Fifteen years ago today, Charles Bukowski died. He was old and broken and leukemia ravaged his body, but almost to the end, he wrote—completing the novel Pulp shortly before he died. For a man who had spent so much of his life as a loser, he left behind a striking legacy: six novels, hundreds of short stories and thousands of poems, with 60 books in print at one point or another.
I had just turned 28 at the time, slouching toward the end of probably the most turbulent decade of my life (but, hey, it’s still early…) and I remember regarding his passing with almost casual acceptance. He had been an object of great interest to me in my younger years, not as a hero per se, but as a force, a looming figure who, like Hunter Thompson and William Burroughs, had forever transformed post-World War 2 literature, yet still traced his literary bloodline to past greats.
Even so, his death didn’t affect me at the time on any deep visceral level. He was 73 and had lived a hard life, so it was something of a miracle to me that he had lived as long as he had. For as long as I could remember, he’d been an old man.
But, as I’ve grown older myself—and become hyper-aware of the falling sands in the hour-glass—I’ve gone back and rediscovered a wealth of his work written in the later years of his life. His anger and energy were as vibrant in his 50s and 60s as they ever were in his earlier years. Toward the end of his life, he often reflected on his mortality, but the fight never ebbed:
well, they said it would come to
this: old, talent gone. fumbling for
hearing the dark
footsteps, I turn
look behind me…
not yet, old dog…
they sit talking about
me: “yes, it’s happened, he’s
“he never had a great deal, did
“well, no, but now…”
they are celebrating my demise
in taverns I no longer
I drink alone
at this malfunctioning
as the shadows assume
I fight the slow
lighting new cigarettes
it has been a beautiful
On March 9, 1994, Bukowski finally lost the fight. For the rest of us, the fight goes on.
It’s not everyone who can draw courage from such a flawed and often repulsive example.
But for me, it helps.