“Women” by Charles Bukowski

“Women” by Charles Bukowski (1978)

There’s enough hagiography of Charles Bukowski already on the Internet. I won’t be adding to it. “Women” is not a very well-written or interesting book. Most women won’t like it because of its vulgarity, its mean contempt. Men over-praise it because “It says what men are really thinking”.

    “It’s possible to love a human being if you don’t know them too well.”
    Charles Bukowski

“Women” is a novel of the 1970s. Disco, waterbeds, one night stands. It was a crazy time for men; it was a crazy time for women; it was a crazy time for men together with women. The main character of “Women” is Henry Chinanski, a thinly veiled double of the author himself. Henry Chinanski likes only two things in life, alcohol and sleeping with women. Writing poems and novels are just a means of paying for the rest. For all else Chinanski has only contempt, and after he has slept with a woman, he’s pretty much done with her too.

    “I never knew what to say to the ladies. But she had a behind. I watched that beautiful behind as she walked away. The seat of her blue jeans cradled it, and I watched it as she walked away.”

That is one of the milder less mean quotes in the book. Chinanski is a poet / novelist. His publisher sends him all over the country and Canada to give readings. Some of the women who attend these readings want to get close to him. He invites them to come out to his apartment, she has a few drinks, he has a ton of drinks. He ends up going to bed with her. He usually is too drunk to perform that night, but the next morning…. Then after a few days he sends her on her way so he can get on to the next one. But frequently these women will keep coming back. Henry doesn’t mind as long as they don’t mess up his next conquest. One thing Henry is very proud of is the age difference between him and his women. He is in his fifties, and the women keep getting younger, 32, 25, 22, 18.

After about 20 such trysts, the book gets very repetitive, especially since the women are essentially interchangeable parts to him whether they be Lydia, Sara, Katherine, Cassie, Joanna, Cecelia, Debra, Tessie, and so on. The same situation keeps recurring until it becomes terribly dull to read. Perhaps this endless repetition was meant to be humorous, but it comes off as relentless obsession. If Chinanski had some great insight into what he’s doing, that could be interesting, but he doesn’t. His only insights are how he hates most people besides himself, and how these women just keep coming back no matter what he does to them, so he must be a great lover.

In this novel, someone asks Chinanski who his favorite writer is. Chinanski says “Fante”. I’ve read John Fante; his novels have charm, but this novel has no charm whatsoever.

So what’s with the Charles Bukowski cult? Why are his novels rated four stars on Amazon? Why do some critics call his books classics? Bukowski does have a very conversational, easy to read way of writing. One of his books was made into the movie ‘Barfly’. Bukowski writes “the way men really think”. It wouldn’t be very macho for a man to criticize Charles Bukowski, no matter how poorly written his books are. Bukowski basically writes like someone who has had too much to drink.


17 responses to this post.

  1. I saw the movie Barfly when it came out and was instantly put off Charles Bukowski and all his books (none of which I have ever read). I quite like your review and am pleased to see my prejudice confirmed here 😉


    • Posted by Bob on July 22, 2011 at 11:05 PM

      Bukowski despised barfly with a passion. Don’t judge an artist on the least of his works.


      • Where do you get the idea Bukowski despised Barfly? He thought it was “good, but not immortal.” He didn’t disavow it. although I agree that it’s weird to write off an author based on a movie for which they wrote the screenplay. Then again, the tone and style of that film is similar to his work so I guess it’s not entirely strange to do so in this instance. Well, he’s not for everyone. What is?


  2. Hi Anna,
    Thanks for your comments. I haven’t seen Barfly yet.


  3. Posted by David Fink on March 15, 2010 at 5:44 PM

    Well, it’s easy to dismiss Bukowski based on one novel, and Women at that. But it would be like dismissing Mark Twain after reading only “General Washington’s Negro Body-Servant.”

    Bukowski shot himself in the foot when he created the “Bukowski/Chinaski” myth, because so many people choose only to see that and never read any further.

    I won’t even get into the worthlessness of a comment from someone who judges an author who published more than 50 books on the basis of one B movie. But that’s typical of people who fear Bukowski.


    • Hi David,
      Thanks for stopping by. Have you heard of the writer Hubert Selby Jr? He wrote a novel in the late Seventies called “The Demon” which is about similar subject matter to Bukowski’s ‘Women’. ‘The Demon’ I think could justly be called a classic. He also wrote ‘Last Exit to Brooklyn’


      • Posted by David Fink on April 4, 2010 at 7:45 PM

        >> Have you heard of the writer Hubert Selby Jr?

        Why no, I’ve been in a coma for fifty years, thanks for that!

        If you have any other books to recommend that are older than dirt, please do! I am so excited to read something 100 years old and ignore all that icky “new” stuff.

        What a terrific service you perform! And your commenters are so intelligent! I love literary chit chat! We’re so special, all of us.


        • Hey, I did a recent post on Euripides plays which are over 2400 years old. These were still worth writing about because they are still great literature. We have to keep re-evaluating the old works to see what’s worth keeping and what’s worth throwing away. I mentioned Selby’s ‘The Demon’, because the subject matter of that book is similar to Bukowski’s ‘Women’, but a different approach.


  4. I wasn’t in much danger of falling into Bukowski’s clutches, but I think this review has thoroughly immunized me. On the other hand, I have been meaning to get to Dreiser. Your review of Carrie has had the opposite effect.


    • Hi Kerry,
      I’m happy you liked the Dreiser review. He’s one of those underrated authors who wrote some great novels and stories.


  5. I am a woman, I’m a feminist and I love Bukowski. It’s great how he makes simple, ordinary things sounds interesting. It’s very difficult to turn the obvious and the normal into something people want to read.


  6. I’m happy to hear differing viewpoints, because it would be too bad if every one had to think the same about everything. You also present a strong reason why you like Bukowski which I can appreciate. I’d like to try reading some of Bukowski’s early poetry, before he became a celebrity which seemed to have turned his head around. .


  7. Posted by alice on May 13, 2010 at 12:31 PM

    There’s the usual fine writing style, and one or two dazzling flashes, but it’s a tired book. The novel was ultimately tedious and repetitive, the constant exposition of Chinaski’s sexploits, a total bore, like watching an old man jack off in public. Bukiowski shows his contempt for the human race in general, himself, and most of all, women. A depressing book, with boring ideas, and, paradoxically, a strong streak of Germanic puritanism



  8. Yes, we agree that ‘Women’ is not a very good book. What books from Charles Bukowski would you recommend? Either poetry or fiction, what is the best Bukowski I could read?


  9. Posted by caraculo on July 10, 2010 at 11:44 AM

    The most disturbing thing about Bukowski is this “cult leader” stuff…his followers remind a little bit of the Manson Family.


    • I’m living quite far away from the West Coast here in Minneapolis, so don’t hear or see much about the Charles Bukowski phenomenon except what’s on the Internet. Thanks for your info.


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