Beacons, Muses and Literary Heroes

Cover for "The Dirty Realism Duo: Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver on the Aesthetics of the Ugly" by Michael Hemmingson published by Borgo Press in 2008

Raymond Carver never taught Charles Bukowski a lick. I, on the writing hand, am guided by these dead writers, these gifted, troubled souls. What links me to them, you ask? Profound simplicity. Graphic, disturbing realism. Life.

Connected, our thoughts travel a course designed to enlighten, enrich and empower. I am whole through their works. I see life for what it is, what it claims to be and what it denies. I understand human nature a little better each time I read their words. It is not a cosmic exchange; it is a lesson in the ways of a battered, resilient world. It is a dialogue between coarse, ordinary flawed everyday people. It is struggle. Strife. Sometimes too painful to absorb – too depressing, but often just the opposite.

The pain of life, along with truth, is undeniably real and sometimes requires armor. Through these masters of the tongue we grow and are taught to remember the soft spots, the chinks. These are the lessons.

Bukowski knew what it was to be hungry, pathetic and even to a degree, given his heavy drinking, lame. He also knew hard work – brutal, ugly, loathsome duties that demean and dishonor a man and all of his capabilities. That’s not to say there is no honor in hard work. There is honor, especially in perseverance, but alas, glory is never certain. Nor reward. Nor justice.

In a meat factory, you are not treated with decency. There is no humanity. You earn respect by surviving and showing up again the next shift to sweat and slave for little more than cigarette money. A man who experiences this atrocity firsthand is hard-pressed not to detest life, hard-pressed not to self-destruct under the strains of physical agony, hard-pressed not to buckle under to the mental anguish and monotony.

Charles Bukowski, courtesy of

Bukowski broke his balls to pay rent and eat, and we benefited. Buk was a beaten man but not a broken one. He saw the ugliness in both people and life, and to stay sane, he wrote about it. Now whether a man who lived like a beast in the bowels of an existential hell could be considered sane is more a question of society’s so-called perceptions, contrived allowances and conventions than a reflection of a man driven to rant, resist and regurgitate.

Some would call Bukowski an intellectual lightweight compared to Carver. If so, who cares? Hank fed his philosophies to the downtrodden in lumps of dog meat. Barely palatable but substantial enough to sustain life. To stimulate thought, entertain, appall … He asked little of his reader’s involvement; he served the plate cold on the ground underneath trash in an alleyway spoiled, and well, unappetizing but always with a pungent taste. One that stayed in the mouth long after the last beer was drunk, the last whore was laid or the last punch was landed. He was essential to the working class – a knuckle-bearing hero who wore blood on his sleeve with a face that only a sinner could love. Society created the need for Charles Bukowski and he did not disappoint.

Raymond Carver, courtesy of Georgetown University

In Raymond Carver’s final days, Chekhov was his muse, his reason for wanting to selflessly share insights despite his illness. He saw hope in Chekhov’s tragedies.

Carver’s works are effective and incisive because of their understated vigor. The lives he interweaves are not brilliant but illuminating. The shadows do not mask the meaning; the shadows underline the characters. Despite their usual unwillingness to be candid, his characters reveal more than just fat to be trimmed – and we, as Carver elegantly insists, are mirror images.

Carver represents a different galaxy than Bukowski but much like the paradox of life, it is one in the same light. We cannot help but be connected. We, with all of our divisions and classes, cannot avoid our sameness. Our likeness.

Bukowski wrote of despicable, wretched uneducated boobs; Carver wrote of the hypocritical middle class. They are unequivocally linked, as is a Rhodes scholar to a dishwasher. Again, one in the same spectrum. People who hurt, people who desire, people who conform, people who disagree. Politics and politicians have no place in either world. People who bleed depend ultimately on other people who bleed. Superficiality exists only to demonstrate the moral.

Where Carver chose subtlety, Bukowski used a brick. Where Ray wielded a paring knife and civilized, trained prose, Hank brandished a machete and spoke an unsophisticated language with a long-ass litany of profanity.

Where Carver was tender, Buk was raw. Where Ray danced, Hank trampled. Where Ray hummed “Rock-a-bye Baby,” Hank screamed “bloody murder.”

There is no right or wrong method. One is not better than the other.

Neither author patronized. Neither minced words. Neither lied.

These two celebrated writers invoke passion and reflection. These two gifted souls sit and soar, scarred and inextricably handcuffed, in the eternal den and open air of writers.

Unforgiving imbibers, rascals of literary genius, their nicks and divots left deep marks on the face of a minority while they bruised and bled for all of humanity.

And scribes of this hellbent stature, well, they never teach each other a lick. Even if they rely on their irreverent peers and holier-than-thou critics as much as skunk trappers depend on their noses.

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