Linda King and Charles Bukowski
Yes, she said, she's the one who taught Charles Bukowski how to perform oral sex.
Linda King still remembers the conversation: Bukowski said he'd never done that, because no one had asked him to. She wasn’t having it.
“I expect a man to do unto me as he would have done unto him,” said the 73-year-old sculptor.
I was on the phone with Linda, who dated the famed gutter poet on-and-off for several years in the 70s. I wanted to know whether the man who became famous for his minimalist prose on getting drunk and sleeping with women was any good at the stuff he wrote so much about.
“Oh, yeah,” she said. “It was good. Very good. Except when he was drinking.”
Didn't he drank all the time?
“No, he wasn’t getting drunk all the time. He stopped for two months once. I thought that was great. But he didn’t stick with it.”
Bukowski wasn't the type of guy you'd call ambitious. He was, after all, the man who coaxed a literary oeuvre out of a life of hangovers, losing money at the horse track, and having unprotected sex with an army of women, among other bad decisions. He rarely cut his hair or beard and worked menial jobs for decades.
Film critic Roger Ebert once summed him up: “A million guys start out to get drunk and become great writers, and one makes it. Now a million more guys are probably getting drunk trying to figure out how Bukowski did it. He isn't a survivor. He's a statistical aberration.”
This is not the profile of a driven social climber. But Linda told me that Bukowski was ambitious. She recalled him working on his writing almost every night. “I don’t think people realize how hard he worked at it,” she said. “He used to say he was the greatest writer ever. He had no qualms about telling people who the greatest writer was; it was him.”
The man, who is now considered a poet laureate for the disaffected, died 20 years ago on Monday—March 9, 1994. Some scholars have dubbed his style “dirty realism,” which is just another way of saying his writing was marked by minimalism and vignettes of working-class life. He was a guy with a pockmarked face, beer belly, and greasy hair who managed to sleep with women decades his junior. He wrote about that sex in brutal and detailed terms: the shape of the vaginas, descriptions of cunnilingus, bucking, stroking, pumping. The post- or pre-coital bowel movements. Whether he ejaculated or not.
He has been labeled a misogynist. There are instances where Henry Chinaski, the protagonist in several of his books and a sort of literary surrogate for Bukowski, rapes women with no repercussions. But when you bring up the misogyny tag with his defenders, things get weird. Linda rejects the idea that Bukowski was a misogynist, moments after recalling the time he hit her in the face, giving her a black eye. They were coming back from a boxing match, they were arguing—which was not unusual—and he was blackout drunk, she said. He didn't remember it the next day. It was the only time he struck her, she said. But when I asked her if Bukowski hated women, she insisted:
John Martin, who edited Bukowski’s writing for 40 years, acknowledged that Bukowski’s work could be interpreted as misogynistic. He was quick to add, “Personally, he had a very healthy respect for women.” He then surprised me with this explanation because it undermines the whole Bukowski myth: The man who skewered all that is phony in this world and whose fans love him for his unflinching honesty was apparently a poseur.
In the 70s, when Bukowski became more successful, the depictions of misogynistic behavior in his work “became more of a pose than a conviction. If you’re doing something and suddenly people are talking about you because of what you’re saying, you’re tempted to keep saying it,” said Martin.
Bukowski and his bust
Bukowski’s behavior and the writing that it birthed paved a path to fame and fortune. Matt Dillon and Mickey Rourke have portrayed his alter ego, Chinaski, in film. Rock bands have feted his name in songs. Both West and East Coast bars are named after him. Two decades after his death, he is still firmly engraved in cult-hero status. People continue to be drawn to him, because Bukowski wrote about love and sex in a way that they find both humorous and tragic, said David Calonne—a literature professor at Eastern Michigan University who wrote a book about Bukowski.
“He doesn’t really write characters,” said Calonne. “He writes little smidgens. Broken pieces of people that just go along in life. They aren’t fully rounded, striving, self-actualised people on a Jungian journey to wholeness. They’re broken.”
Women is one of his works that's filled with broken people. John told me that the details of the book mirror Bukowski’s lifestyle at the time he wrote it. The protagonist is Bukowski’s alter ego, Chinaski, whose chief girlfriend through much of the book is Lydia Vance. Lydia is unstable and irrational, and based on Linda King.
Linda met Bukowski when she was sculpting faces of poets, and she was told that he was the best poet in Los Angeles. She asked to sculpt him, he agreed, and they started seeing each other. Over the phone, I wanted to know about the accuracy of specific parts of the relationship that were outlined in the book.
John had warned me to take everything Linda says with a grain of salt. Linda, after all, could have married Bukowski, but he ended up marrying another woman named Linda.
“She would have ended up married to a millionaire,” said John. “It didn’t happen. So naturally there’s a certain amount of chagrin and jealously.”
Still, she's the only person who can really verify all the details of their relationship.
Yes, she said, they would exchange the sculpted bust of his head when they broke up and when they got back together, just like in the book. Yes, she would go over his body and pop his zits, as Bukowski details in Women. “It was a sexual thing, kinda. You know, going over someone’s body, that whole thing.”
She confirms that she tried to run him over in her car once. She also threw a beer bottle through one of his windows. Yes, he thought she was a flirt—a source of aggravation for them both. “I always thought he was lacking in confidence. If he'd been a real good-looking man and had a lot of success with women, I don’t think he would have ever thought of that. I was a bit of a flirt, probably, but not taking it to the extent that he imagined.”
No, she says, she did not need to have sex five times a week. “That’s an exaggeration.”
King isn’t thrilled with her depiction in the book and told me that Bukowski downplayed his own feelings toward her in the novel. She said he was angry with her when he wrote it. “It was almost like he wanted to trash me to the whole world, and so he did,” she said.
It’s been 36 years since Linda's relationship with Bukowski was laid bare in Women. In the two decades since his death, Bukowski’s work has been picked apart ad nauseam, so I needn't belabor old points. So I asked King to tell me something about Bukowski that would surprise me.
“I once mentioned that he had a new shirt on and he blushed,” she said. “Most people wouldn’t think that Bukowski would blush.”
Follow Danny McDonald on Twitter.