Book Article

The Man From Agony Way

Legacy: Charles Bukwoski -- The hard-living poet leaves behind a legendary reputation and a collection of offbeat prose

Legacy: Charles Bukwoski

''Most people who try to live like (poet) Charles Bukowski would descend quickly into poverty, unemployment, insanity, and illness,'' says Roger Ebert. ''But he seemed to have ascended out of all that to literary acclaim, a happy marriage, and a wide circle of friends.'' Henry Charles Bukowski, who died of leukemia at 73 in Los Angeles March 9, led a wild life of red wine, scarlet women, fast horses, and swiftly typed, quite dirty confessional books. He inspired Tom Waits, Dennis Hopper, Mickey Rourke, Sean Penn, and director Barbet Schroeder, whose 1987 film Barfly immortalized Bukowski's low-rent persona.

In between his chronic boozing and frequent womanizing, Bukowski was a whorehouse guard, dog-biscuit baker, and post-office clerk who first won modest fame at 48 with the poetry collection At Terror Street and Agony Way. ''Bukowski wrote 50 books of yellow, blue, and purple prose poems,'' says U2 singer Bono. ''He had a face like a stray dog and a gravel voice.'' ''He did not know how to dress,'' says Rourke, ''but he sure could write.'' Ebert proclaims him an heir to Mark Twain: ''He wrote in the vernacular about ordinary people, yet with an enormous satirical bent. He was very funny; he was warm, not embittered.'' His second wife, Linda Lee Beighle, helped him drink less, but he was never intoxicated by success. As he told one of his editors a few years ago, ''It's all flash and shadow.''

Barfly (1987, Warner, R) Schroeder's film, modeled on the poet's most sodden days, was scripted by Bukowski himself.

Hollywood (1989, Black Sparrow Press) Bukowski's roman à clef about the making of Barfly.

Post Office (1971, Black Sparrow Press) Darkness and anarchy prevail in Bukowski's first novel, which deals with his years as a mail clerk.

Originally posted Mar 25, 1994 Published in issue #215 Mar 25, 1994 Order article reprints