This is the book that I had been waiting for. This biography came out last year in time for Charles Bukowski’s 100th Birthday, August 16, 2020. It is a rewrite of Cherkovski’s 1990 book Hank: The Life of Charles Bukowski. It is updated as Hank (Charles Bukowski’s nickname) died in 1994.
Most people have heard of Bukowski and form polarizing opinions of him. He is either seen as a drunken, womanizing, slob and bum. Or as the King of the Streets and the working underclass. Especially the drinking kind. Like all of us, he was mostly somewhere in between the extremes that the world can see us as.
Cherkovski, a fine poet himself, was a friend of Hank’s and knew him well from the 1960’s until Hank’s death in 1994. He humanizes Hank and sees the wild man, but also sees the sensitive poet within. Hank was probably the most prolific poet ever. He lived to write. He often starved to write. The rest was just a rebellion against a phony society and abusive parents. His father beat him often with a razor strap and his mother offered no help. He also had really bad acne and was a total outcast in school. All of this oppression made one great poet with no pretensions except the one he created as himself, but he winks to let you in on it.
He began writing short stories, with very few getting published. Later he wrote poems that often were like short stories. He worked at the Post Office for about a decade. He was freed from that mental slavery and physical pain at age 50 by a publisher who paid him to just write. Since poetry doesn’t make a lot of money, Hank finished a novel in three weeks called Post Office. It is short and funny. He wrote five other novels and countless books of poetry. He endured the loneliness and solitude it takes to be a prolific writer. He starved for his art like few others.
So, read this book. Read his poems and novels. You will find he was a true philosopher of human nature, much like fellow Californian Eric Hoffer, but with poems.
This is a book that I found by accident, and being a person who writes and craves solitude, this was a must read. The author’s name sort of rang a bell, but I couldn’t place him. Later I found out that Johnson grew up in Kentucky and he teaches half of the year right down the street from where I work at Spaulding University.
Much to my surprise, I had much in common with the author. His great grandfather and I have the same name. His family was close to the monks at Gethsemani. I have visited and know two friends of Thomas Merton, their most famous monk. And I got to meet Merton’s secretary. Although I’m not Catholic, I have an affinity for the monks. Johnson and I both have spent long periods of our lives living alone. Fate had a hand in this for both of us. We both crave SILENCE! And Thoreau’s simplicity, too, as a direct rebellion against consumerism as happiness.
He quotes many of my favorite people, such as Van Gogh, Eudora Welty, Henry David Thoreau, Colin Wilson, Nietzsche, James Baldwin, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Virginia Woolf. Johnson is gay, and I am not, but that doesn’t really matter. We are both outsiders by nature and circumstance. Toward the end he goes into personal Queer experiences which I have no understanding of. But, I am truly grateful that they are getting the human rights and freedoms they deserve.
The French philosopher Blaise Pascal said it best, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone. So, go sit in a room alone and read At the Center of All Beauty. You’ll be glad you did.
– Reviewed by Tom, Main Library