Some 12 years ago, I submitted my first and only “professional” book review for a trade magazine. I doubt the author in question ever caught wind of it, but I was quietly positive. I was given $50 for the privilege, and allowed to keep the galley proofs. A week later, I got a phone call from my editor. The author had committed suicide, and for some obscure legal reason the publisher was asking for all the proofs to be returned.
This depressing little scene comes to mind after reading Michael Blowhard's appreciative appraisal of Charles Bukowski. “If Bukowski's short stories were given to English 101 classes to read, many more boys would become interested in literature than generally do,” says MB, and I wholeheartedly agree. Any young punk with an abundance of testosterone and a perceived shortage of luck will find “Buk's” poetry and prose immediately infectious. And as a happy consumer of said poetry and prose, I don't mind admitting it's possible Bukowski's spirit flits through and touches down in some of my own writing, as well.
HOWEVER ... I can't say I'm too broken up over the possible shortage of young dudes infected by the Bukowski lit-bug, because the young guy I almost reviewed was an outstanding example of someone who'd been a touch too infected. Prior to him, I'd befriended two others. All three of these guys (at different times) took out rooms in a hotel located within beer-can-tossing-range of the Scott Mission on Spadina Ave. They collected a sheaf of impressive “bovver boy” stories. And they eventually relocated from their seedy Spadina digs to the Queen Street Mental Ward, where they struggled to recover from alcohol induced depression.
Young guys and writin' – where does indulgence end and wisdom begin? If there is a dividing line, it's a difficult one to discern. But there is no mistaking a pup who's drowning in the distant end of the “wisdom” side. He's usually trembling in a chair and quoting Nietzsche to the nearest Candy-Striper.
I've been on the receiving end of these quotation sessions. They're quite an ordeal, especially when you care about the person in torment. When pushed, I might toss back a few quotes of my own (Dostoyevsky, for instance, understands where they're coming from), but mostly the best you can do is sit and nod, and silently hope your friend will regain an even keel and return to a more benign point of view.
Having christened myself after an alcoholic beverage, I certainly wouldn't forbid a feisty young lad from reading Bukowski – or Nietzsche, or Ayn Rand or any other chest-thumping yahoo with a flair for words. But I've also grasped for “praedjer”, or “preacher”, so I say go on and read Buk, but make it a point to seek out and read alternative writers with a capacity for the generous invitation.
When I was a pup, I was fortunate to be steered (by women) toward women writers with just such a gift: Madeleine L'Engle and Carol Shields in my early years; later it was Anne Lamott and Natalie Goldberg; more recently it's been Annie Dillard and (I'm going male, now, but he's significant and wholly unique among male writers) Czesław Miłosz.
I think these writers have one thing in common: they assert that the greatest risk a human being can take is committing to Love. You commit to it, you cultivate it, you even cast some of it upon the waters and hope for the best. When it returns to you, it will almost certainly take a form you never expected. If you're observant, you might just recognize it when it finally knocks on your door – but odds are you won't. Most of us don't even recognize the love in ourselves. But Love is there, regardless.
In the remote chance that some young punk with attitude could give a shit what I think, here's my nickel's worth of advice: be reckless on the page, but don't be afraid to invest a little care in your life.