By rights, "Visceral Bukowski" by Ben Pleasants should be a pretty joyless affair. The world hardly needs another tome about Charles Bukowski -- this volume's tiny Michigan-based publisher has no less than five books built around the poet laureate of booze, broads and woozy hangovers. This one is uneven and at times seems unedited.
Pleasants, a longtime critic and playwright whose most recent work is "Contentious Minds," about Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy, is overly fond of metaphor and oddly shocked to find that Bukowski altered facts about friends and family before inserting them into his fiction. It's for that reason that "Visceral Bukowski," which the author originally had conceived as a biography, verges into memoir -- sort of. In places, the book's two identities don't entirely mesh and other choices are hard to understand, like the conversation Pleasants includes with an old friend of Bukowski's that goes on and on.
Somehow, though, "Visceral Bukowski" turns out to be great fun. It chronicles Pleasants' decades-long friendship with the poet, their days at the racetrack, their nights drowning their sorrows in alcohol, the poet's interest in literary forebears like Robinson Jeffers and the search for Bukowski's earliest friends and surviving family. Pleasants, nicknamed "the Beverly Hills anarchist" by Bukowski, comes across mostly as a slightly diffident, pipe-smoking straight man for Bukowski, whom Pleasants describes as "a demented U-boat captain who had surfaced ... five years after the end of World War II."
Pleasants' journey into Bukowski's early years reveals unflattering sides of the man: a consistent streak of cruelty and youthful flirtations with Nazism. Despite his penchant for macho bluster, Bukowski comes across as mostly charming in the author's personal recollections. But Pleasants doesn't let him off the hook for his failings. "Women were another species to Bukowski," he writes. Some of the best chapters describe Pleasants' arrival in Los Angeles in the early '60s, and the intense literary scene he found around UCLA and Venice, an incongruously nonmaterialistic subculture of bohemians, scribes and rich boys, a place where poetry reviews started feuds and a young man could attract a Fellini-esque brunet by giving her a copy of Keats.
This idealistic world of versifiers existed streets away from Bukowski and his ilk, who spawned a tough-guy culture of rebellion they would call the Meat School of poetry. "The doors had been thrown open for raw, masculine writing," Pleasants writes of the mid-'60s. "No more Truman Capote. No more 'To Kill a Mockingbird.' "
Many of the book's characters are hard to like, sometimes even the poet himself. But like the work of the man it champions, "Visceral Bukowski" is appealing in ways that aren't quite rational.
The only obvious omission, one that enthusiasts of literary Los Angeles will regret, is Pleasants' search for novelist John Fante ("Ask the Dust"), whom he and Bukowski helped bring out of obscurity before Fante died. That effort, which is of certain historical importance, is relegated here to an afterthought.
Mostly, though, Pleasants offers a strikingly rich portrayal of Bukowski, a poet, he says, who was "alive and glowing in his place in time."