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Some More Books: Part 2

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Dear D______,

I have been busy as usual. I've been directing a low-budget film about Charles Bukowski's childhood. It is not based on his book Ham on Rye; we got the rights to one of Bukowski's biographies, and we're working from that. I think it's going to be pretty special. I think one of the things that Bukowski does best is turn pain into comedy. He had an incredibly rough childhood that he relates with candor in his work, but because of the way that he does it, it becomes entertaining and funny. He achieves pity as well, but it is always couched in comedy. This is the kind of tone I hope to achieve in the film, to show the horrible abuse his father inflicted but to make it palatable by giving the father funny lines. This approach makes the father a kind of pathetic figure whose outlook on life is askew, which he imposes on his son and wife. The thing about Bukowski is that, as hard as his life was when he was a child and adult, it all turned into work, work that is harsh but humorous. He always casts himself as the loser, but in the end he is the winner because he turns his losses into art. The Larry Brown you had me read felt very much like this.

***

Larry Brown's final story/novella at the end of Big Bad Love, "92 Days," is essentially a story about a struggling writer, Barlow, trying to get published. It is broken into a series of numbered sections that break Barlow's story into bite-sized pieces; the pieces involve a number of activities that recur as Barlow attempts to find time to write amidst struggles to make money from house painting, pacify his crazed ex-wife's demands for alimony payments, meet new women, suffer rejection letters from publishers, and other things of the like. Interspersed in these episodes are snippets of stories that Barlow is working on, quoted passages from rejection letters, dreams and, early on, overviews of his friend Raoul's poems. These interstitial sections that focus on writing, publishing and Barlow's inner life all take the story out of the present in Mississippi and serve as counterweights to the narrative. These sections do a couple specific things: Because Barlow is a writer, much of his life is spent in his head and in his imaginative work, so these sections take the reader into the writer side of his head and show how he processes his life though his creativity. Because we see Barlow's struggles to survive as a writer and estranged father and also see his writing and dreams, a relationship between the sections is created so that the interstitial sections provide a commentary, filtered through his consciousness, on his life. In addition, Barlow's writing and the pursuit of being published become the engines for the entire piece because they are what Barlow is actively pursuing; everything outside of the writing could happen to a non-writer character who is just floundering in life, but the writing sections give Barlow a center, a motive, and a goal, all of which give the story direction.

Early in the story, Barlow's friend Raoul wants Barlow to read some poems that he's written. Barlow is resistant because he doesn't think they'll be any good. The reader doesn't get to see the poems themselves, but we hear about them through Barlow's brusque summaries. There's a bullfight one with a cowardly matador that he hates, clearly a rendition of bad Hemingway; but then there is one he likes that Barlow says has everything in it -- drug use, sex and even gorillas that have escaped from the zoo -- and he is envious because he wishes that he had written it. He is also upset because he knows that Raoul doesn't live and die by his writing like he does -- sacrificing his family for it -- and that Raoul will probably get published when all that it means for him is his name in print. The inclusion of these poems in this way does a few things: It breaks up the narrative so that we get art within art, a summary of writing by characters within the piece; we get a sense of what Barlow appreciates in writing, as he likes the one with everything real, the one that loads on all the crazy experiences grounded in reality -- which is what he in turn puts into his story; and, finally, it shows how badly Barlow wants to be published. Later we will hear about some of the stories he wrote, in overview or through the brief summaries the rejection letters contain, and eventually we will get a section of a story as the character wrote it -- although he was ostensibly intoxicated when he composed it. At first Barlow's writing seems more intense than Brown's writing about Barlow because the overall story contains so much humor, but then the humor gives way to true loss (his daughter) and desperation (a drinking problem), so the stories within the story are actually at a tonal equilibrium with the rest of the story.

The stories within the story and the drive to be published act as reprieves from the rambling life of squalor that Barlow lives; they are the white-hot nuclei of the story because they are the materialization of the main motivation of Barlow's life. If the stories and the attempts at publication were not included we would be left with a sad and aimless character trying to survive for survival's sake. Because the stories are talked about and shown we can at least understand why Barlow is living as he is: He does everything for his art. This intransigent devotion to his work is what makes him a more interesting character; if not for that, he would be a meandering deadbeat and a reprobate father with no purpose. Because the story spends so much time wallowing though the most impecunious and vulgar circumstances, it gains relief from the literary sections. Not that the character or Brown think that literature should shy from portraying such debasement -- they both admire how Raoul put everything real into his poem, which is what they both try to do in their work -- but it seems that life of this order would not be worth living without the writing. Why walk through the flame if you're not going to write about the experience?