May 21, 2020
At certain times in my life, when I feel blue or lonely or otherwise in a funk, I turn to the writings of the American writer Charles Bukowski, (1920 - 1994), the perennial outsider and outcast. Sometimes they help, but sometimes they simply reinforce a mood. "Tales of Ordinary Madness", a volume of short stories, did something of both. This collection of 34 short stories and vignettes is tough, raw, crude, and violent. It startled me, even though I have familiarity with Bukowski's novels and poetry and with the short stories collected in the book "South of No North." The "ordinary madness" stories are by the same hand and explore the same themes, but Bukowski's other books did not fully prepare me for them.
The book was part of a longer collection of stories published in 1972 which, in 1982, was split up and made into two collections. The stories were originally published in magazines, including adult magazines, and newspapers, although the specifics remain unmentioned in this volume. In addition, these stories were not published by John Martin and Black Sparrow Press, Bukowski's usual publisher, but by City Lights Books. A movie titled "Tales of Ordinary Madness" directed by the Italy's Marco Ferrerri and based upon some of the stories in this and the companion volume appeared in 1981.
Most of Bukowski's other works are written in short, simple, mostly clear sentences. Not so with these stories. Bukowski writes at times in a stream-of-consciousness, "spontaneous prose" style. The sentences go on and on, full of ranting and raving. The story lines as well frequently wander off in a variety of directions making them difficult to follow.
Set in the skid rows of Los Angeles, these stories are extreme. They have a claustrophobic, jarring feel. The stories are set in jails, institutions, rooming houses, the poor streets, the racetrack. The characters are mad and tormented, but recognizable. The word "ordinary" in the title suggests that life frequently has the character displayed in these stories, perhaps in varying guises, regardless of location, education, or economic class. The stories are full of violence, crude sex, excretions, alcohol and drugs, crime, alienation, and death. Some of the stories are more overtly philosophical that Bukowski's other writings, as the stories discuss for many pages Bukowski's thoughts on literature and poetry.
Many of the stories are autobiographical with the primary character identified as "Charles Bukowski." One story uses a Bukowski stand-in named Dan Skorski. Henry Chinaski does not appear in these tales. Several of the stories include tender moments especially as they relate to the Bukowski character's relationship with his young daughter. A number of stories describe Bukowski's experiences in reading his poetry at universities, while one story recounts how Bukowski was found ineligible for the military service in WW II. Some of the better stories in this collection describe Bukowski's experiences at the racetrack. These stories of horse racing, betting, and the frequenters of the sport have a freshness to them and a feeling of first hand experience. An assortment of losers, loners, and drifters frequent these stories. Oddly, several of these stories include as a character a young rabbinical student, said to be an admirer of the author's writing. Many of the stories, and scenes in the stories, are garish and lurid. It would be no shame to be uncomfortable with them.
This is a mixed collection, as in typical with Bukowski, including much tough good material together with considerable sections that are disturbing or just bad. It is a book for moods and moments, not for everyone and not every day fare. Readers fascinated with Bukowski should read it.