Tuesday, April 19, 2022

Fante Bukowski by Noah Van Sciver

I have to start by proclaiming my hipster bona fides; Fante Bukowski would insist on it. But I'm a middle-aged white guy who lives in the suburbs, with a wife and grown sons and a 401(k).

So all I got, I think, is that I read the original first book of Bukowski's exploits - 2015's Fante Bukowski - instead of the newer, fancier omnibus collecting all three books about him to date. It would have been better if I'd read the original Fante in a battered paperback, bought in a bus depot somewhere in the Dakotas, but I did at least get it for free, reading it digitally without paying anyone for the privilege. [1]

Noah Van Sciver has been telling stories in comics form about this guy for nearly ten years now; Fante Bukowski has a lot of short pieces that add up to the whole, which could have appeared separately - the book doesn't say, but my guess is that at least a few of them did.

So, then: who is Fante Bukowski? He's a big mess of a self-delusional wanna-be, a sweaty bearded dude - very deeply that kind of self-assumed-to-be-world-conquering white dude, though Van Sciver doesn't emphasize that he's very much of a type - in his mid-20s and sure in the way only completely wrong people can be that he's destined to be a great, famous writer.  His real name is, or was, Kelly Perkins: he changed it for the usual self-aggrandizing reasons. [2]

Bukowski lives in a cheap motel, types on a manual typewriter, and rages eternally against "jocks," the people who run the world, get all the good things, and can interact with other people smoothly. (That's a good character touch: it emphasizes how young Bukowski is, and how still caught up in that high-school mentality, without saying it obviously.) He is, we the reader assumes, as horrible a writer as he is a human being: he seems to have absolutely no interior life, no self-reflection, no distance on anything at all. All he has is his naked desire to be famous, like a million air-guitarists and hairbrush singers and back-of-the-door-mirror dancers.

I think the core joke of the series is that Bukowski fails upward, but at this point it's still pretty pure failure. He gets a poem published...in possibly the lowest-tier magazine possible. He meets an agent...who is an even worse human being than he is, in crass schmoozy ways. He writes a novel...which is a crude, obvious copy of a famous book, though Bukowski is apparently so stupid or deluded that he needs to be told that's what he did.

He does get a girlfriend, sort-of, more-or-less, over the course of the book. Audrey is possibly even more screwed up than Bukowski - well, she would have to be, to willingly sleep with him, right? - manic and tightly wound, with one book published and a gnawing void where the idea for her contractual second book should be.

This is almost entirely cringe comedy, with Bukowski as the cringiest of the cringe. It's well-organized, carefully marshalled cringe comedy, sure. But it's still entirely "look at this stupid deluded fool, and laugh at his folly." Again, I gather the series slides more into "and his folly illuminates all of the follies of the world," but we're not there yet in Fante Bukowski. He's not yet the idiot success whose excesses show the hollowness of all around him; he's just an idiot.

So I was amused by this, but I am not a fan of cringe: it was difficult to enjoy. Reading it feels like punching someone while he's down. More specifically: feels like punching someone who will always be down, who has no skills or ability to ever get up. And that's not something I ever want to be comfortable with.

[1] Note that I am implying that it was pirated; it was actually from the library. I'm cynical enough to assert that both of those things are equally hipster: the near-lie and the cheap workaround.

[2] This is where I lose all of those carefully hoarded hipster bona fides. I'm sure I'd heard about John Fante at some point, but "Fante" rang no bells until I googled "Fante Bukowski" and was reminded. At least I knew who the original Bukowski was.

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