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Bukowski: Variations on Us and Them

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: June 26, 1999
Latest update: November 7, 2000
Faculty on the Site.

"They Ain't Us": Identity as Anti-Norm

Bukowski: A Narrative that Refuses to Be Us

the hunt by Charles Bukowski, "beat" poet
Link added on June 26, 1999.

Bukowski: A Narrative that Refuses to Be Us

The "Beat" poets, the whole search of the Sixties for a new narrative of identity, the rejection of the young of the hypocrisy and arrogance of a system that had led them into the disaster that was Vietnam, the confusion of narratives, myths that no longer fit and that seemed as though they never should have, these bring us to the postmodern search for an identity that does not bind, does not mislead, is honest, at least with ourselves. Unlike Ernest Gaines' hero in "The Three Men," they were no longer willing to acknowledge the privileged group's need to be "not them."

The quest for a new identity exploded in the Vietnam debacle. Today it bursts anew as the globe implodes and groups discover both their differences, and their unwillingness to color them all the "same." And so today's student needs some familiarity with all the issues on identity and the changing, illusive narratives of who we are.

Bukowski, a "beat" poet, offers one place to start, with the unsentimental, calls it as I sees it, reality of what the world was like for them. Beatty offers another in White Boy Shuffle, a view of how it feels to a bright and sensitive young black man to be one of "their good students," and to refuse that identity, as one that does not fit, that is not who he is and one he will not accept to join them across the boundaries of "not them". Essentially, Beatty refuses to join the privileged in rejoicing in their status of "not them," even though he could gain acceptance in the "not them" world. Both Bukowski and Beatty shock the reader into a realization that they are refusing the normatively defined social reality. They use shocking language. They speak of schocking incidents. Shocking at least to normative social reality as it is portrayed traditionally.

I am not a literary critic. I do not bring you these discussions as samples of great literature, though both have been acknowledged as important and good writers. I bring them instead to share their narratives, to make you conscious of the many narratives of identity, and of the importance of those narratives to the social roles we play.

Bukowski addresses the sources of the narrative in "the hunt," at p. in Mockingbird Wish Me Luck , Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa, 1993 edition of a 1972 work. He paints a bleak picture of "unemployed drunks" scooping up the grunion, and then suggests how they came to be "unemployed drunks," with a poignancy that hints at what he thought of the system that produced this scene.

by god, it was a long day
the 3 horse broke down
the cook burned his hand,
. . .
and the grunion ran again
through the oily sea
to plant eggs on shore and be caught
by unemployed drunks
with flopping canvas hats
and no woman at all.
offshore you could see the lights of a
passing yacht
with a party on board,
lots of girls and jokes and the
rest, and they put the 3 horse in
the truck, carried him away from the
crowd and shot
him, little things like that and other
are what sometimes create unemployed drunks
with flopping canvas hats,
sans woman,
trying to grab for

On the facing page from this "shoot the horse" and "grab for grunion" is a poem called "those sons of bitches" about the dead. Bukowski ends that image with:

one tombstone for the mess,
I say
humanity, you never had it
from the beginning.

Bukowski died just a few years ago. I had a student who had known him, met him in L.A. bars, said he was crusty and mean just like his poems, and that he was that student's hero. Beatty is from L.A., too. That's not significant. It just is. Thought you'd like to know.