I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Barfly: Charles Bukowski’s American Dream

by Tom Winkelspecht

Bukowski is a liar. The Poet Laureate of Skid Row built a career out of scorning the American Dream. For the scorn he purports, Bukowski and alter-ego Henry Chinaski (played by a young Mickey Rourke in Barfly) are often outfitted with the title of rebel, lauded for refusing to buy into the rat race. He is, according to literary editor Tim Green of Rattle, “...as phony as someone who’d change his name to Bono.” Yet, despite what his carefully constructed reputation might indicate, Bukowski is actually slavishly devoted to the American Dream.

The deception isn’t in Bukowski. The deception lies in the understanding of the Dream. To be sure, Bukowski’s dream is not the Rockwell vision of a pleasantly proportioned family sharing a meal or listening obediently to the police. Rather, it is the American Dream of easy violence, soft living and unwarranted sympathy.

Barfly follows a barely-fictionalized Bukowski as he chases after his vision of the American lifestyle. Our hero lives the way small boys think men act. Chinaski brawls in alleyways, picks up strange women, and kicks in doors. It seems like a fun life and the film paints it as daring in its abandon. These actions serve to remind us that our protagonist is so very different from all the rest of us. The movie is childishly assured of Bukowski’s talents and of Bukowski’s personal vision of the American way. Money comes without explanation when needed. Lady publishers of literary magazines simply desire him, both for professional and physical reasons. He is allowed the right to be crude and crass to almost everyone.

Yet, through the film we get to experience the most irritating aspect of Buk’s American Dream: the sense of entitlement. He feels he is owed money for his precious writings. He feels he is owed sympathy when lying beaten. He feels he is owed the opportunity to enact revenge on the man who beat him – all this despite having instigated the fight.

One of the first of several attempts to commit Bukowski to film, Barfly is full of the sort of unthinking self-indulgence that comprises Bukowski’s sense of American entitlement. His character can harass prostitutes and stab neighbors with impunity. Chinaski is unquestioningly allowed to reprimand a woman who promised him no loyalty. He becomes genuinely surprised by anger and hurt feelings when the situation is reversed. At best, Barfly props up bad habits as heroics and at worst, the film reaffirms a sense of otherness and the all too well known reverence of celebrity.

The movie stays true to the main points of the Bukowski mythos: the alcoholism, the lack of interest in gainful employment, the casual disdain of hygiene and women. Nor does Barfly shy away from Bukowski’s attempts at poetry and profundity. At the base of the film, we are left with an overgrown frat boy who tries to balance a few scraps of literature with a life of boorishness.

Perhaps it seems unfair to disallow Bukowski his personal interpretation of America. Everyone has their own. My problem lies in the way Bukowski hides his American Dream. Rather than acknowledging that carousing is all he wants in life, Bukowski’s aptitude for debauchment is packaged as reactive, as a protest to anyone bold enough to suggest he may be expected to pay rent or hold down a job. Maybe he is afraid of simply being another bum. If so, then it is vanity that leads Bukwoski to disguise his habits as a Dionysian defiance in the face of a traditional value structure; one that was looking frayed around the edges by the time he got to it. He is about as risky as a cat liking milk.

This reduces Barfly to an effective exercise in image and brand management. The film marketed, like much of Bukowski’s work, as autobiographical misses a chance to actually examine the man. Instead, the film settles for continuing the Bukowski/Chinaski mythos. Which, you should admit, seems like a cagey business move coming from a man who seemed hell-bent on convincing everyone he didn’t give a shit about the world around him. We cannot, though, fairly expect an unbiased look at Bukowski from the film, written as it is by the man himself.

It seems very fitting that Barfly was made on a relatively small budget; that it did not enjoy much of a run in the theaters; that the dvd copies are expensive, and few and far between. I feel like nothing would have pleased Bukowski more, that the cult status of the film only solidifies his reputation as a man beyond the pale. What a pity that it is all simple calculation.

1 The Bukowski Myth

Tom Winkelspecht lives in New Jersey. He is currently in a creative writing graduate program.  The rest of his time is spent between watching movies, plotting his return to Chicago, and writing. He can be found in the usual places: Tumblr and Twitter.