insights but….caint remember wot they wuz anymore.” All the dead rockers from heroin – see yah, wouldn’t wanna be yah. My father led a spartan life – no red meat, no fat, no alcohol, or tobacco – lived to be 92. His friend Mary didn’t even take meds from doctors – she lived to be 95. But hay, tewi-chiz-zone.

  11. I’m reading all of Jackson’s
    I’m reading all of Jackson’s books right now before tackling Blake’s book — and so far I’ve read both THE LOST WEEKEND and A SECOND-HAND LIFE (his final novel). I’m sad to say that the former is a brilliant masterpiece and the latter a desperate (but not uninteresting) effort to titillate. The first book is very much ahead of its time (almost the way in which Knut Hamsun’s HUNGER feels decades ahead of its time), anticipating much of the powerful existential brooding that was to come with many of the hard-edged postwar novels. The second book is a sad fossil of a man who does not grasp the world anymore.

    Between the two books — in many of Jackson’s stories — there are great flashes of brilliance (such as the story “The Boy Who Ran Away”). But it’s quite possible that Jackson needed booze to reveal what was on his mind. And without booze, perhaps Jackson was merely an inhibited shell of his former self. Which is not to suggest that the alcoholic writer needs booze in order to operate. (Indeed, Flaubert’s famous maxim, “Be calm and orderly in your life and violent and original in your work,” is among the soundest advice that any obsessive writer can take. There is also the risk — and I can speak first-hand on this — that one’s wild writing leads writers to be perceived as maniacs.) But Jackson established himself early on as a man peering into darkness and depravity. And it’s sad that he had to pay the price.

    What is often little discussed in these conversations is the cost of staring into the abyss. There are writers today who are ridiculed and raked across the coals for “selling out” or softening in old age (never mind that their work remains punchy in other ways), when their critics have no idea of the hell they went through or the difficult emotional territory they needed to mine to get on the map. Critics, of course, will answer that they have no responsibility to consider this. I don’t know what can be done to sustain more empathy for self-destructive writers who dare to tell the truth, but I’m glad that Blake is working that little seen corner of the room with his Yates, Cheever, and Jackson bios. It’s a glimpse of the writer’s life that can’t be seen often enough — especially in a nation that treats lively literature like some penny arcade amusement which belongs under dusty blankets.

  12. Love Bukowski’s writing,
    Love Bukowski’s writing, especially his poetry, but if u watch those videos you realize he was a big a-hole, especially when he abuses his wife on camera. I’ve lived with an alcoholic artist and it’s probably the most frustrating and scary thing I’ve ever endured, but I was in deep and finally got the hell away. Now when I encounter alcoholism I run as far away as fast as I can, I want no parts of it, no way no how. Never again would I endure the insanity of it, nuff said.

  13. Edward C. Thanks for sharing
    Edward C. Thanks for sharing Flaubert’s maxim – it’s a good one! Interesting insights on Jackson’s books, too. Shine on, you crazy diamond,

  14. The best book I have ever
    The best book I have ever read about an alcoholic is “Under the Volcano” by Malcolm Lowry. The depths to which his consul characters sinks is just frightening, but as a study of a man’s decline through drink it is a brilliant piece of writing.

    I find that the best time to write is early in the morning. Get up around 6:00, fire up the computer, don’t look at email, just write. And no pills, booze, reefer, not even coffee. Just your un-intoxicated brain in its pure state after sleep, when you are open to anything. By 10:00, I have usually used up all the good vibes and it becomes a struggle to write. But those hours between 6:00 and 8:00 can be magical – or sheer hell.

    In the mid seventies I found myself at loose ends. The 60s were dead and over, disco music was on the radio. I started reading the alcoholic detective fiction writers: Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. I even effected a sort of Philip Marlowe persona: bottle of Old Fitzgerald bonded bourbon in the desk drawer, fancying myself as hard-boiled. In Chandler, everything is fixed by a shot of booze. Marlowe gets beaten to a pulp by the bad guys, staggers back to his office, takes a slug from the office bottle, and he is as good as new. For me, the booze just made me fuzzy, I couldn’t write worth shit, so I moved on.

    Another good booze story. Charlie Musselwhite is a blues harmonica player who came up from Memphis (He used to be called Memphis Charlie) and got into the Chicago scene and played with Sonny Boy Williamson and Big Walter Horton, among other greats. And he was a hard drinker. I once saw him in the alley between sets at a Chicago blues club – pint of whiskey in his jacket pocket which he referred to from time to time, He said he drank all the time. Then I read that he moved on to just drinking Chablis, much like Bukowski started drinking fine wines instead of his former rot-gut when he started making money. I think Musselwhite may not even drink at all any more, but he is still a great blues harp player. Coming up in the Chicago blues scene, you pretty much drank from morning until night – I remember a matinee set with Muddy Waters, where Otis Spann’s piano was filled with the bands’ whiskey and gin bottles. Hard drinking was part of the scene. Some of those guys even lived to be pretty old, considering their lifestyle.

    Perhaps with music the booze is not so deleterious. But in my experience, writing and drinking at the same time is a dead end.

  15. I am in awe of all the
    I am in awe of all the comments my little musing on Jackson and Bukowski generated. The passion, the insights, the pragmatism, all of it is a reminder that others have thought deeply on these issues, that you/I/we are not alone on this verdant rock hurtling through space.
    Susurra, I think that you are right that people may choose sobriety out of fear of what their dark side would reveal to them or out of fear of admitting that they do have a dark side, but I also think that those who choose to get lost in the woods with booze are just as easily convinced that they do not have a “light” side, that is, that they are incapable of moving “toward the light” of compassion and serenity. This was graphically brought home to me when I decided to quit drinking and began going to AA meetings and, though I have nothing against AA, it just was not working for me. I won’t go into why that might have been. I was beginning to fear that I would never find that elusive “light” that would bring calm into my life and banish the fear that consumed me, as a writer and a human being. Then, on a whim (actually, at the suggestion of a very wise friend), I went to a meeting of a Siddha Yoga meditation group. I’d never had any predisposition for “religion” and, in fact, had found the whole ritual of church-Sunday school, etc. a cruel joke when I was a kid. However, almost within seconds of beginning to meditate in that setting, I discovered that I had this boundless capacity for wanting to go to the “light”. And, I suppose, we all have it, even the most wretched, fall-down drunk in the throes of a five-day bender (as per Jackson).
    Edward, thank you for the tutorial on Jackson’s other novels; I think your judgments coincide with what Bailey reveals in the biography.
    And to everyone else above, as they say in AA: Thanks for sharing!
    And this time I don’t say it with any hint of sarcasm in my voice.

  16. …some form of altering is
    …some form of altering is always taking place, the writing is a seperate entity. whatever one does to fuel life, or smother life, or concentrate is secondary. the output is the measure. the drunks connect with the drunks. the jacks connect with the jacks. the good looking chicks connect with the good looking chicks. it goes on and on, this need to associate. bukoski stickers should start poping up on bumpers. all great writers have one thing in common…they were disciplined enough at some point to cobble together some noteworthy and remembered output. it’s all a matter of taste anyway. gutter literature can be great reading, but the good writers are gutter dwellers…

  17. Yes and no. Tolstoy was a
    Yes and no. Tolstoy was a great writer, Mark Twain was a great writer; Wordsworth, Thoreau. Goya a great artist, and Degas. Can’t stereotype art or people. Sasha Cohen’s a rich kid.

    Writers who try to emulate Bukowski and Hunter Thomson are laughable. Same for Kurt Cobain, Keith Moon. That’s just dumb. To look for muse in booze and needles – is infantile. To shock people with tales from wino alley is passé to the back-burner. Some well-known magazines that specialized in that – aint around no mo’ (thank God).

    No, art is art. Got nothing to do with shock or gutter, per se. Like dogs have 4 legs, but all 4-legged critters aren’t dogs.

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