“Women” is the first book by Charles Bukowski I have read, though I am not unfamiliar with him. I have read a few of his poems and am familiar with his life and times. I have played audience to more than a few discussions (of various levels of civility) about him.
For those of you not familiar with Bukowski, he is known for being an unrepentant alcoholic and womanizer. His novels are auto-biographical in nature while still being classified as fiction. Needless to say, they are often unpopular with the sorts of people you would expect them to be unpopular with. Nonetheless, Bukowski enjoyed enough success to work full time as a writer in the last third of his life as well as enduring appeal following his death in 1994 at the age of 73.
It should go without saying that the work of an unrepentant (or perhaps even that of a repentant) boozer and horn dog is not for everyone. Of course no author appeals to anyone, but Bukowski is more polemic than most. But why the enduring appeal of a guy who most, even his fans, would label as an asshole?
Part of it is that Bukowski is, for better or worse, a regular guy. His success never went to his head. He wrote about everyday things: relationships, work, coping with both in success and failure. That he was an asshole is not the point, though no doubt that aspect of him has its fans, the other draw is, I think, the intimacy of his writing. He is not just unrepentant – that part is easy – he bares his life in “Women”. His drinking, his many and often overlapping relationships, his drinking, his one night stands, his drinking, his hangovers, his sexual failures (most of which seem to come from having drunk too much): all are on display.
“Women” is written from the point of view of the Bukowski doppelganger Henry Chinaski. Chinaski’s life is Bukowski’s, drinking, vomiting, seducing, being seduced, writing, and all. His sexual partners run the gamut. Some want more or less what he does – easy, no strings attached sex -, others to reform him, some seem to think they can have a sort of normal relationship with him, and a few more or less accept his inability to not try to sleep with the majority of women he meets. He recognizes that what he is doing hurts people and his own apparent powerlessness to stop doing it. He even expresses a wish to break the cycle.
If one wants, one can find a person with a decent heart in there. Certainly the naked honesty of it will appeal to many. Many will be able to identify with aspects of Chinaski’s life and those of his women.
I admit I struggled at times when reading this. No one should be surprised to hear that at times I succumbed to a sort of morbid fascination. How low could he go? How much would his latest girlfriend tolerate? Other times, I enjoyed it. And, finally, at others I was saddened by Chinaski. Chinaski, for all his occasional introspection, is an unrepentant asshole. I like a good anti-hero as much as the next person, but I think that for me there is too much anti and not enough hero in Chinaski.
Stylistically, I liked the book. I appreciate a spare writing style, and in case of Bukowski and his life, a lot of embellishment and flowery language would be difficult at best to make work well.
I have no general recommendation here. I would not recommend this book to many people. On the other hand, the book is not without merit, not unreadable. This point of this review then, is not enjoin or dissuade anyone to read “Women”, but to give them some information to use to make the decision themselves.