Reading Charles Bukowski on Sihanoukville Beaches

“We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.”

reading at independence beach, sihanoukville cambodia

I get really sick of always being online, so as an antidote, I’ve started to read books again. My latest acquisition is a copy of Charles Bukowski’s Notes of a Dirty Old Man. If I wanted to have a conversation with a drunk or a dirty old man, I wouldn’t have any trouble at all finding someone to sit down with in a Sihanoukville bar. I don’t really like to drink more than a glass of wine or beer, though, and I can better be described as a sometimes grumpy old man than a dirty old man, so why would I choose to read Bukowski?

In a way, Charles Bukowski and I go way back. Between 1968 and 1973 or thereabouts, I worked off and on in a great bookshop in Hermosa Beach, California called Either/Or Books. The owners were a couple of beatniks who collected Bukowski’s first editions, which were delivered by his girlfriend or wife — I’m not sure which, but it doesn’t matter. Since I was often running the store when she arrived, I frequently got to chat with her. She was, in contrast to Bukowski’s descriptions of women in his books, a very intelligent and friendly person. She was also very much in love with ‘Hank’, as she called him. And if she is to be believed, he cared a lot more about her than his seemingly misogynistic writing would suggest.

Reading Charles Bukowski at Independence Beach

During slow periods at work, I’d sit on the stool at the front desk and read from random books. Of course, Bukowski was one of them, but at the time, I couldn’t really get into either his poetry or his prose. My snooty English major prejudices got in the way of my being able to appreciate the raw power of his writing or the wisdom between his lines.

When I saw Notes of a Dirty Old Man on the shelf at Casablanca Books, it seemed to reach out to me rather than the other way around. After resisting for awhile, I finally chose it in favour of The Dice Man, by Luke Rhinehart.

I’ve taken the book with me to two beaches so far. I don’t know if there’s any deep inner meaning to it or not, but the only one where someone has commented on what I was reading has been at Otres Beach, specifically at Papa Pippo’s, where the backpacker who waited on me commented that she had recently read some of Bukowski’s work. She agreed with me that behind the language and imagery, there was something likeable and even admirable about him.


Reading Charles Bukowski at Otres Beach

I think his unrelenting honesty has something to do with it, but Bukowski may have put it best when he wrote in Tales of Ordinary Madness:

the free soul is rare, but you know it when you see it – basically because you feel good, very good, when you are near or with them.

That’s how I felt when I met my wife, Sopheak, and I’ve felt that way around a few other Cambodians as well. Why is that so? Maybe it’s because most of us Westerners aren’t free souls. We come from countries where we become so accustomed to the rules that imprison us, we end up believing we are free. In a million ways, our well-ordered world makes us reliant on our governments, financial institutions and corporate jobs (“I hid in bars, because I didn’t want to hide in factories” – CB). That’s not freedom. It’s indentured servitude and somewhere inside, I think we know it.

I loved this passage in Notes of a Dirty Old Man:

I don’t want to get as holy about being active as Camus did (see his essays) because basically most of mankind sickens me and the only saving that can be done is a whole new concept of Universal Education-Vibration understanding of happiness, reality and flow, and that’s for the little children who haven’t been murdered yet, but they will be, I’ll lay you twenty-five to one, for no new concept will be allowed — it would be too destructive to the power gang.

I can’t help but wonder, though. Would he have changed “most of mankind sickens me” to “most of my culture sickens me” if he had had the opportunity to live and write in a so-called Third World country? I don’t know, but that’s sort of how I feel after 7 years in Cambodia. Sure, there’s a lot that’s messed up about Third World countries, too, but at least it’s not hiding in the shadows or dressed up to look nice, as it is in our self-defined 1st world countries.

I still can’t relate to Bukowski’s alcoholism, but I can relate to his refusal to be imprisoned. I think he put it best in these lines. Leave out the beer part (or not, if you prefer) and I think he puts it perfectly:

For those who believe in God, most of the big questions are answered. But for those of us who can’t readily accept the God formula, the big answers don’t remain stone-written. We adjust to new conditions and discoveries. We are pliable. Love need not be a command nor faith a dictum. I am my own god. We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state, and our educational system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.

Note: Some of the quotes in this post come from Charles Bukowski quotes on Goodreads.

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About Rob Schneider

Rob Schneider is a writer based in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, where he has lived since 2006.

6 Responses to Reading Charles Bukowski on Sihanoukville Beaches

  1. Ken Svay says:

    I have a Kindle and it is marvelous. Easy to read in any light and so portable. I read mostly contemporary military history and lately I have bought several Vietnam books for a few dollars each.
    Old men are writing only now of their experiences. I only learned about Bukowski from a friend in Cambodia ten years ago and so read all his books-fantastic.

  2. Pingback: Reading Charles Bukowski on Sihanoukville Beaches - Sihanoukville Cambodia Journal - Wandering Salsero

  3. Francis says:

    Thank you very much for this – and the nice photos! 🙂

  4. Barry says:

    Really enjoy your blog, I am one of those old men living and working a bit in Phnom Phen. I have found the perfect compromise I think between being online and reading. I have my Canadian library card which allows me to borrow E books from Canada. I then can be even lazier and borrow the audio books, a lot of mornings I have to “rewind” as I fall sleep listening, I hope heaven is as good!

    • I’m jealous! I met another “old man” the other day who had an Ereader and highly recommended it. The only one I can find here is a Kindle, for about $135, I think. What do you have? Does it matter?

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