The Short Version: Author Henry Chinaski is going to write a film – because why not? It’s about him, of course, and drinking – and this is the story of the creation of that film. It includes lots of drinking and, along the way, a film ends up being made.
The Review: A recent friend of mine (it sounds strange to say ‘recent friend’ – he’s a member of BookClub, brought to our ranks after we lost one of our founding members and he’s become a dear friend ever since) has extolled the virtues of Bukowski for a long time – as long as I’ve known him, I’d say. But something, and I don’t really know what it was, kept me from organically picking up one of his novels. I trust this friend’s taste (he’s an accomplished jazz composer and staggeringly intelligent) but I couldn’t make the jump because of some strange blockage in my mind, a preconception of just what a Bukowski novel would be.
How wonderful, then, to find those preconceptions absolutely destroyed over the course of less than 250 pages? Indeed (if I may indulge another moment of personal anecdote), my father has insisted that I give LA a try pretty much ever since I graduated from college and while I don’t think that I ever will (although I am overdue for a visit to California – 25 and never seen the Pacific? A tragedy.), I believe that for the first time I understand something of the city’s appeal thanks to this silly little novel.
Well, that sounds demeaning – it isn’t, but it’s also maybe the most accurate thing I can think to say. Thinly veiled, this is a roman à clef about the experience Bukowski had turning his novel Barfly into a film. Things are so thinly veiled that real people have hilarious fake names: like Werner Herzog becomes Wenner Zerzog. Idi Amin becomes Lido Mamin. And if that sort of thing doesn’t crack you up, well, then I’m sorry but there’s nothing for it: you are terminally without a sense of levity.
And Bukowski brings a certain existential lightness to the rest of the proceedings as well – nothing feels terribly serious here. The narration is similar – although decidedly not the same – to that of Hunter Thompson’s. Picture, even more specifically, that moment in the film adaptation of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas when they’re trying to get out of LA and “we were delayed en route when a Stingray killed a pedestrian in front of us.” The simple fact of the narration, blackly funny in its matter-of-factness, is what Bukowski’s whole novel sounds like. When they’re deep in the ghetto at a friend’s house, where black gang members seem to have infiltrated the house to the point that they can steal things without anyone noticing, it’s played almost for laughs: I recall, specifically, a moment when they talk about how the gang seems to be in the floors… and somebody taps a few times on the floor from underneath. It’s just a silly, strange moment and Bukowski plays it with a detached bemusement – as though this whole thing is more than he ever expected and as a result why shouldn’t he just sort of… enjoy himself?
More than anything, that’s the vibe I get from the novel: a sense of a man who outlasted expectations (in all ways – he mentions a few times how he was pretty much ‘meant’ to be dead years before and how Sarah is extending his life by a solid decade, but also the sense of becoming so ‘accepted’ that now people are making movies of his books) and now he’s really due nothing other than a good time. He can drink as much as he wants and when something good comes along, he’s happy to fly along with it – and if it goes south, well, it was fun while it lasted. There was a startling moment about 45 pages in, when I realized that Bukowski (I’m sorry, “Chinaski”, his alter ego) was in his 60s in the present tense action of the story but once I understand that… well, the whole novel clicked for me and we were rocketing off through the 200 or so further pages of story. If anything, I hope that I get to a point in my life when I can be so content with my circumstances – or at least that the story I tell myself is that I am that content.
I’ll admit that the story does go on a bit long at times – considering how he acknowledges the way bits of the story were changed between novel and film, I don’t think it would’ve hurt to do a bit more of that with the novel. Once the film is made (a more arduous journey than I think anyone expects), a sort of… not tension, but some sort of dramatic propulsion hisses out of the novel and its last pages are a little blah. Another party, another party, some more happiness in light of all the things – and while his reflections on this particular kind of fame are fascinating to see, the real money shot is the final lines, when Chinaski tells Sarah that he might write a book about the whole experience and Bukowski shatters the fourth wall with the last line of “And this is it.”
I mean, WHAAAAAAAAT?! An absolutely brilliant moment that, I swear to you, dear reader, made me put down the book and applaud. And while Hollywood doesn’t seem so terrible from Bukowski’s point of view here, I know it’s still a terrible place for someone like me to spend my life – but damned if he doesn’t make it sound not half bad. Now, if you’ll just pour me another drink, we can keep talking like this for hours…
Rating: 4 out of 5. Despite how deeply enjoyable I found the reading experience, I do wonder if there’s something a bit ephemeral about this one. Something that’ll fade relatively quickly, leaving me with solely the broad-sketch outline of “oh, yeah, Bukowski, he was fun” – which might be as much of a fallacy as whatever strange imagined version of him I was thinking of before I ever read any of his work. But the author is having fun in the way that someone who has earned it gets to have fun – and he spreads that joy in the pages of the book, letting those who might be receptive to it pick it up at whim. Have a drink or two while you read it – Hank Chinaski would approve.