A Bukowski, on the Rocks

On Bukowski and his brand of good dialogue.

Photo by Sérgio Alves Santos https://unsplash.com/search/bar?photo=OxKFC5u0980

Here is Charles Bukowski in his short story collection Hot Water MusicIf you naturally skim-read, I recommend slowing down and reading the following dialogue at as close to speech-speed as you can (out loud would be even better).


Back at the Red Peacock Louie went to his favourite stool and sat down. The barkeep walked up.
“Well, Louie, how did you make out?
“Make out?”
“With the lady.”
“With the lady?”
“You left together, man. Did you get her?”
“No, not really …”
“What went wrong?”
“What went wrong?”
“Yes, what went wrong?”
“Give me a whiskey sour, Billy.”

Did you notice a difference between how you pronounced the two versions of What went wrong?

What makes the Quote quiver?

Repetition with different emphasis and raw dialogue, unencumbered by sophisticated descriptions.

The QuotePhoto by Redd Angelo https://unsplash.com/search/bar?photo=u6aR3_lnXyY works because it fits the subject matter—you could hardly further a philosophical discussion that way—but it’s also a stylistic choice that trusts the reader to imbue the words with meaning based on cultural context and the context of the story (which lends something, but not so much you can’t do without it for the purposes of today’s post). In fact, more so than other styles, it encourages the reader to “hear” both voices, and to play them out, pronouncing them differently, alternating between inhabiting the two characters, especially since it’s a third-person narrative. Another way to see it, is that the reader is given an explicit eavesdropping role, and left to fill in the details: provide the setting, the body language, the verbal tics.

In certain situations, it is harder to write convincing dialogue without adverbial struts. Moreover, less experienced readers, non-native speakers, skim-readers, or those with other tastes, may find such repetitive, bare dialogue jarring and uninteresting.

Now, a brief jaunt to one of the other extremes.

Bukowski: you may not have even heard of him, let alone of his 1983 Hot Water Music. However, you’ve most probably read excerpts from The Great GatsbyF. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 classical masterpiece on American life in the Jazz Age. How do you remember it? Did the dialogue strike you as stunningly vivid? Was it ornate?

The following snippets are a random sampling from the first page I happen to open (pp 50–51 of my copy).

‘Who is he?’ I demanded.

‘I don’t know,’ she insisted, …

‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he cried.

‘The piece is known,’ he concluded lustily, …

‘Miss Baker?’ he inquired …

‘With me?’ she exclaimed in surprise.

Oh how it must be to conclude lustily!

After Bukowski, all those adverbs and specific speech words in Gatsby sound contrived and as if Fitzgerald is working hard to force a precise, unalterable image upon the reader. This says nothing about the quality of Fitzgerald’s prose measured against the standards of his own era, or of the historical and literary value of his writing in general. It’s merely that the times have changed. All modern how-to writing books are vehemently on the side of Bukowski, advocating the use of the verb to say in dialogue, with occasional variations if pressed and omissions of attribution whenever possible. Bukowski is certainly closer to how we perceive literary communication today.

If you end up watching the clip below, you’ll hear more from the man himself. Be prepared, this is how he speaks:

Yeah, they say I’m good with dialogue. I’ve lived a life, I’ve heard enough [insert choice expletive] conversations, I ought to be.

New York Drinking Bar https://www.flickr.com/photos/britishlibrary/11150876823/in/photolist-i6PE88-hZnabX-i72Rij-hTvz58-ibYBPv-hX6uaJ-i1PyY1

What is at the core of the Quote?

Epizeuxis, asteismus, rhetorical question.

Epizeuxis is the repetition without interruption, as in Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! that I discussed last week. There, words are repeated, here whole phrases are thrown back and forth for effect.

Asteismus is the misunderstanding between friends that comes from deliberately misinterpreting what is being said. Mark Medoff uses it in Children of a Lesser God, James Bond does it all the time, and now we have Louie misunderstanding the barkeep. Perhaps there’s a touch of sarcasm in there too.

Rhetorical question: question asked, answer not expected but implied. The difference in intonation between the two instances of What went wrong? is the difference between a question and a rhetorical question.

In the video below, you can listen to the  “laureate of American lowlife” sharing his thoughts on life and writing, set to animation. Three minutes twenty seconds. He swears occasionally, but he makes some good points, with style.

Description and credits from below the YouTube video:

“I’m such a spoiled old toad … I was blessed with a crappy life” – Charles Bukowski in 1993

One afternoon, Bukowski sat down to record the audio version of his classic, Run With the Hunted. The session took place in his home with his wife by his side. These are the outtakes.

Produced by http://quotedstudios.org and http://www.harperaudioclassics.com in 2014

Reading Recommendations

  1. Hot Water Music, Charles Bukowski. Because all his stories are well-written (if brash and cynical). It’s a skill.
  2. 52 Pickup, Elmore Leonard. Because it’s a thriller with a twist and Elmore Leonard too writes compelling, real-life dialogue.
  3. Style: Quirks and PerksQQ. Last week’s article juxtaposing E. B. White’s and Bukowski’s takes on style.

Author: A Quiver of Quotes

Jousts with words, jaunts through all genres. In favour of hendiadys, synaesthesia, and the transferred epithet. Books, books, books. Writing. Author of https://quiverquotes.com

10 thoughts on “A Bukowski, on the Rocks”

  1. I am so delighted to have tripped over your blog at the time you were tripping through Leggy Peggy’s. I am a great fan of not including too many he said she said and quote marks. A piece of work is a collaboration between writer and reader, and I reckon the reader has to do a bit of the hard lifting himself.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Much obliged that you dropped by. (I meant to write this first.)

      Agreed about the dialogue! Although, to be honest, I find it harder lifting sometimes when I have to wade through tangles of cumbersome descriptors just to learn how a character was holding their little finger when they said what they said.

      (Enjoyed Leggy Peggy’s cemetery post— made me want to visit too.)


  2. You have shown me that variation on the verb to say can be distracting, and unnecessary.

    Maybe sometimes it helps to have theatrical directions? Knowing there was a pause before someone answered, or that they glanced at someone else before answering, for example?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Do you mean in general or in this type of dialogue in particular?

      In general, most dialogue cannot subsist without some theatrical and adverbial directions for longer than a few lines. Anytime there are more than two people talking, it’s easy to get lost in who’s saying what while doing what. Even in two-person alternating dialogue, such as in Don DeLillo’s Zero K, it’s possible to lose track of who’s speaking and why you’d want to care—something I found annoying while reading the book. (For example, the first instance I found flicking through just now was 11 shortish lines before an attribution or a beat, and by that point it was an uncomfortable slog. Unlike in Bukowski, the two people were having a non-repetitive, information-filled conversation without a breather; perhaps it worked for some people, it didn’t for me.)

      In particular, Bukowski’s style and subject matter support the kind of omission demonstrated in the Quote. It’s likely that a few choice words could have been added in places without diminishing the overall reading experience, but without benefitting it either. (Some changes would have altered it beyond its original feel, which is another matter.)

      But I fear that I haven’t answered your question …

      PS It occurred to me this morning, that I recently finished The Helmet of Horror: The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur by Victor Pelevin, which is entirely written in the form of a chat forum. At first glance it is similar to reading a play—characters have names and speak, or rather, write the their lines—however, it is more extreme, as there are truly no theatrical directions. (And it was not written for theatre.) The only way we learn about the setting and the appearance of the characters is through their own descriptions of their location, appearances, and so on. I’d class that as borderline experimental, and it’s an experience worth acquiring, once.


  3. The dialogue in the bar reminds me somewhat of a poem I once heard by a guy whose name I think* was Patrick -in LA about 17-18 years ago. He didn’t have chap books so sadly I never heard it again, but the story was about his car got bumped on the freeway or something like that – and when the two drivers stopped, the other one gets out all upset, and all Patrick does is repeat everything the bumper said but in a different tone. Something like

    “you’re an idiot”
    “you’re** an idiot”
    “that was crazy”
    “that was** crazy”

    and so on. One of those poems I’d like to rediscover.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Ha, at least in that poem they didn’t seem to degenerate to violence (or did they?). I just flicked through most of “Hot Water Music” to find how Bukowski handled the one car accident scene on the freeway I remembered, and I have to say, his dialogue in that one wasn’t as interesting as your contribution 🙂 (His had something about someone not being able to fight their way out of paper bag?!)

      In flicking through, however, I did come across multiple instances of very similar dialogue with repeated sentences. I guess he really liked his repetitions. Would be interesting to find out if your Patrick poet took some hints from a Bukowski writing manual … 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. You’re right! It would be jarring if there were such contrasts within a book. But as long as there’s a sense of consistency within a piece of writing, there’s room for a lot of stylistic variation over all of literature.


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