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The Bukowski tour

May 23, 2004|John Dullaghan | Special to the Times

Hard-LIVING, hard-writing Charles Bukowski was a product of his time and place. Since the '60s, Bukowski -- the homegrown author of more than 35 volumes of poetry and prose -- has had a fiercely loyal following around the world. Today his readership has grown to the point where it's hard to categorize his audience -- everyone from teenagers to aging baby boomers, blue-collar workers to professors.

One thing that unites Bukowski readers, however, is passion: "He changed my life" is something you hear a lot from Bukowski readers. Much of his highly autobiographical writing may be about bad jobs, drinking, turbulent relationships -- the desperation and rawness of living -- yet a light of wisdom, compassion, honesty and humor shines through it all. For many people, reading Bukowski can be a process of heartfelt discovery.

I first encountered Bukowski's work around the time of his death, 10 years ago. I started buying his books and, by chance, meeting people in Los Angeles who had known him. As I began to hear stories about the real Bukowski, I became fascinated and decided to document his life on film. Eight years later, the result is my documentary "Bukowski: Born Into This," which opens Friday in Los Angeles.

Bukowski's work is deeply rooted in Los Angeles, where he lived most of his life, and he referred to it often in his work. In a poem from his book "Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame," he wrote of "this land punched-in, cuffed-out, divided, held like a crucifix in a deathand." Various locales around the area played central roles in his literary life. In the film we see the apartments and courts where he lived on Carlton Way, Mariposa and De Longpre avenues, we see him driving the streets of East Hollywood in his VW bug and talking to interviewers in the living room of his San Pedro home. While the film about his life, "Barfly" (1987), may have left viewers with the idea that local watering holes were the center of his existence, Bukowski's life was far more complex. Here are a few of the places that factored strongly in Bukowski's life and work:

Longwood Avenue

Bukowski's childhood home, just a stone's throw from the Santa Monica Freeway at La Brea. This is the place where his father would preach the values of the American Dream: Be industrious, make money, buy a house, have a family. But while his father was proselytizing, he was also meting out brutal beatings to the sensitive young boy several times a week, from age 6 through his teens.

In "Bukowski: Born Into This," Bukowski revisits this house as an older man and describes the beatings in the exact spot where they took place -- the family bathroom. While living here, Bukowski attended Los Angeles High School on Olympic Boulevard, where he was one class ahead of Ray Bradbury. In his teens, he contracted a particularly severe form of acne, which left him with facial scars for the rest of his life. In "Ham on Rye," the novel based on his childhood, he describes going to the senior prom, looking through the gymnasium window at the others dancing, as he stood outside suffering from this disfiguring condition.

Explaining the title "Ham on Rye," Bukowski wrote to a correspondent in 1982: "My parents were the two pieces of bread, and I was the ham that was continually getting bitten into." In this home, Bukowski encountered a powerful force that he would spend many years reacting against: He would become a writer, an artist, a common laborer, a bum even -- but he would not be them. Out of this early experience came much suffering but also self-reliance, individuality and an incredible strength.

Los Angeles Central Library

This was a refuge from Bukowski's home in the 1940s. It was also the place where he found the inspiration to become a writer.

While young, creative people today might want to become famous actors or directors, Bukowski grew up in the age of the Great American Novel At the Los Angeles Central Library, Bukowski encountered his heroes, the great men and women of literature: John Fante, Ernest Hemingway, Robinson Jeffers, Carson McCullers, Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Biographer Neeli Cherkovski notes that Bukowski "was like a Tyrannosaurus rex going into the library and devouring everything he could get his hands on." Since then, a series of disasters and renovations has changed the library dramatically. Still, the main rotunda and the old history reading room (now a children's reading center), look the same as they did when Bukowski visited them in the '30s and '40s. Years later, in poems and novels, Bukowski would write fondly about this library -- the place where he developed a passion for learning and the ambition to become an author.

Terminal Annex post office

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