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Vol.3. No. 4. July - September 2010





Afam Akeh
Andy Willoughby
Claire Girvan
Christian Ward
Derek Adams
Esiaba Irobi
Hannah Lowe
Hunter Liguore
Ikechukwu Obialo Azuonye
Karunamay Sinha
Kate Horsley
Laura Solomon
Lookman Sanusi
Malcolm Bray
Mark Lewis
Moa-Aaricia Lindunger
N Quentin Woolf
Nina Romano
Nnorom Azuonye
Norbert O. Eze
Olu Oguibe
Pius Adesanmi
Robert Lee Frazier
Toyin Adepoju
Uche Nduka
Wayne Scheer
Zino Asalor



Edited by

N Quentin Woolf



Title: Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life
Author: Howard Sounes
Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd (14 January 2010)

Paperback: 320 pages


When Bukowski met Bukowski

N Quentin Woolf

As I turned the pages of the review copy of Locked In The Arms Of A Crazy Life, Howard Sounes’ biography of Charles Bukowski, I started to get uncomfortable. This was not merely the effect of that insubordinate spring in the seat of my armchair (I’d have gotten it seen to ages ago were it not so effective at keeping me awake during a dull book), but mainly a discomfort with what I was reading, and mostly with the growing suspicion that I was meant to be admiring the biography’s subject. With Bukowski, this isn’t an easy position to take, but in any case the unusual relationship between biographer and biographee here made it seem not just inappropriate to admire Buk, but positively wrong. In some places, I felt I was being hoodwinked. In others, I felt a stabbing pain in my left buttock, but that was the spring again.

Let’s get the preliminaries out of the way. I enjoyed this book. The story it tells is half Chaplinesque struggle for survival and half drink-addled near-disaster. It made me turn its pages and it stopped me from putting it down unless I had very good, extra-bibliographic reason for doing so. Even the spring didn’t distract. The characterisation of the figures within it was vivid and tangible. Even despite of the merging of layers of reality that seems to have been the trademark of Bukowski’s life, as well as the superabundance of people called Linda, thanks to Sounes’ clarity of depiction it was easy enough, for the most part, to follow who was who among the tangled cast of dramatis personae and relevance of each to the Bukowski story.

The figure of Bukowski – author of six novels, one screenplay, many short stories and crate after crate full of poetry – came across as an unreconstructed, macho male whose honesty was brutal and who needed booze like he needed air. ‘Hemingway with a sense of humour’, would have been a description that would not have displeased old Hank. So far so good.


Of course, we readers are warned off judging books by their covers; and, fittingly, the manner in which books should be bound and presented is a concern that repeatedly surfaces throughout the text, including in the prologue.


Mr Sounes is at pains to point out that the predominance of yellow in the jacket design is no accident: it was Bukowski’s favourite colour. The cover photo of Buk, ill-favoured and startling (more mafia don than poet), shows him wearing a yellow shirt, and the sleeve is yellow too. The ungainly title of the book is meant to be the sort of title Bukowski (or, more accurately, his publisher John Martin), might have bestowed upon the volume.

Already, there’s the suspicion that we’ve drifted from impartial account to tribute. Sounes goes on to say that, despite being an Englander, he’s adopted American spelling and phrasing and uses idiomatic terms that Bukowski would have employed, in order that the subject’s voice shouldn’t jar against that of the biographer, and ‘like Bukowski’, Sounes uses short, simple sentences and brief chapters.

It would be easy enough, as reader, to acquiesce and plough on, but wait a minute – what’s that, Howard? You’re aping the style of the person you’re writing about? Isn’t there something rather embarrassing about that? Aside from the argument that by contrasting the narrator’s style with the voice of the biographical subject one can accentuate both, since when did I need the writer’s voice to mimic his subject? If, say, Peter Ackroyd, writing about the East End of London, were suddenly to come over all gor’-blimey-guvnor, I’d surely wince. Would this be a technique you’d ever dream of employing were there a racial divide between subject and biographer?

Moreover, Sounes bans source notes until the end of the book, so as not to interrupt the flow of the narrative, and he says ‘one of the most pleasing reviews came when a critic in the magazine Deluxe wrote that Lost In The Arms Of A Crazy Life reads like a great lost Bukowski novel’.’ All a bit rum, no? To what extent is this book biography, and to what extent pastiche? Sounes admits that he became obsessed with Bukowski, regarding his day job with the same dreary eye Buk did, and tossing it in with a flourish in much the same way, several chapters later, as Buk is described as having done. On his way to meet Buk’s ex, to whom Sounes is clearly drawn personally, as well as professionally, he eats ‘a Bukowskian meal of a steak dinner, washed down with many drinks (curiously, I had started to copy Bukowski’s personal habits)’. All put together, this modus operandi seems cuckooish. I began to conceive of Sounes as a stalker, rather than a personal historian, the sort who might change his name to Charles Bukowski and bid for his hero’s bed if it came up at auction. The thoroughness of the excellent selection of photographs in the book, many taken by Sounes himself, now seemed like evidence of something sinister.

See, the trouble with using this approach to biography (making a biography look like a novel) in relation to this particular writer is that Bukowski himself spent his whole life churning out literature that was right on the line between fact and falsehood, stretching the definition of fiction in the manner of a juvenile creative writing student who fails to disguise the fact that they’re finessing reality rather than imagining anything new.

Writing a biography of Charles Bukowski must be an unrewarding task – Bukowski has done it all already. Consider the broad strokes: Henry Charles Bukowski is a charismatic, hard-drinking, boorish womaniser with a blue collar and a literary bent. When he writes, he writes the character of a hard-drinking, boorish womaniser with a blue collar and a literary bent, but in a fiendish masterstroke of concealment he changes the name of the protagonist to Henry Chinaski. As this book shows, the population of his six novels is real people in scanty camouflage, doing things they did in real life, more-or-less, in the same places, and renamed in such a way that it doesn’t take a literary Holmes to discover who’s who. Girlfriend Linda, for example, becomes, in the text, girlfriend Lydia. Physical characteristics and personal circumstances are imported wholesale. The situations Bukowski writes – from instances of love-making to all-details-great-and-small of menial jobs – are close facsimiles of what really happened. Sounes says that one of the reasons that he felt compelled to write this book is precisely because of this closeness between fact and fiction – he felt readers wanted to know the truth of what had happened. But his approach is to start behaving like Bukowski and writing like Bukowski, resulting in a book about Bukowski’s experiences that, despite being biographical, gains accolades for seeming to be a novel, which is surely what Buk himself was doing. Is this normal? One cannot quite picture Lytton Strachey dragging up as Florence Nightingale and wandering around Scutari with a lamp in order to write Eminent Victorians, and, to my knowledge, Bill Bryson attempted to compose Shakespeare in neither fourteen line stanzas nor dramatic verse. Imitation is flattery writ large – of course it is. Sounes isn’t merely recording Bukowski’s life: he’s celebrating it.

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N Quentin Woolf is a London-based writer, arts broadcaster and creative writing coach. He chairs several successful critique groups, a book group for young professionals and teaches creative writing to new writers, as well as running a calendar of literary events. His recent writing acceptances/credits include several short pieces for the stage, local interest pieces for several regional publications, short stories for a number of literary magazines and literary criticism for an arts-based magazine.


Grab your copies of The Pleasures of the Damned and Locked in the arms of a crazy life.

(A great way of supporting SLQ)




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