Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Slouching Toward Nirvana

Slouching Toward Nirvana, Charles Bukowski
Read: 28 May to 30 May 2012
5 / 5 stars

Bukowski nearing life’s end zone is the celebrity I’d go to dinner with in that one hypothetical exercise. Seeing him, mainly through the lens of his writings with a few supplemental perspectives of movie adaptations, biographical sources and the rare treat of a filmed poetry reading, through the decades and how the suicidally volatile drunk becomes a casually disgruntled older guy whose patience for bullshit is as hearty as his aged-beyond-its-years liver is just a fascinating character study. Brutal, unflinching honesty is the constant force that propels the staggering poet through volume after volume of novels, poems, short stories and raving observations, and it’s an honesty that proves Bukowski is far braver than his legendary drunkenness implies.

He’s still writing about racetracks but it’s nostalgic now, like he goes to remember what it was like to be that desperate, to cling to his bets like a liferaft. There’s a sheepishness in his tone now, as if he knows that his scraps of fame (which he alludes to with convincing amusement) render his former worries obsolete and to write about them would be unforgivably artificial, and he mirrors the inevitable change in his lifestyle with a natural shift in his writing: Bukowski was strutting his taste for irony both before it was cool and better than anyone since.

There's something laid-back and (dare I say) almost upbeat in this collection that's unusual for Bukowski; it's unusual but neither an insincere nor unwelcome deviation from the hot-blooded output of the poet's earlier days. He explores unexpected terrain -- a visit to the beach, a young girl at the dentist -- and offers up tales of lives that are much sadder than his with a poignancy that screams of learned understanding.

For as hesitantly optimistic as this collection could be, there is a resonating sadness to be found in it. Buk himself seems content as long as he's writing -- much of his youthful anger seemed to stem from not being able to write for one reason or another -- but is sad for humanity. As a man who has put the whole of himself on display through his writing, leaving him with nothing left to hide his lesser qualities behind, it seemed like he pitied those who chose to wander through life with their eyes closed.

Bukowski blends those opposing forces of peaceful contentment with his own path and empathetic sorrow for everyone else to much success. I alternately laughed out loud at some of these poems while I'd reread entire stanzas over and over to make sure that someone else, even if for a few fleeting seconds, understands that there's beauty to be found even when an entire world is collapsing.

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