HOT WATER MUSIC
The writer Percy Shelly called Obscenity “blasphemy against the divine beauty in life” but the film director Roman Polanski said rather “You have to show violence the way it is. If you don’t show it realistically, then that’s immoral and harmful. If you don’t upset people, then THAT’s obscenity.” Bukowski said “You will eat, sleep, fuck, piss, shit, clothe yourself, walk around and bitch.”
These days people watch more films than they read books, and those stories are growing more and more obscene. But the ugliness one finds in a written story is a very different experience than in a film, as the written word needs to effectively evoke an image that isn’t there. Anybody can use words to tell a story. A great author carefully constructs the IMAGES that do the storytelling.
While romanticizing suffering has been a steady theme since the printing press was invented, only a very few talented writers have made suffering an attractive career move. Jack London, Herman Melville, Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, William Burrows, Hunter Thompson and Chuck Palahniuk are all in a class by themselves because they had fine-tuned that very specific skill set of constructing the obscene in thrilling ways. They were adventurers and discoverers. They took you beyond your mundane humdrum planned existence to explore the mysteries of the perversely dangerous and dangerously perverse. Charles Bukowski fits into that group. But he doesn’t JUST fit into that group. In a few very unique ways he’s gone beyond the action/adventure or dark underworld of the rest of the others and added new skills to the mix.
The first of these skills, that’s enough to confound many writers, is his ability to evoke his images in so few words. Most great fiction authors talk on and on, trying to impress you with their choice of colorful words. With Bukowski it’s important that the way the story’s told be very specific. NOBODY takes the old adage “don’t tell what you can show” more seriously. What’s going on in these stories is much more than what’s being said. Bukowski is a very effective minimalist. His sentences are short and tell you a lot about the environment without mentioning it. All writers will go through a phase where they think they can make something better by just being obscure and using colorful words. Sadly, many of them will never realize the horseshit they’ve just stepped into. To some, words are like cocaine, fun and worth dying for. Bukowski would only die for a drink.
The second skill Bukowski has over everyone else is his arrogant pride. As violent and cruel as his worlds were, they were the love of his life. Most people wouldn’t want his life, but seen through his eyes we can appreciate his affection for it. He sees romance, humor, beauty and ugliness, desperation and comfort, love and hate, good and evil, the cruel and the caring in his life. HIS adventures and underworld aren’t just glimpses into an alternative universe where ultra-large events change the world or one’s perspective of it. His world is like ours, but in a different much more miserable and funny place. His character doesn’t fight wars or giant whales. He just does things in a more obviously self-serving way than the rest of us. It’s pretty simple, his world is attractive because he throws caution to the wind where the rest of us are so politically correct that we don’t even notice our programming.
HOT WATER MUSIC is a goldmine of short stories, but it’s by far my favorite of his. His usual alter-ego and main character is Bukowski with a different name; an angry, ugly, mean, dirty, old vicious drunk who abuses his girlfriends, (who can also be mean, ugly, dirty and old), and everyone else around him. He’s his own man. He’s a rebel, rebelling against us, and he keeps finding himself in worse straights because he and his developed characters don’t care what anybody else thinks. The antagonist in much fiction is an underdeveloped character. Evil is just evil, without any explanation. In Bukowski’s stories the antagonist’s are the GOOD people. It’s the intellectuals and cultured people with ethics in everyday life that are one dimensional. With Bukowski everything is turned around.
In his first story, Less Delicate Than The Locust, his hero and best friend are famous entitled alcoholic painters who molest their girlfriends under the table at a restaurant, attack and break the kneecap of a fan on their way there and beat the waiter unconscious before they leave without paying. The senseless violence and bad judgement on the part of his main characters are so extreme and constant that you just have to let it happen and laugh, (and IT IS really funny…..and true to form, adventurous). And so begins the book with one drunken episode after another. In another of my favorites he nearly cuts off his penis trying to masturbate with a broken vase.
“Find what you love, and let it kill you.” Charles Bukowski
Bukowski IS obscenity incarnate. He’s almost always either talking about sex or alcohol, and not in good ways. Bukowski’s sex isn’t sexy sex. It’s on par with shitting or pissing. You would never hire him to write erotica. Instead he’s just a brilliant minimalist story teller and dirty old man that writes about his own tiny miserable corner of the world that he loves so much so you can step out of yours. In my opinion, there’s no better way to get acquainted with Bukowski than by reading a book his short stories………and HOT WATER MUSIC is by far the best of those. Let it kill you. You may end up dead, but you won’t be sorry.
Review by Wayne Nirenberg