The “reputation” of Charles Bukowski’s Women (1979) is made by its layer of sexual encounters, which easily take the mainstay of the book’s 104 chapters. Bukowski’s semi-biographical persona, poet Henry Chinaski, has all kinds of sex with a cohort of all kinds of women – singly, except for that one threesome – and when not working himself up to enter, he is seen opening case after case from a wide assortment of booze. In fact, if Chinaski is to be taken seriously, booze is the one thing he would hold above sex. Of both, he has a copious share – the former, with better success.
Women is cynical and sardonic of everything that is middle class and mainstream. It denounces the values and the pretensions of that class, and it opens – like one opens a can – the very facetious and fake lifestyle that is thinly laid as “real”, by the shirt tucking, mild mannered, serviette folding middle class of post-war United States. The overdrive of sex and booze, at one level, is a normalization of and counter-statement to what the white middle class promotes as “acceptable”; while, at the same time, Chinaski’s very routine and style – living in an impoverished, unfashionable nook of downtown – forms its own rhythm and beat to life, where morality and deviance are re-assessed by their own cultural traffic.
Women was a pleasurable and enjoyable read. Bukowski’s characteristically boisterous and bawdy mind is in top gear. There is enough of the lewd, the racy and the grotesque, well infused with deeply meditative and contemplative moments. Chinaski’s own baseness in operating within and co-operating with the consumer world – where the “lowly poet Chinaski” is also a “typified” consumer product once thrown on stage – is well mapped with the nuances and complexes of a mind that knows “how to use” (the system), “while being used” (by the system). The text itself becomes a demonstration of how the art/artiste manipulates, while being manipulated. This, which is felt at every turn of the novel, becomes the more established point as the evolution of the text falls into momentum.
For instance, consider the sex and the booze – after chapter on chapter of these two recurrences, the reader, at a point, falls into the habit of expecting and anticipating that combination as a constant. The reader (the consumer), in other words, unconsciously forms a demand, which the writer keeps catering to across 103 chapters. But, simultaneously, by being a submitter to this want/demand, the writer (the one consumed) becomes straitjacketed within a creative space which is both his muffler and his salvation. He “gives” sex, but cannot go beyond the sex – he “lives” by this submission, but is stifled by the same.
Carl Muller, in a more real life sense, fell into and got trapped in this “moment” by the fourth book of his career as a published writer. The mould he offered with The Jam Fruit Tree (1992) – the bawdy humour, the slapstick drawn out of the Working Class Burgher, the sex and the perversity etc – became a “niche” that titillated the taste buds of his reader, and a titillation that he invested on to make his own as a writer, that by 1998 (by the time of Spit and Polish) Muller was fossilized into a flogger of an already ageing horse. In the interim, he had written Yakada Yaka and Once Upon a Tender Time, but the Von Bloss clay had stunted his growth. Throughout these works, Muller, I suggest, knew what the “demand” was, and kept feeding it – receiving his “salvation” (in silver), but being used as a machine that issues sausages at one end. I am using the example of Muller here for purposes of illustration – this trajectory is by no means a rare or unobvious one.
With Chinaski, sex and booze are not triumphs of the body. In fact, he drinks himself to disruption. In sex, his more consistent complain is his inconsistency and lack of erection. His “failure”, however, is the “success” we are in search of. We demand a different woman for every encounter, as we demand routine inability, for one satisfying encounter. With innocuous ease, Chinaski/Bukowski takes us on an introvert journey, making us finger our own middle class, male, heterosexual, sexual fantasies and fetishes. For that journey to succeed, it is mandatory Chinaski is an “outsider” of the middle class, residing the margins and corners which the middle class rejects. An analysis of Women will show that Chinaski fucks women without discrimination – from all classes, all walks and all states. But, where description and graphic detail is concerned, the “high end” woman – the “classy lay” – consumes greater space, and more sustained writer energy. The focus of Bukowski’s text being the satisfaction of the middle class, heterosexual male sexual ego requires this distinction of who should be fucked, with what tenacity and as to how.
When, in Chapter 104, Chinaski decides (as implied) to settle down with Sara (who, as it is often claimed, is his fictitious representation of Bukowski’s wife Linda), it is a predictable anti-climax/climax. The sex and the booze had by now (consciously or unconsciously) exhausted scope and imagination and things were getting increasingly mechanical and tedious, too. The mechine-like quality of some of these latter encounters can well be consciously and strategically done, with it being a real reflection of that demand/supply dynamic of which Chinaski/Bukowski and us/the reader are a conscious/unconscious part.
The “settlement” with Sara can also be the Bukowskian equivalent of the “gamos” – the end resolve – we find in Classical Comedy: which is essentially a mainstream insert. It is simultaneously the “desired end” from the view of a mainstream middle class perspective – in the way sex, drugs and rock and roll are expected to end in marriage. That settlement between Sara and Chinaski, therefore, is more than a conveniently strategic “Euripidean exit”. It is the cheeky give away of the writer’s game of toying with the middle class reader conscience – the leaving behind of a shred of evidence, as the criminal vacates the crime scene.