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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Book Review: Charles Bukowsk SOUTH OF NO NORTH: Stories of the buried Life. Black Sparrow Press, Santa Barbara, 1973 (189 pages).

I have reread this collection of short stories twice recently and reckon it contains an incredible variety amongst its 27 stories. South of No North is sandwiched between two important books in the Bukowski canon, the short story collection Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness (1972) and the poetry collection Burning In Water Drowning In Flame (1974). Two of the short stories which appear in the book ‘All the Assholes in the World and Mine’ (1966) and ‘Confessions of a Man Insane Enough to Live With Beasts’ (1965) were originally published as chapbooks by Douglas Blazek. Some of the other short stories were first published in his columns for the Los Angeles Free Press and in the underground newspaper NOLA Express. The story ‘The Way the Dead Love’ contains sections from Bukowski’s abandoned novel which John Martin of Black Sparrow Press asked him to write in 1966.

The title, as David Stephen Calonne writes in his short Critical Lives study Charles Bukowski “suggests the directionlessness of many of his characters: they have no way to orient themselves.”

A majority of the stories are written from the point of view of Henri Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter-ego. Several of the short stories are auto-biographical, including ‘Bop Bop That Curtain’ (childhood entertainment in L.A. during the 1930s), ‘Politics’ (Buk’s involvement in Nazism during his L.A. College days), ‘Remember Pearl Harbour’ (when Buk was imprisoned during World War 2 and suspected of avoiding military service), ‘This is What Killed Dylan Thomas (about a poetry reading in San Francisco) and ‘All the Assholes in the World and Mine’ which he famously recounts his painful haemorrhoid operation).

Overall, The writing in this book has a remarkable spontaneous feel to it, that anything can and will happen in the crude inventive hands of Bukowski.

Read the book online here:

Here’s my take on the best 10 short stories in SOUTH OF NO NORTH:

(10) Confessions of a Man Insane Enough to Live With Beasts

Although you can get bored shitless reading Bukowski’s heavily auto-biographical short stories because of their sameness, this is a stand-out story in the shaping of the legend. In a series of vignettes, it takes us through some of the threshold experiences in his life, including his battle with Acne Vulgaris, how Buk almost bleed to death in the Charity Ward of the Los Angeles County Hospital in 1954, his work in a variety of dead-end jobs, his life with crazy women on skid row and his struggle to become a professional writer.

(9) Something About a Viet Cong Flag

Bukowski was fascinated with criminal behaviour and in many of his short stories he explored various aspects of crime from predators to the criminally insane. This story focuses on the rape of a woman Sally. The matter-of-fact tone is disquieting as seemingly ordinary events turn sinister.‘ The Killers’, Hit Man’ and to a lesser extent, ‘Maja Thurup’ are other crime stories you will find in this collection.

(8) You and Your Beer and How Great You Are

This is third person story about Jack Backenweld, a light-heavyweight boxer and his relationship with women. The dialogue is highly credible, and like much of Bukowski’s work, drives the story.

(7) Christ on Rollerskates

This is a satirical sports story. It begins with the owner and vice-president of the Yellowjackets, a Roller Derby team, interviewing a star player, Monster Chonjacki. The humour operates on many levels and centres on the cynical idea that the violence in the sport is faked and the fans “love to be fooled. ”

(6) The Way the Dead Love

These vignettes from his unpublished novel graphically represent Bukowsk’s “lost years” on skid-row in L.A. The heavy drinking, moving from one rooming house to the next and the mad, desperate characters he meets are credibly described.  More importantly, it is the dark days, Chinaski’s reoccurring nightmares, the black dog contemplation of suicide, the “walking through a sea of fire” which make this story immortal, particularly in section 6.

(5) Stop Staring at My Tits, Mister

This is a brilliant sexual spoof on the American Western. Big Bart is the meanest, most misogynistic man in the West. “There wasn’t a man his age who had killed more Indians or fucked more women or killed more white men… Even his farts were exceptional.” This is another of Bukowski’s hyperbolic male fantasies- full-on hilarious with plenty of mad one-liners.

(4) The Devil Was Hot

This is another outstanding short story cleverly crafted by Bukowski. The narrator, presumably Chinaski and his partner Flo arrive at an amusement park where a circus entrepreneur, Ernie Jamestown is showcasing the Devil in one of his freak shows. This is tight, humorous writing. Bukowski at his best!

(3) Maja Thurup

This is an unusual direction for Bukowski. It is about a lady, Hester Adams who returns from South America with a cannibal, Maja Thurup, who no girl from his village would accept. Apparently “he had torn two girls to death with his instrument. One had been entered from the front, the other from the rear. No matter.” What follows is another crazy fling into Bukowsi’s overhung madness.

(2) Love for $17.50

This is a surreal story about Robert Wilkinson who falls in love with a mannequin he calls Stella. Despite having a couple of girlfriends, Robert prefers Stella’s company and falls in love with her. Bukowski makes a shrewd, highly entertaining commentary on contemporary relationships between men and women.

(     (1) No Way to Paradise

One of Bukowski’s best ever short stories! Hank is in a bar and meets Dawn who keeps four three inch people in her purse who bitch and moan and fuck each other when hot. As they do it they make Dawn and Hank hot as well. Another satirical, and highly amusing take on the ins and outs of relationships.