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Jim Feast reviews

The Holy Grail: Charles Bukowski and The Second Coming Revolution by A.D. Winans

189pp. Dustbooks. US$9.95. 0916685942 paper.
Dustbooks, PO Box 100, Paradise, CA 95967.

This piece is 4,000 words or about nine printed pages long.

In The Holy Grail: Charles Bukowski and The Second Coming Revolution, A.D. Winans has put himself in a nearly untenable position.
     Before explaining this opening statement, let me provide some background. Winans had long been a stalwart of the San Francisco small press scene, having published from 1972 to 1989 the path-breaking journal Second Coming, which often featured the writings of Charles Bukowski. He himself has published 30 books of prose and verse and participated in the founding of COSMEP (The Conference of Small Magazine Publishers and Editors) as well as in other important events that took place in the California literary scene. He knew all the great small press figures of his day, from Harold Norse to Nelli Cherkovski to William Wantling. Undeservedly, all the greats of the time have been forgotten, all but one, Charles Bukowski.
     Here is the untenable situation. On the one hand, to his mind — although he doesn’t say this in so many words, there are many indications of it, which I will get to — Winans’ own achievements and importance on the scene richly merit a full scale recounting, which, unfortunately, given his lack of celebrity status, probably would have trouble finding a publisher. On the other hand, his old pal “Buk” has achieved such a cult status that anything connected to him, even by the smallest string, will be put into print.
     Ergo, for Winans, a memoir of his relationship with Bukowski is a more viable commercial entity than his own autobiography. Not that Winans is adverse to talking about Bukowski, but he would also like to tell his own story. This, at least, is the impression he gives by frequently quoting pages of his own poetry, such as his poem about the struggles of small magazines, that runs from 118-123 or another, for those who “couldn’t get enough of Bukowski,” from pages 185-188; as well as by his giving of detailed accounts of his own exploits, such as his first drunken driving arrest, whose only connection to Bukowski is that he later wrote him a letter about it.


Photo: A.D.Winans

Still, contrary to what the foregoing might suggest, Winans more or less keeps to the terms of this bargain by only bringing in events of his life that have some connection, however tenuous, to Bukowski. He barely describes his early life before he met Bukowski, and he does not continue talking about what happened to him after his acrimonious break off of communications with the famed L.A. writer. Thus, Winans produces a very curious and interesting document, a heteronomous autobiography. This can be put another way, bearing in mind that Winans almost never met or spoke to Bukowski, whom he communicated with by letter, Winans is forced to focus his life story on one of the more marginal factors in his experience.
     Such a predicament is not as unusual as it at first might seem. In a moment, I will examine some remarks of Derrida’s on the theoretical status of such productions as well as, ironically enough, look at how such heteronomy structures Bukowski’s own work, but let me preface this with one remark.
     Although it may seem ignoble of Winans to smuggle in his own life story as he purports to tell about his friendship for Bukowski, this doesn’t keep it from being a fine piece of writing. The above-mentioned drunk driving story as well as the tale of his love affair with JW (to which we will return) and a number of other incidents are vividly and humorously told.
     Moreover, the difficulty of his task directs him down some tortured and thought-provoking byways of reflection. Take his opening. “There are people who believe you have to break bread or drink with a person on an on-going basis before you can call that person a friend. I don’t subscribe to that point of view” (11). What follows is a vigorous defense of the idea that one can be dear friends with someone that is known mainly through mail exchange. As pointed out already, Bukowski and Winans’ relationship was of this postal variety and so it is an absolute necessity for Winans to see comradeship in this light. Thus, he is forced to develop a very creative line of reasoning.
     Having re-defined friendship this way, he feels free to include in his book any incident in his own life if Bukowski responded to a letter Winans wrote about it by sending a letter back. Moreover, since Winans is a relatively scrupulous writer, he doesn’t push this privilege too far, only allowing himself extensive discussions of events in which Bukowski had some hand. So, for example, the only one of his own love affairs Winans describes is with a woman he stole from Bukowski!
     In describing the problems Freud had in writing Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Derrida describes an analogous case. In this book, Freud was grappling for the right way to describe a psychological factor or force that seemed to elude the governance of and predate the coming into existence of the pleasure principle. Try as he might to find it, the terminology to express this factor was not forthcoming. The best he could do was borrow concepts and words from other disciplines. As Derrida puts it, there was “the necessity of  borrowing these figures from already constituted sciences” (Post Card, 382).
     Anyone familiar with Derrida’s emphases, which include the idea that no text can guard itself from intrusions from the outside, will not be surprised that he concludes his discussion of Freud’s dilemma, not by reprimanding the psychoanalyst for lack of originality, but by arguing that he realized, “Progress can be made only within metaphoric transference. To borrow is the law” (384, his emphasis). How is this analogous to Winans’ situation? In both cases, the writers are driven to rely for the organization of their texts on material that seems to fall outside of their original purview. Freud must select a schema from a foreign discipline, while Winans has to compose his (stealth) autobiography around not his own but another man’s life.
     This comparison to a moment in Derrida’s The Post Card may seem strained. Still, if we look a little further along in this volume to a discussion of Lacan, a more obviously pertinent discussion arises. In laying down an interpretation of Poe’s “The Purloined Letter,” Derrida contrasts his view of human communication to the more traditional view of Lacan, which holds “The other makes speech adequate to itself ... by sending back the message in inverted form” (470). This inverted version is a mirror image and, hence, a fully accurate if reversed transcriptions of the original speaker’s expression. For Derrida, such a view proffers an unacceptable monism. He puts his objection in a precise formulation. “It is not enough to say that in this act the subject supposes another subject, for it is much rather that the subject is founded in this act as being the other ... the one depends on the other in order to become identical to itself” (470). Rather than unpacking this formulation, let me explore its implications by way of a discussion of Winans’ love affair with JW.
     Winans meets and beds JW in Houston where he is attending a writers’ conference. He, then, invites her to a party that he will be having in a few weeks to celebrate the California Bicentennial edition of his zine. Later, talking on the phone, he sadly tells her that he cannot afford to supply her fare to San Francisco. He is relieved but pointedly incurious when “JW laughed and said her airplane ticket had already been taken care of” (124). She arrives and they enjoy a few more days of bliss, each night drinking and, as he says, “then returning to our room for a night of intense lovemaking” (124). Things seem hunky-dory until the day after the Bicentennial party. “The next morning JW startled me when she told me Hank [Bukowski] had paid her fare to California. She seemed to think it funny. The great one paying her way to San Francisco while she stayed with me” (126). She had to confess because Hank was about to arrive. 
     It might be amusing to JW, but Winans is chagrined to find out his romantic love affair was simply a subplot in the saga of Bukowski. For one thing, Buk, who knew about Winans’ dalliance with JW since the lover had told all through the post, seems to have made the trip to poach on his friend’s ground. Winans says, Bukowski “said it wasn’t his intention to move in on me and didn’t know she was staying with me at my apartment” (127). Winans doesn’t buy this explanation. “I recalled how John Bryan’s wife (Joanie) and Wantling’s wife (Ruthie) lent evidence that Hank wasn’t above trying to score with a friend’s woman” (127).
    Further, although JW does this explt sleep with Bukowski, this is not because she respects the narrator’s feelings but because “JW felt she could gain more recognition as the woman who ‘didn’t’ go to bed with Bukowski than just another mark on his scorecard” (129). She quickly writes an account of her “night” with Bukowski, which is published in a magazine. In a telling and seemingly unconsciously revealing statement, Winans summarizes the import of the incident in this way. ““In my heart I suspected both Hank and JW were equally to blame for what took place” (127).
     “Equally to blame.” But weren’t three people involved in this episode? Is Winans self-servingly presenting himself without sin? In fact, no. He is expressing the accurate realization that his love affair was simply a pretext for the other two’s existential encounter.
     His position is even more unenviable than we at first suspected. Not only must he center his stealth autobiography on another person’s chronology; but, it now appears, that much of what were the high points of his life (such as his erotic tryst with JW) were constructed the same way, as adjuncts to the Bukowski legend. As he states at the beginning of this tale, “Too many people got the wrong impression of my role in the events that unraveled that weekend. It’s my intention to set he record straight about what really happened between JW, Bukowski, and myself” (111). Not surprisingly, it is because Bukowski was involved that the event has been an object of interest and gossip.
     This incident graphically illustrates Derrida’s thought that “the one depends on the other in order to become identical to itself.” Winans’ comes to his self understanding, not by introspection, but by examining his connection to Hank. Derrida gives this concept even wider application in Limited Inc, where he writes, “The iterability of an element divides its own identity a priori, even without taking into account the fact that this identity can only determine or delimit itself through differential relations to other elements” (53). To restate this in terms of the identity of the self, we could say the subject, which is internally cracked and divided, does not come to be this way due to the intrusions of others, who fracture an originally unified being. Fissuring is part of the process of obtaining a (never truly homogenous) identity in the first place. We can conclude that when Winans is forced to take up the  second fiddle in this passionate love affair, he is not being atypical but paradigmatic.
     Indeed, is Charles Bukowski himself, the seemingly self-made outsider, any less of a satellite?

Winan with Ed 'Foots' Lipman         Photo: A.D.Winan (right) with Ed ‘Foots’ Lipman, 1976

Toward the end of his (Bukowski’s) autobiographical novel Ham on Rye, the narrator Henry has finally been able to leave his stifling and brutal home. He drops out of school, moves into a rundown rooming house, telling no one his new address, and spends his time drinking and bar fighting. When a friend tracks him down and pays him a call, Henry gives him a drubbing. In the final pages of the book, the hero sits in a bar while a patriotic fever, the result of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, rages outside and around him. Sullen and disconnected, he tries to ignore the hurricane of feelings, which do not in the slightest way penetrate into his personal hell.
     Thus, the book may be called something of an anti-bildungsroman. Traditionally, such coming of age stories chronicle how the protagonist ends, after a number of false starts, by finding a place in the world and becoming a well-integrated member of society. Ham on Rye shows the hero, by the end, finding his place precisely outside society. Furthermore, it is from this vantage, alienated from and disgusted with almost everything around him, except for his fellow outcasts among the whores, deadbeats, and those, like him, stuck at dead-end jobs, that he was able to create his art and his image.
     However, if the final image of Bukowski (as he depicted himself in his poems) was that of a world-weary proletarian, a lone wolf who had cut both his ties and his moorings, Ham on Rye, as much as it can be read autobiographically, documents how such a man comes to be produced through molding forces over which, when he is young, he has little control.
     In the novel, Henry’s rugged individualism and disdain for society are stylizations of his father’s misanthropy. “My father didn’t like people. He didn’t like me” (16). And — for Bukowski’s grasp of how character is formed doesn’t stop there — the father’s own personality is revealed as partly developed in reaction to the times. During the Depression, the father is too proud to let his neighbors know he has lost his job, and so each day he drives off as if he were reporting to work. To keep up this front, he cannot allow neighbors to get too close.
     Keep in mind, this individual pathology was a widespread during that dark period. In Studs Terkels’ book of interviews concerning the Depression, one informant tells this story, talking about his father’s resentful anger,

This short temper was a characteristic of the time. Men who were willing to work couldn’t find work. My father was the kind of man who had to be active. He’d invent work for himself. A child who was playing irritated him. It wasn’t just my own father. They all got shook up. (Hard Times, 120)

     Moreover, because the father is trying to make it appear that his family is above those around him, whose fathers are unemployed and on relief, Henry is kept from playing with the riffraff and, when he is old enough, sent to a upper middle class high school far from where he lives. This is a social disaster since he lacks the wherewithal to fit in with his peers. “Those rich guys [at the high school] like to dart their cars in and out. ... [Y]ou just saw them burning more rubber, gunning from the curb with their cars full of squealing and laughing girls. I watched them with 50 cents in my pocket. I didn’t even know how to drive a car” (154–155). A disfiguring illness that pockmarks his face while he is in his teens caps the alienation by making it even harder to compete for girls against his well-heeled fellow students.
     Just as Winans curves around Bukowski in presenting his (stealth) autobiography, so Bukowski curves around his father and other impinging forces in creating his (novelized) autobiography.
     It’s worth adding that in many of his poems Bukowski plays even more flagrantly with the paradoxes of the fractured self.
     Take his powerful “remains” from The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills. It concerns the death of an old girl friend and begins:

things are good as I’m not dead yet
and the rats move in the beercans ...
and her photographs are stuck onto a painting
by a dead German and she too is dead
and it took 14 years to know her
and if they give me another 14
I will know her yet ... (65)

     The message is this: I’m glad to be alive and healthy, so I’ll have many years to think about the dead. Perversely enough, thinking about his lost love does not involve recollecting happy memories; but, rather, considering missed opportunities. As he listens to his tape recordings of her, he thinks, “she speaks some evenings ... says the thousand things,// the one thing I always ignored” (65). He wants to go back over her words and his memories in order to locate all the nuances and hidden meanings he missed when she was alive.
     Can the reader miss the ironic and tragicomic handling of the truth that his (or his persona’s) life can be viewed as a byproduct of someone else’s existence since he seems to be planning to arrange it around that person’s memory?
     Still, to return to Winans, we could say his stance lacks the nobility of Bukowski’s position. Where the poet of “remains” is representing his self effacement as part of the mourning process, Winans’ fixation on Bukowki’s seems more opportunistic. Yet, to refine a point already made, the payoffs in Winans’ decentered autobiography in terms of  engrossing incidents and strong writing are many. Impossible as it is in reality, it is almost as if Winans knew in advance he could only tell the world about the parts of his life that Bukowski approved by responding to them by letter, so Winans had to live life to the hilt to get the “old man’s” attention.
     Moreover, to further a point already made, the way the author’s relation to Bukowski, events in his own life, and his own poetry (smuggled in at every turn) have to be integrated into one readable storyline gives a complexity to the tale lacking in many a less vexed memorial. What Winans does not often obtain, something more commonly present in Bukowski, is a linking of the self to relevant, molding historical circumstances. This was shown when, in Ham on Rye, Henry’s disenchantment at the book’s close took place as a countermovement to the swamping outpouring of American jingoism.
     It is not necessarily the case that the braiding together of these two dimensions: self and other plus self as a component of a historically charged situation, will make for better writing, although it will certainly be richer than that which takes up less complex materials. Nonetheless, the most satisfying sections of Winans’ memoir are those in which he has integrated these two dimensions.
     There is his break with COSMEP, for instance, which comes to a head at Houston at the same convention where, as noted, he inaugurated his love affair with JW. In describing the showdown, Winans explains that the organization of small publishers that made up the COSMEP membership had come together because “major bookstore chains refused to stock small press books and magazines” (115). The few that did “would only stock their books on consignment, and payment was more often than not slow or non-existent” (115). Conceived at a 1968 gathering, the original organization had a distinctly grassroots flavor. “The membership was made up mostly of radical thinking small press people who fought to promote small press publications in opposition to the established academic monopoly of literature” (114).
     By the mid-1970s, however, when Winans went to the Houston meeting, COSMEP “began to be co-opted into the system through grants” from the NEA and other agencies (115). It grew dependent on government and foundation cash rather than on members’ money. “COSMEP was now feeding at the public trough,” and sell-outs and compromises with commercialism were driving away the founders, who began resigning one by one (116). Winans came to Houston near ready to join his friends in chucking the whole business.
     What leavens this sad story is the counterpoint of Winans’ emergent love affair. Add to the scandal of COSMEP members prostituting themselves with granting agencies, the scandal of JW and Winans humping away. The attendees are all living cheek to jowl in student dorms whose walls could use some sound proofing. Winans states, “We made so much noise making love that we were the talk of the publishing conference” (114). Not only do the couple’s outrageous actions allow Winans to relieve some of the tension he feels at the uptight conference, but they bring him see that he should focus his energy on what really matters to him. As he writes in a poem commemorating his break with the COSMEP, literary spats, no matter how righteous, do not offer much to the libido.

They play taps
At Arlington Cemetery
In the name
Of national pride
But it takes
Flesh and bone
To breathe electricity
Into a man’s balls (122)

     Moreover, JW not only revives his sense of reality but stokes his resolution. “No matter how I might feel about JW, I do owe her a debt of gratitude for helping me see I was wasting my time serving on the COSMEP Board of Directors” (114).
     Before concluding the look at this incident, it might be useful to give this component of the discussion more of a theoretical basis. The way a “self” is defined in counterpoint to another self has been grounded in an interpretation of Derrida. How the self or, in our example, a pair of lovers, are structured by the community they are part of calls for a different under-layer.
     Jean-Luc Nancy in The Inoperative Community explains this correlation in striking if somewhat abstract terms, “In the instant the lovers are shared [that is, become intimate in all senses of the term] ... the singularity of their love is exposed to community” (39) Which is to say, for instance, that the process of falling in love, which involves each of the partners in being exposed to the other’s full nature, simultaneously exposes each to previously unrevealed aspects of their community. What is typically exposed are the community’s drawbacks as a setting for intimacy. “Lovers expose above all the unworking of the community. Unworking is what they show in their communal aspect and intimacy. But they expose it to the community, which already shares their intimacy” (40). For Nancy, the community is in all cases a failed attempt at harmony and mutuality, just as in their most intimate moments (as “remains” illustrated), lovers expose to each other their most basic trait, their mortality.
     In closing, let’s return to the lover’s triangle. The fact that JW encouraged Winans to live up to his political conscience can add to our understanding of his later sense of betrayal when Bukowski gets caught up in the mix. It appears now that as Winans  sees it, JW is not only betraying him in their relationship by running to Buk, but betraying the ideals she helped foster in him when he broke with COSMEP by dallying with Bukowski simply because he is a literary celebrity who might advance her career.
     In this light, a full appreciation of the San Francisco ménage a trois takes us beyond the earlier view, which saw Winans taking a minor part in his own life, and portrays how he trumps his fate. For if, in a certain perspective, Bukowski and JW were the central figures in the romance, Bukowski and Winans meet when it comes to the ability to remain unsullied by literary politics. As the memoirist portrays it, for both of them, but not JW, writing is an act of total truth to “self” without pretension, posing or lies. Both rely on this formula, while surreptitiously acknowledging the self is not what it seems to be, but is an amalgam of person, other, and community. This is so much so that Winans composes his own (stealth) autobiography around somebody else, though, at the end, trumping this limitation, by making that somebody (Buk) a man after his own (Winans’) image.
     Thus, the yield from Winans’ book is a great and indirectly profound. And we might add, profundity is never direct.

Ham on Rye, Charles Bukowksi, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa, CA, 2001. ISBN: 0876855575.
Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, Studs Terkel, Avon, New York, 1970.
The Inoperative Community, Jean-Luc Nancy, Ed. Peter Connor, Trans. Peer Connor, Lisa Garbus, Michael Holland, and Simona Sawhney, University of Minnesota Press, MN, 1991.
Limited Inc, Jacques Derrrida, Trans. Samuel Weber, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, IL, 1988.
The Post Card From Socrates to Freud and Beyond, Jacques Derrida, Trans. Alan Bass, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1987.
“remains,” in  The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills, Charles Bukowski, Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa: CA, 1996.

James Feast, December 2004

Jim Feast has co-edited two anthologies of the literary group the Unbearables, namely, Help Yourself and The Crimes of the Beats, and is working with Ron Kolm and Carol Wierzbicki on a third. His story ‘Human Life A-Go-Go’ can be found in the current issue of Evergreen Review on-line.

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