Friday, October 1, 2010

Review of South of No North by Charles Bukowski (Black Sparrow Press, 1972)

A colleague lent me a copy of this collection of 27 short stories packed into 189 pages as an example of how to write in the short form. His view is that my short stories have too much dialogue and not enough prose, and in his opinion, Bukowski manages to be dialogue heavy whilst also having weighty, meaty prose that give substance to the stories. And on my reading, it’s difficult to disagree with him. Bukowski’s prose is indeed rich, whilst still maintaining a show rather than tell style, and there is much to admire in the writing. His short stories are often only a thousand words or so, but are vivid and engaging, and it’s clear why Time magazine labelled him the ‘laureate of American low life’. And even though the stories in South of No North clearly relate to his own life, especially those focused on Henry Chinaski (his childhood acne, his chronic alcoholism, his endless succession of jobs, his movement between cheap rooming houses, his womanising, his experience of writing, his marriage to a Texan poet despite having never met, his time in hospital), they are also, it has to be said, quite troubling. Through his writing he comes across as a full-blown misogynist, with women acting purely as sexual objects. There are three ways to a woman’s heart in Bukowski’s writing – ply them with drink (preferably a fifth of whiskey), just walk right up to them and kiss them, or rape them. In all three cases they will instantly fall in love with you, dump (or kill) their present boyfriend, and leap in bed with you until they realise that you are the bastard that they always knew you were. Queue big argument, storm out, five minutes of feeling sorry for one’s self, and then stealing the next woman to come along. That said, there is much to envy in Bukowski’s writing prowess and prose. So, yes, his writing style and craft is something to work towards, and his noir sensibilities, but not, I feel, some of the stories and their worldview.


Todd Mason said...

An interesting writer, to say the least...and definitely one not to emulate in the personal sphere!

Evan Lewis said...

Surely do sound worth a look.