The title of the Charles Bukowski story “Cacoethes Scribendi”—Latin for “incurable itch to write”—will be startling to readers of, say, “Christ on Rollerskates” or “All the Assholes in the World and Mine.” The Bukowski we think we know is as terse as Hemingway nursing a bad hangover, more likely to reference jock itch than some fruity Latin phrase. But here his diction is downright ostentatious: “It was a woman, looking diacritic, argute.” He uses words like zebu and acephalous. This from the guy who wrote “Sometimes you just have to pee in the sink.”
This story, which appears in Absence of the Hero, a collection of Bukowski’s early singles, B-sides, and outtakes, is both a satire and a reflection on storytelling, making it a rather exceptional moment in the canon of a grubby realist whose lean, deadpan constructions—“My soul is puking”—tend to make haiku seem epic and pompous. Even “Cacoethes” runs on such spartan prose until its narrator, a nameless prototype of Bukowski’s
stalwart alter ego, Henry Chinaski, pays a visit to a precious, modestly successful writer:
His writing was mostly a tautology of the popular mode, though sometimes he worked with abstraction, and because the others weren’t doing it, it did give his stories a clean, fresh ring, a ring, I thought sometimes a little too valiant with experimental pageantry. But what the devil, he was trying.
We hear Holden Caulfield criticizing Laurence Olivier for being a show-off. The praise is clearly disingenuous: Bukowski is lampooning the vocabulary and sub-Jamesian sentence structure of the sort of writing he dislikes—stiff, ornate, self-satisfied. Words and their meanings should be open and straightforward, not hidden behind polysyllabic clutter or fussy syntax.
Once the perspective returns to the narrator, its style normalizes: “Say, where’s the bathroom?” Back to the writer, however, and the language is re-empurpled: “He came back with his high, white bowl of fourscore pretzels and set them before me. I obliged and sipped at my coffee.” From here, the narrative style bifurcates: plain for the main character, flowery and highfalutin for the artiste.
To Bukowski’s ears, grandiloquence is not beautiful; it tries too hard to please. A lofty style speaks for a writing workshop or for the author’s own vanity, but not for the hardscrabble realities of life—which is what the work demands. This makes “Cacoethes” a neat microcosm for—and the first example of—Bukowski’s preoccupation with the human face and what it reveals about character, in fiction as in life.
Early in the story, the narrator describes the writer: “a huge man, large-boned, tall, wide, somehow fortified. I glanced at his face and didn’t find it particularly striking.” The writer has his own thoughts about appearance: “‘I thought you were a younger man.’ ‘I’m twenty-five,’
I answered, ‘but I’ve led a hard life.’”
There’s a strikingly similar scene in Ham on Rye, Bukowski’s tragicomic memoir-as-bildungsroman, where a custodian accosts Chinaski for skulking in a school hallway on prom night without a date or a tuxedo: “‘Get your ass out of here before I call the cops!’ ‘What for? This is the Senior Prom and I’m a senior.’ ‘Bullshit!’ he said. ‘You’re at least 22 years old!’”
In “Cacoethes,” the first-person perspective is unsurprising. When he was a teenager, Bukowski’s face and body were promiscuous with giant boils, and the California girls wanted nothing to do with him. Ugly faces, Chinaski repeatedly argues, are more honest, and therefore more beautiful, than the assembly-line perfection of Ken and Barbie. This story makes the case that writers should operate according to the same principles, avoid ostentation because of its inherent falsity. A pretty face and a well-manicured sentence might appear perfect, but Bukowski would argue that their enhanced features—enhanced by plastic surgery or by highbrow vocabulary—are fraudulent and ugly. The blunt Anglo-Saxon phrase, like a gap tooth, is beautiful in its stark inelegance.