Born in Germany between the Great Wars, writer Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) was dragged during adolescence to California by his impoverished parents, who raised him on a regimen of physical and emotional abuse. As a kid he suffered bad acne, causing schoolmates to torment the timid, awkward youngster. The horrible truth that pain is relentless and people mostly worthless came on early and set in firmly. But two discoveries changed everything: booze and the written word. Bukowski had a genius for both: one went in prodigiously, the other came out abundantly.

Cue several decades of factory jobs and post office drudgery, underscoring failed attempts to make it as an author. Long stretches of hard drinking, short bursts of romantic foment, and rare moments of creative encouragement marked this period. He stopped writing for a decade (his "ten-year drunk"). By the late 1960s he'd stripped away the vestiges of art damage from his early work and distilled the everyday ass-kickings, arrests and inebriated fucking into a growing body of fearless poems and prose. The miracle is in its lyricism and humor, despite a world of idiocy, meaningless things granted false profundity, and credentialed ciphers exercising absurd sway over the lives of grunts.

Charles was fêted by outsider-fixated literati, the French, and rock crits. Filmmakers began to take note of this sub-blue collar demi-Beat with no pretense toward redemption, transcendence or political scheme. An ugly mofo with nothing to declare but genius. Versions of Bukowski, played by Ben Gazzara, Mickey Rourke and Matt Dillon, belched and mumbled across theater screens, a siren call to college sophomores and attractive girls. Enter money, which bought more liquor and more time to write. Celebs posed for pictures with him as if they were old comrades.

In 1980, Charles gave his last public reading, recorded on video. In one scene he recites a desperate letter from a fan—a perhaps typical dispatch, veering between insecurity and hero-baiting—to a crowd of hipster scum. The audience laughs on cue at high irony and low mockery, using one fan's naive fulsomeness to revel in their own bullyboy stupidity. The poet obliges them without the slightest evident pleasure or interest.

These mere words on a page serve as an isolate's lifeline, an evening's entertainment for assholes, or an old man's late-career flourish—take your pick. The incident makes Bukowski a thumbnail for "crazy drunk writer dude"—for those who value such delusions. It's hard to recognize the disciplined artist who hammered out startlingly moving literature. I think Bukowski read that kid's letter not with sarcasm, but as a sly comment on what lurks within his own lifetime of words. Read a few of the eulogies for women he loved, his reveries on the everyday things he saw as beautiful. They're good. They're useful.

Drew Friedman depicts the sullen quiet and harsh light of a Skid Row saloon, the kind of place where they pour Wilson's "That's All" and you have to ask for the bathroom key. Bukowski, eyes rolled brainward, is perhaps composing a new work, or surrendering to oblivion. The other lushes in the room and the fetid curls of smoke impart an unexpected tenderness. That's what we get from Bukowski, finally, along with a version of self-respect that might arrive when every possible trace of bullshit-for-others'-sake is banished.

     — Sport Murphy