SELF-PROCLAIMED GENIUSES who actually deliver are a rare commodity. No matter what you might say about writer Charles Bukowski--and there's a lot that might be said--the fact remains that he has had a deep influence on American writing in the second half of the century.
Bukowski's reputation as a bitter, nasty old man has flourished over the years (especially after being mass-marketed in 1987 in the semibiographical movie Barfly, starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway). An American writer born in Andernach, Germany, Bukowski was raised in Los Angeles and educated at the public library. People seem either to love or hate his particular version of the American dream, that of a self-made man who didn't work hard, drank himself into rages, worked at menial jobs (or had no job at all), and yet somehow managed to write consistently brilliant poems, novels, and stories.
Based on years of extensive interviews with hundreds of Bukowski's friends, family, lovers, drinking buddies, editors, and publishers, and informed by privileged access to several of Bukowski's private letters, Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life tells a story that sounds more plausible than the writer's usual mythology. The legend of a man whose genius shines through even when he's stinking drunk is of course appealing, but in Sounes's account, Bukowski worked night and day on his craft, and doggedly sent his work to potential publishers. He did not sit on his ass waiting to be discovered, despite what the Hollywood version would have you believe.
Proving himself to be an excellent author in his own right, Sounes manages to write without sticking his proverbial thumb all over the lens. All footnotes and annotations are relegated to the back of the book, and the main section takes the form of an involving narrative. In a brief author's note, Sounes explains that since Bukowski had such a colorful life, he felt no need to stop the story in order to "justify and explain every piece of information." In this spirit, Sounes lets Bukowski speak for himself where fitting, and he includes pertinent snatches of poems, prose, and quotes. The result is a fast-paced narrative and a great read, even if you don't know anything about--or care for--Bukowski the literary figure.
Given that Bukowski's excesses and foibles are already amply chronicled, perhaps the most surprising aspect of this biographer's achievement is to make Bukowski sound, well, fairly normal. Sounes demonstrates that Bukowski had a life more or less like anyone else's, filled with failed romances, marriages, a kid, brilliance, and stupidity. It's just that Bukowski was extraordinarily good at getting it all down on paper.