Friday, September 10, 2004



As the critic and novelist Umberto Eco once observed, any text "always constitutes a bet on the way it will be received." It should not surprise us, therefore, that some of Bukowski’s most trenchant remarks on the art of writing refer us back to the track; indeed, he commends it to us. In his story "Goodbye Watson" (appropriately a tale about placing a wrong bet, this time on a boxer), the author avows that "if I ever taught a class in creative writing, one of my prerequisites would be that each student must attend a racetrack once a week and place at least a 2 dollar win wager on each race." Horseracing offers the writer an invaluable mental discipline, for "a man who can beat the horses can do almost anything he makes up his mind to do." Its bottom line, its existential limit, is the "death-wish"—"old stuff," but with "still some basis in it yet." We can recognize this in ourselves and in others and in the crowd around us, since "the reason most people are at the racetrack is that they are in agony, ey yeh, and they are so desperate that they will take a chance on further agony rather than face their present position." The danger lies in forgetting that gambling (and, we might add, writing) is a difficult craft to master and needs careful handling—"just another job, finally, and a hard one too"—and without respecting this we merely left with a recipe for "bad bets" and "sucker bets." But correctly understand, says Bukowski, "the racetrack tells me where I am weak and where I am strong." It is a source of great intuitive insight, freeing the writer from what is fake and routine, and Bukowski approvingly cites Hemingway’s attendance at bullfights, claiming that they helped "old ratbeard" to write. Nevertheless, there is an essential difference between the two writers that goes unnoticed here. Bukowski’s own writing lacks that sustained fatalism that pervades Hemingway’s work, that obsession with our failure to recognize when our luck has run out. In Bukowski’s narratives we repeatedly straddle the fine divide between winning and losing, between self-possession and the illusion of control, and it is this that underlies the bitter comedy of novels like Factotum and Post Office, for in that narrowest of gaps a whole world emerges. Like his days at the races, Bukowski’s fictions remind us "how much we keep changing, changing all the time, and how little we know of this."...






No comments: