Tag Archives: US literature

‘At Terror Street and Agony Way’ by Charles Bukowski

When it was decided that ‘The YEAR Club’ would be reading books from 1968 I thought it would give me a chance to revisit an old favourite author of mine, Charles Bukowski. In the past I had read many of his books consisting of novels, short-stories and poems. But looking at his output from 1968 reveals only two chapbooks of poetry, both with superb titles, At Terror Street and Agony Way and Poems Writtten Before Jumping Out of an 8 Story Window, neither of which I had read before but both of which are relatively difficult, and therefore expensive, to buy. I did briefly consider buying a copy of ‘8 Story Window’, partly due to the cover, but my natural stinginess kicked in and I realised that most of the poems from ‘Terror Street’ were contained in the two, relatively cheap, kindle editions of Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame and The Roominghouse Madrigals; so I have cheated a little bit by reading from these collections rather than the original.

For the record ‘Terror Street’ contains forty-three poems, of which twenty-eight are in ‘Burning in Water’ and another nine are in ‘Roominghouse Madrigals’. Why the collections don’t contain all the poems from the original chapbooks is not mentioned in the introductions. In Bukowski’s introduction to ‘Burning in Water’ he mentions that the only copy of the poems in ‘Terror Street’ had been thrown away after making a tape recording of them. They later had to be transcribed from the recording before being published in 1968. The poems were written between 1965 and 1968.

It is fair to say that Bukowski splits opinion; it’s true that he is coarse, sexist, brutal and many more things besides, but he’s not these things all of the time and he can, and does, share more tender, intellectual and thoughtful moments. What initially attracted me to his writing was his brutal honesty, his indifference to much of life and his ‘fuck-you’ attitude. Bukowski was of the Beat generation and became popular with the hippy generation but his attitude was probably closer, in some ways, to the punk generation; Bukowski, however, didn’t identify with any movements and was quite happy to be a loner, in fact I think he revelled in his loner status and loved to incite hatred from people, or at least some sort of reaction.

I don’t read or understand much poetry so I’m totally unaware as to how Bukowski’s poetry compares to other poems but I suspect that it’s not favourable. Although I prefer his prose, his poems have an immediacy that makes them fun to read. He would have liked us to believe that he wrote most of them whilst drunk or drinking and, knowing a little of Bukowski, I believe this is probably true, at least until his later life. His casually wanton and crude manner aligns him in some ways with the punk ethos of producing an immediate, punchy, uninhibited, low-brow art form rather than some elegantly crafted work that only a few literary professors can understand.

A lot of his poems and prose is about drinking, fighting, going to the races, having sex with prostitutes, arguing with landladies, working crappy jobs etc. But some of his poems are about everyday events such as sleeping, getting dressed, going to the shops. Here is the beginning of the poem on going out to get the mail:

the droll noon
where squadrons of worms creep up like
stripteasers
to be raped by blackbirds.
I go outside
and all up and down the street
the green armies shoot color
like an everlasting 4th of July,
and I too seem to swell inside,
a kind of unknown bursting, a
feeling, perhaps, that there isn’t any
enemy
anywhere.

The poem living covers a similar domestic event where Bukowski has spent the whole day sleeping, enjoying not having to go to work or do anything at all. Eventually, though, he has to rouse himself:

and I had to get up and go to the urinal
and I hated to get up and go to the urinal
because somebody had thrown paper, some loser had thrown paper
into the toilet again and it wouldn’t
flush, and when I came back out
everybody had nothing to do but look at my
face
and I am so tired
that they know when they see my face
that I hate
them
and then they hate me
and want to
kill me
but don’t.

Here’s a poem, called the flower lover from the collection that’s a bit different from the others, but it still contains his grim sense of humour. Bukoswski is very often quite funny. Anyway, here’s the poem in full:

in the Valkerie Mountains
among the strutting peacocks
I found a flower
as large as my
head
and when I reached in to smell
it
I lost an earlobe
part of my nose
one eye
and half a pack of
cigarettes.
I came back
the next day
to hack the damned thing
down
but found it so
beautiful I
killed a
peacock
instead.

In his work Bukowski fluctuates between arrogance and self-deprecation; here’s an example where he’s having fun with his own supposed arrogance in a poem called the difference between a bad poet and a good one is luck in which a writer tries to earn money by his writing, failing to do so he gets work on the railroads, he then ends up holed up in a small town in Texas:

I had on a pair of old bluejeans, and they said
oh, you’re a writer, eh?
and I said: well, some think so.
and some still think so…
others, of course, haven’t quite wised up yet.
two weeks later they
ran me out
of town.

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Filed under Bukowski, Charles, poetry

‘Hangsaman’ by Shirley Jackson (1951 Club)

Whilst looking through my GoodReads shelves for books from 1951 one jumped out at me—Hangsaman by Shirley Jackson. I’ve read a collection of short stories and a few novels by her including her first novel The Road Through the Wall which was an impressive first novel. Hangsaman was her second novel published three years after her first. UK readers may be interested to know that Penguin re-released most of Jackson’s works a few years ago so most are readily available in different formats.

Hangsaman is the story of Natalie Waite which is principally from her viewpoint and covers a period of less than a year as she starts college. Natalie is a seventeen year old living at home with a rather pompous writer father, a neurotic, possibly alcoholic, mother and a younger brother. The novel opens with a breakfast scene where right from the start we experience Arnold Waite declaring ‘I am God’ to the annoyance of his wife and Natalie sits quietly, but critically, observing. She’s about to go to college; a college that her parents have taken time to choose for her and one that is really too expensive for them. Natalie is quite fearful of going there.

In the first section we get to experience how Natalie feels about the rest of her family. There’s an intense bond between Natalie and her father, though this is intellectual rather than emotional. Her father likes setting her writing tests and it appears as if he’s trying to live his life again through Natalie. The Waites are having a Sunday cocktail party which means that Mrs Waite has to spend most of the afternoon in the kitchen preparing the food. Natalie prefers being in her room reading or alone in the garden, whereas Mrs Waite finds the kitchen the only place where she can escape the overbearing presence of her husband. Arnold Waite prefers being in his study and Natalie has no idea what her brother, Bud, gets up to when she’s not around. They all prefer being apart from each other. Throughout this first section Natalie imagines that she is being quizzed over a murder by a policeman. The beauty of Jackson’s work is that she can make the everyday world seem eerie; there’s a sense of foreboding hanging over everything even though the sun is shining, it’s breakfast time, or it’s cocktail hour. Although Natalie seems to get on with her father better than her mother she admits to liking her mother when she is in the kitchen; where she can be herself and talk freely. At the cocktail party while Arnold is socialising and flirting with the women, Mrs Waite is drinking herself into a state in the bedroom. Only Natalie shows any concern and her mother confides to her:

“It isn’t any single thing,” Mrs. Waite repeated earnestly, the tears on her cheeks, “It’s just that—well, look, Natalie. This is the only life I’ve got—you understand? I mean, this is all. And look what’s happening to me. I spend most of my time just thinking about how nice things used to be and wondering if they’ll ever be nice again. If I should go on and on and die someday and nothing was ever nice again—wouldn’t that be a fine thing? I get to feeling like that and then I think I’ll make things be nice, and make him behave, and just make everything all happy and exciting again the way it used to be—but I’m too tired.”

Mrs. Waite continues her drunken monologue and portrays Mr. Waite as a malevolent force from whom she is trying to protect Natalie. The whole cocktail party is written so well that it’s a shame it ends, and it ends in a suitably creepy and disturbing way—I’ll say no more about that.

And so Natalie attends her college. She’s a loner from the start, preferring to stay in her room working rather than attending social events. She’s optimistic at the beginning that this will be a new start for her but the optimisim doesn’t last long. She becomes socially acquainted with her English professor and his wife who seem to be copies of her own parents with Arthur Langdon as a rather pompous, cocktail-loving, English professor and Elizabeth Langdon, an ex-student of Arthur’s, as his neurotic, alcoholic, suicidal wife. The Langdons are also visited by students Anne and Vicki; Arthur is probably having an affair with Anne. Anne and Vicki are friendly to Natalie but there’s no close bond between them as Natalie remains outside all the cliques. Meanwhile events start to happen in the dormitory that become increasingly sinister and weird. There is a middle of the night initiation which ends up farcical rather than menacing; objects start to be stolen; Natalie discovers that some of the keys open some of the other doors and in one of the more frightening episodes Natalie is woken in the middle of the night by someone and is told to follow them. She’s led by another girl through darkened corridors to another room where the girl coaxes Natalie to listen at the walls to hear them. When this finally gets too weird for Natalie she leaves the building but bumps into a girl called Tony, who either is already, or becomes, Natalie’s friend. We learn nothing of Tony, who at this stage of the novel, appears to be a figment of Natalie’s imagination. After an uncomfortable visit to her parents things get even more strange where Natalie and Tony have become best friends, walk hand-in-hand around town laughing at others and talking in a quick-paced, humorous banter. I was going to include a sample of this but I felt it was too long and probably wouldn’t make much sense out of context.

I won’t reveal much more even though there’s little definite to give away as the whole novel is ambiguous. This ambiguity could be annoying in a less accomplished author but Jackson is a master of this form of everyday creepiness. Jackson’s books are similar to David Lynch’s movies in many ways, though less violent. In the end we are unsure just how much is due to Natalie’s fragile and fractured psyche. The great thing about the novel is that Natalie is intelligent enough to reflect on her own feelings and thoughts. At times she doubts her own existence.

Perhaps—and this was her most persistent thought, the thought that stayed with her and came suddenly to trouble her at odd moments, and to comfort her—suppose, actually, she were not Natalie Waite, college girl, daughter to Arnold Waite, a creature of deep lovely destiny; suppose she were someone else?

This was one of those books where I ended up rushing through the ending a little, curious as to how it was going to end. I knew from the start that it wouldn’t have a clean ending but I was not prepared for what actually happened. It’s one of those books that has grown on me since finishing it and while writing this review. If you’ve already read some of Jackson’s more well-known work then I would suggest checking out Hangsaman or The Road Through the Wall. I’ve certainly got a hunger for more work by her.

I read this as part of The 1951 Club where contributors all read books from the same year. This was organised by Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

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Filed under Fiction, Jackson, Shirley

‘The Neon Wilderness’ (Part 1) by Nelson Algren

1947-club-pinkAs I was trying to decide what to read for the ‘1947 Club’ two books jumped out at me; both were books I’d read before and which I’d been meaning to re-read for quite a while. As I’ll probably only have time to read one for this group I’ll have to ditch the other one, which was going to be Jean Genet’s Querelle of Brest, and instead just concentrate on The Neon Wilderness which is a collection of stories by Nelson Algren (1909-1981). Nelson Algren is a favourite author of mine but he seems to be largely forgotten or ignored these days. He is most famous for the books The Man With the Golden Arm (1949) which is about the morphine addict Frankie Machine (played by Frank Sinatra in the film version) and A Walk on the Wild Side (1956) which, like most of his books, is about the urban lowlife such as prostitutes, drunks, addicts etc. n.b. despite the Lou Reed song it has nothing to do with transvestites or transexuals. I think of Nelson Algren as a ‘pre-Beat’, one of those writers whose work must have influenced the Beats to some extent, even though he doesn’t get mentioned much by them. This post is going to concentrate on just two of the stories as they’re two of my favourites (of any author) and I’ll hope to post on some of the others during the rest of the week. The two stories are how the devil came down division street and stickman’s laughter. BTW In my edition all the titles are lowercase; I’m not sure if that was the case in the original edition but it seems to suit Algren’s style, and I like it, so I’ll stick to that in my posts.

I’ll start with the opening paragraphs of how the devil came down division street:

Last Saturday evening there was a great argument in the Polonia Bar. All the biggest drunks on Division were there, trying to decide who the biggest drunk of them was. Symanski said he was, and Oljiec said he was, and Koncel said he was, and Czechowski said he was.
    Then Roman Orlov came in and the argument was decided. For Poor Roman has been drunk so long, night and day, that when we remember living men we almost forget Poor Roman, as though he were no longer really among the living at all.
    “The devil lives in a double-shot”, Roman explains himself obscurely. “I got a great worm inside. Gnaws and gnaws. Every day I drown him and every day he gnaws. Help me drown the worm, fellas.”
    So I bought Poor Roman a double-shot and asked him frankly how, before he was thirty, he had become the biggest drunk on Division.

The narrator has to supply him with more drinks before he’ll unburden himself with his story. Roman’s story is a short story of a childhood of poverty which has a very Dickensian feel to it, especially when Roman relates how they found out how algren_neon-wilderness_fcx-700pxthe previous tenant of their flat, who they believe is haunting them, had beaten his wife to death and then committed suicide. But, if we think that Poor Roman was traumatised by this then we’d be wrong; in some ways it brought the family together as they prayed for the man’s soul and they gained the respect of the local neighbours and priest for being so compassionate. But as Roman’s father stops going out at night it means that Roman is left without anywhere to sleep in the crowded flat and so ends up sleeping during the day and going out at nights: ‘And at night, as everyone knows, there is no place to go but the taverns.’ And so he began to spend the whole nights in a tavern awaiting dawn, the bitterest hour. In a way it’s a silly story, but it’s the story of a drunkard trying to wheedle money out of the listener—and that opening is pure brilliance.

The story stickman’s laughter concerns the poor weak-willed Banty Longobardi who has a thing for gambling. The story begins:

Banty Longobardi trudged up his own back steps; his cap was in his hand and his pay on his hip. He’d take the old woman to the Little Pulaski—triple horror feature with blue enamel ovenware to the ladies and community singing.
    But the door was locked and the woman was out, so he went down the steps again. She ought to know better than to go visiting on a community-singing, free-ovenware night.

So what does Banty do now? He goes out to the gambling rooms; but he only bets a dollar, he’s just passing time until his woman gets home…and he’s lucky…he wins…and wins again…and leaves the establishment up by forty dollars. But when he returns home his wife is still not home, he can’t stay at home all alone so he goes out again, this time to the bar to waste some time.

Then he had three shots, to relieve the ache further, and began wondering how long he’d been gone. He didn’t want to drink up too much of the extra pay roll; but he’d give her plenty of time to get home and miss him a spell too.

Banty starts to get argumentative with the bartender, who tells Banty to go home and tells him he’s just seen his wife walk past on her way home. But instead of going home he finds himself back at the gambling room. He’s in a fuddled state, he wins money, he loses money, but he’s only betting with his previous winnings. Of course, his winnings disappear and facing the stickman’s laughter at his predicament he gambles all his pay as well—and loses everything.

And so Banty returns home, shamefaced; he hopes his woman is asleep so he won’t have to explain the stituation but she calls out to him from the bedroom. There’s no escape.

    “Are you coming to bed or are you going to stand there on one foot all night?”
    When she saw him shuffling toward her she switched off the light and lay back waiting for him in the dark. When he reached the bed he had only to wait for her to take his head on her breast.
    That’s the kind of old woman Banty had himself.
    “My fault,” she assured him softly, like a storyteller making up stories to put a child to sleep. “I knew it was payday but I went out just the same. No supper for poor Banty either. Poor Banty. Lost all his money and no supper either. Wanted to go to community singing and got hisself drunked up instead.”
    She felt his tenseness lessening. Felt his tears between the shadowed valley of her breasts. And knew that they were for her.

Yes, Poor Banty indeed. He’s just like a child, unable to stay at home when his wife isn’t there, unable to stay away from the gambling rooms. I have a bit of a soft spot for weak characters, that is, as long as the author doesn’t get too mawkish. But what is brilliant about the story is the compassion and forgiveness that his wife shows him, even though he’s lost all his pay. I mean it’s not really a very realistic ending as in reality it would most likely end up with a blazing row with most people—but they don’t and that’s what makes the story great.

I’m enjoying getting reacquainted with Algren’s work and I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the stories. I feel like re-reading some of his novels as well now.

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Filed under Algren, Nelson, Fiction