Charles Bukowski is both fringe and mainstream, underground and establishment. Bukowski’s vulgar, autobiographical writing—fueled by alcohol—can be off-putting, but his work occupies a unique place in the literary firmament. Considered one of the leading writers of the Dirty Realism movement, which focuses on the grimier, uglier aspects of life most fiction omits, Bukowski’s fiction depicts his own lived experience, warts and all. Simply put, there is no other writer like Bukowski. If you’re wondering where to get started with the writer Time Magazine once called the “poet laureate of L.A. lowlife,” here are the 10 best Charles Bukowski books.
1. Post Office
Bukowski published his debut novel in 1971 when he was 50 years old. The story focuses on Henry Chinaski, a stand-in for the author, who gets a job at the Los Angeles Post Office as he drifts through his life in an alcoholic haze. Equal parts funny and misanthropic, it’s filled with Bukowski’s sour observations on the drudgery of work and the ugliness of most human interactions. What sets Post Office apart from Bukowski’s other fiction is the faint thread of optimism that runs through the shapeless story. Chinaski is wasting his life drinking, working dull, low-paying jobs, and sleeping with various women, but there’s a sense that Chinaski—and, therefore, Bukowski himself—still holds out hope for better things. That makes the dark humor of this novel sing.
2. Ham on Rye
Bukowski returns to his fictional counterpart Harry Chinaski in this 1982 novel. He visits Chinaski’s youth during the Great Depression, exploring the warping effect poverty and hopelessness has on an adolescent mind. As with most of Bukowski’s work, Ham on Rye is heavily based on his own life and offers a grimly funny look at growing up under the worst possible conditions. Modeled ironically on The Catcher in The Rye, it pulls no punches: Harry’s father abuses him terribly, he’s scarred from acne, and he finds it difficult to fit in anywhere in the world. The only thing that offers comfort is alcohol, which young Harry takes to enthusiastically. Bukowski captures this semi-fictional life with an unblinking eye for detail and a knack for finding hilarity in the horror of everyday life.
In the 1960s, Bukowski wrote a regular column for an underground Los Angeles newspaper called Open City. In fact, those columns earned him the attention of the FBI, which kept tabs on the writer as a result. This collection of columns is a time capsule, as the columns are all inspired by Bukowski’s own seamy life. They’re filled with sexual encounters, illegal drugs, plenty of booze, and a counter-cultural attitude (reading his gross adventures in Los Angeles, you can understand why the buttoned-up FBI took an interest). More importantly, the columns show Bukowski developing his signature style—blunt, funny, and unadorned. Reading this is like tracking an artist as he’s developing. You can see the details of his life forming what will become his fictional and poetic persona.
4. Tales of Ordinary Madness and The Most Beautiful Woman in Town
Bukowski’s first short story collection, Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness, was published in 1972, bringing together stories he’d written in the prior decade. Today the collection has been split into two editions, Tales of Ordinary Madness and The Most Beautiful Woman in Town. The stories offer a fully-formed Bukowski—based on his own life, experience, frequently gross (one, “Six Inches,” involves a man being shrunk to that size and used by his wife as a sex toy), and always pessimistic about humanity in general. These stories are raw and brisk, and in these shorter works it’s easy to see just how good with language Bukowski was—lines like “Beauty is nothing, beauty won’t stay. You don’t know how lucky you are to be ugly, because if people like you [for you], you know it’s for something else” sing.
Bukowski’s 1975 Factotum picks up the story of Harry Chinaski’s life in 1944. Rejected by the draft board, Chinaski wanders the United States working menial jobs, drinking in a series of dive bars, and having meaningless love affairs. Bukowksi’s narrow interest (focused largely on his own life and direct experience) is on full display here, but it’s the rhythm and poetry of his words that elevate an otherwise depressing story into art. It’s probably the least funny of Bukowski’s long form fiction, which can make the tragedies that befall Chinaski hard to take. But Bukowski’s genius lies in how sharply he observes a slice of American life few of us see—or want to see.
Hot Water Music collects 36 of Bukowski’s short stories, including “The Death of the Father I” and “The Death of the Father II,” inspired by his own father’s passing. By this point in Bukowski’s career, his subject matter was pretty fixed, and these stories all deal with drinking, gambling, sex, and writing as an existential exercise. There’s a maturity to the style here. On one hand, the writing is more disciplined than some of Bukowski’s earlier work, which was more raw. But that rawness provided power and impact. The trade off is a sense of introspection, a sense that the author isn’t just reveling in dirty realism to shock but rather to understand his own existence. This collection is a perfect balance between that rawness and that growing sense of mortality—any one of these stories exemplify what makes Bukowski so compelling as a writer.
Bukowski’s 1989 Hollywood picks up the story of Harry Chinaski again, but this time there’s almost no pretense that this is fiction. The story is essentially a tell-all about Bukowski’s experience with the film Barfly, which is based on Bukowski’s life and adapted from the Chinaski stories. Bukowski is totally disinterested in maintaining distance from his lived experience—the pseudonyms for famous Hollywood figures are transparently obvious—and as a result the novel sizzles with gleeful rage. Bukowski skewers just about everyone involved in the film, including himself, as he explores the way even the tiny levels of power enjoyed on the set of a small-budget film corrupt everyone involved.
This 1978 novel continues the story of Harry Chinaski. Like Bukowski himself, by this point Chinaski is a middle-aged success in the literary world, but no less of a boozy mess. Bukowski focuses his story on masculinity and sex, exploring the grimy underside of Chinaski’s love affairs and other relationships with women. Chinaski relentlessly pursues various affairs, but finds little satisfaction from his experiences with them, which Bukowski describes with a blunt lack of sensuality or grace. Amidst the dirty humor, the overt misogyny, and the relentlessly boring routine of Chinaski’s life, Bukowski traces the combination of fear, anger, and need that define desire and love in his fictional universe. It’s pleasantly powerful.
In his final years, Bukowski amplified his obsession with the grimy, the violent, and the perverse. Completed just a few months before he died, Pulp is a surprise: An experimental foray into metafiction. Although Bukowski’s usual alter ego is a character, Chinaski is not the focus. The story is constructed as an homage to the pulp mysteries of the past, most notably Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett as it follows private detective Nicky Belane in his attempts to track down a missing author. A convoluted rumination on death and mortality (one of Belane’s antagonists is literally named Lady Death), the story purposefully undermines logic and the tropes of pulp fiction, playing out almost as a fever dream right before the end. Self-aware and filled with black humor, it’s a big swing from a writer with nothing left to lose—or to prove.
Collecting poems and stories Bukowski wrote after turning 70, this book makes it clear that for Bukowski, the difference between the two was more about form than anything else. His poems read like stories that have been chopped up and scattered on the page, and his stories trade in the same blunt sentences as his poetry. There’s a creeping sense of self-awareness here—mortality and age are soaked into every line—that lends this later work a weight some of his earlier stuff lacked. One standout is “Son of Satan,” the rare Bukowski story that isn’t obsessed with sex or booze—it’s a violent and expertly executed story with real power that will make you wonder what Bukowski could have done if he’d broadened his subject matter beyond himself more often.