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BUKOWSKI : He's written more than 40 books, and in Europe he's treated like a rock star. He has dined with Norman Mailer and goes to the race track with Sean Penn. Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway are starring in a movie based on his life. At 66, poet Charles Bukowski is suddenly in vogue.

March 22, 1987|PAUL CIOTTI | Paul Ciotti is a Los Angeles Times Magazine staff writer.

CHARLES BUKOWSKI is 66 years old, with a sandblasted face, warts on his eyelids and a dominating nose that looks as if it was assembled in a junkyard from Studebaker hoods and Buick fenders. Yet his voice is so soft and bemused that it's hard to take him seriously when he says: "I don't like people. I don't even like myself. There must be something wrong with me."

Despite having lived in Los Angeles for more than 60 years, outside certain in-group literary circles Bukowski is either unknown or regarded as a hard-drinking womanizer who knocks off some flashy poetry on the infrequent occasions that he's not too drunk to type. In fact, he's a disciplined and prolific writer who, over the past 30 years, has published more than 1,000 poems, 32 books of poetry, 5 books of short stories, 4 novels and an autobiographical screenplay. ("Barfly" began filming in February with Barbet Schroeder directing; it stars Mickey Rourke, as the young Bukowski, and Faye Dunaway.)

To his fans, some of whom pay as much as $600 for rare early editions of his poetry, Bukowski is the best of the Meat School poets, described by enthusiasts as those who write in a tough, direct masculine manner about the concerns of the lumpenproletariat , as opposed to anguished middle-class poets with precious or ambiguous styles. Bukowski, says one critic, nails "the words to the page in intensely personal, rawly sensitive poems and wild, raunchy, anecdotal short stories" wrenched, says another, "out of his own ulcerated guts." The main character in his poems and short stories, which are largely autobiographical, is usually a down-and-out writer who spends his time working at marginal jobs (and getting fired from them), getting drunk and making love with a succession of bimbos and floozies. Otherwise, he hangs out with fellow losers--whores, pimps, alcoholics, drifters, the people who lose their rent money at the race track, leave notes of goodby on dressers and have flat tires on the freeway at 3 a.m.

Although Bukowski remains largely unappreciated at home, his European book sales have made him a wealthy man. Two million copies of his books are in print, most of them in translation, in languages from French to Greek to Portuguese. His latest novel, "Ham on Rye," was a best-seller in Brazil. In Germany and France his visits are major cultural events. Newspapers run front-page stories. Fans follow him around as if he were a rock star. And one French television station used to run brief segments of prerecorded interviews with him as a way of ending the broadcast day.

In one of these segments (taped by Schroeder and recently released in this country on videocassette), Bukowski is shown sitting on a couch late one warm evening with his girlfriend (now his wife), Linda Lee Beighle, drinking wine and bitterly complaining that she is out every night. Beighle responds that she hasn't been running around; she's been attending meetings of an Indian mystic society. "And I'm not out every night."

"The month of May you were out 15 nights past midnight."

Beighle throws back her head and laughs.

"That's true," says Bukowski. "The calendar is marked."

"So what?"

Suddenly Bukowski explodes. "You think you can walk out on me every night, you whore? Who do you think you are?"

It's a painful scene to watch, especially since Beighle has been smiling gamely, as if to say, "He's really not serious. We do this all the time." Then, astonishingly, Bukowski kicks her off the couch. As he lunges after her, wine flies everywhere, and there are sounds of a struggle and a thud off camera. Later, when Schroeder's cameraman, Paul Challacombe, edited the tapes for television, he showed the scene to Beighle and Bukowski. And this, Challacombe says, is the reason he likes the couple so much: When he asked them if they wanted that segment cut, they answered, "Hell no, it's the best part."

BUKOWSKI LIVES IN San Pedro in a large hillside home that he bought in 1979. ("In this country, if you don't spend your money, they take it away," he says.) Despite his reputation as the enfant terrible of the Meat School poets, in person Bukowski is modest and deferential. When a reporter visited him early one evening, Bukowski came stumbling barefoot down the stairs, holding up his pants with one hand and pulling on a shirt with the other. The collar was turned under and his belly stuck out, smooth and white. Due to a mix-up, the reporter had arrived an hour and a half sooner than expected. "Gee," Bukowski said. "I'm embarrassed." Rather than make the reporter wait, he offered to skip dinner and get right to the interview.

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