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by Digby Diehl.  [November 17, 2004]





[]  Ben Pleasants and I both came to UCLA in the fall of 1964. He, two years out of Hofstra in New York; I, two years out of Rutgers in New Jersey. As young men who shared a passion for writing and the arts, we met through the campus newspaper’s arts section, Intro. Established six years earlier, the weekly supplement was a remarkable hotbed of talent, which included writers Laurence Goldstein, Larry Dietz, Burt Prelutsky, Joel Siegel, Norman Hartweg, Harry Shearer, Lewis Segal, and artist Hank Hinton.

Ben and I shared many parallels in our careers: we both were involved with UCLA campus publications that caused censorship scandals; we both wrote theater reviews as stringers for the Los Angeles Times; we both were energetic contributors to the Los Angeles Free Press; and, although our careers have diverged, we both have continued to write throughout our lives.

In Visceral Bukowski, Ben begins by evoking memories of Los Angeles in the 1960s with a vividness and joyous abandon that sweeps me back into an era I recall with considerable happiness. His descriptions of Westwood, the political energy, the libraries, the Daily Bruin, and the campus in general are wonderfully evocative, as are his delightfully candid memories of youthful love affairs.

When we began as stringers for the Times, it was very much a writer’s newspaper, and the freedom allowed even to young non-staff contributors was considerable. Under publisher Otis Chandler’s watchful eye, the Times nurtured good writing, and some true giants of journalism -- including Jack Smith, Jim Murray, Robert Kirsch, and Charles Champlin -- taught by example in every edition.

Ben generously credits me with being the first book editor to run his reviews of Charles Bukowski, and I am sure he is correct, if only because I know that my predecessor and mentor at the Times, Robert Kirsch, disliked Bukowski’s writing. What Ben may not have known until he read these words is that I shared Kirsch’s view. My support of Ben and of his Bukowski reviews did not emerge from any liberal sentiments or spirit of friendship. They emerged from two precepts I developed early in my editorship. 

First, as I regularly read reviews from publications all over the country, I was appalled to see that then -- as now -- the great majority of book editors and book reviewers focused almost exclusively on that great Mecca of book publishing, New York City. In those days, the Los Angeles Times was the most important journalistic voice of the West and I determined that its book section should be a voice for the literature of the West. It seemed only reasonable that local authors could expect a review (not necessarily a positive review) in their hometown newspaper.

Second, I learned from some of my own Times editors – including Jim Bellows, Jean Sharley Taylor, and Charles Champlin -- that an editor does not have to agree with all of his or her writers. An editor has to have confidence in a writer’s ability to argue the merits of a point-of-view with skill and intelligence. I had confidence in Ben, and he never disappointed me.



This remarkable dual memoir does not disappoint either. The "Beverly Hills Anarchist" (Ben) and the "Dirty Old Man" (Buk) both come to life through a series of rambling conversations, comic adventures, and stories that are insightful and entertaining. Ben decided to be Bukowski’s official biographer early in their friendship, and Bukowski opened up his life to Ben with typical raucous candor. With equal openness, Ben reports their long nights of smoking cigars, drinking and trading stories about writers for stories about women.

Despite numerous comical refusals from Bukowski’s ex-wives, old girlfriends, and former companions, Ben persisted in locating people who knew Buk in most phases of his life. Here is Ben’s description: "…Whenever he sent me to interview a friend it always ended up the same way – either he owed them money or he’d smashed up all their furniture or he’d peed on their sofa, or he slept with the wife or girlfriend." 

I was fascinated by Ben’s techniques of interviewing people Bukowski had offended and by his tenacity in pursuing every possible biographical lead. The sexism, Nazism, the drunkenness, the cruelties – it is all here, unflinchingly described -- but always with sympathy for the man. As their unlikely friendship unfolds in these pages, Ben is frank about why he is attracted to Buk’s sense of freedom, his reckless audacity, his refusal to take the safe or easy route. You may be shocked or disgusted by some passages, but you definitely come away knowing Bukowski, in all his glory.

On the other hand, Ben has always had a professorial look, a gentlemanly manner that makes the radicalism of his thinking particularly amazing. He portrays himself in this book with the same forthright assessments as he portrays his biographical subject.

Perhaps all biographers should be this open, because his admiration for Buk is infectious. In the end, Ben has done more than a Boswellian job. He has told the intertwined stories of two different men’s lives effectively and engagingly. Moreover, he has made Bukowski and Bukowski’s bizarre philosophy of life come alive so vividly that these revelations may illuminate the man’s work.

If, after finishing Visceral Bukowski, each reader is prepared -- as I am -- to reread Bukowski’s work with a fresh understanding, then Ben, Buk’s friend and literary biographer, has done his job well.


Digby Diehl is the author of Tales From the Crypt: The Official Archives. Ben Pleasants has previously written about Bukowski's Nazi past, Bukowski's advice on writing short stories, novelist Dan Fante, and Lillian Hellman's feud with Mary McCarthy.


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