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August 22, 2014

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Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook: Uncollected Stories and Essays, 1944-1990

by Charles Bukowski. City Lights, $16.95

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The pillars of his life, as Charles Bukowski saw it, were elemental: “Poetry, paint, sand, whores,” he writes in the title polemic of this new volume of uncollected writings, adding, for good measure; “food, fire, death, bullshit … the turning of the fan … the bottle.”

In a literary climate where it is assumed writing can be taught and networking Helps Your Career, this unholy assemblage of influences has become an almost refreshing creative counter-mantra—and yet it is also a cliché. Prolonged exposure to its twisted logic can be invigorating and boring, which is what it’s like to pick through this grab-bag volume. On one page there is the sparkle of Bukowski’s genius; on the next there’s the self-pitying melancholy of a man weathering a perpetual hangover.

A diet of wine and literary and romantic rejection is certain to embitter a man—and in truth Bukowski took it better than most. While lesser poets’ careers ascended, he kept writing, furiously, and griped from the sidelines about the system that kept him so long on the sidelines. Wine-Stained Notebook contains an interesting mix of these observational rifts, plus cultural and political essays, like the standout “Should We Burn Uncle Sam’s Ass,” which makes for an interesting reminder as people anticipate an Obama presidency. “Have a definite program,” he advises radicals in the late ’60s, “so if you DO win you will have a suitable and decent form of government.”

In one amusing essay, he describes taking a creative-writing class. He opened his mouth once, to say, “It’s all crap ... everything that has been said in this room is crap,” adding, to the reader, “and that was the best poem of the semester.”

Bukowski was far more than a blowhard and a bully, even if he had an idea of women that hailed from the 12th century. He cared deeply about the urgency and the truth of art, and he knew even the most talented writers could connect with that essence rarely. In this sense, Bukowski’s posthumous career has done him a mixed blessing. More than a dozen books have been issued by his estate since he died in 1994. Like all writers, Bukowski wrote a lot, and now we have almost all of him—the good, the bad, the ugly, the profane and the profound. To which we add this—a volume of rants and screeds and occasional stories, a taste of the gritty soil from which this massive and singular oeuvre grew.

John Freeman is finishing a book on the tyranny of e-mail.

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