I don’t read a ton of blogs, but there is one I find myself coming back to called “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run,” written by Gus Sanchez. He’s got a cool name, and his words force me to consider questions as a writer, or at least, as a wannabe. He recently posted a piece titled “In Defense of Unlikeable Characters,” in which he questions why lead characters must be likeable, and not to spoil the ending, concludes that characters do not have to be likeable- they need to be real. I didn’t agree with everything he wrote, but I did enjoy the piece. It set the wheels of my mind turning, primarily because I currently seem to be bombarded with unlikeable characters, in relation to my entertainment selections.
With the hubbub of the holidays, I was not able to make it to the library to procure a new book. I had to select something to reread off my own shelf. Prior to moving last summer, in a fit of needing to free myself of “things,” I gave away most of my books. I felt they could live their purpose better by being actually read by other people, instead of just sitting on my shelf. Thus, my pickings were a bit slim.
I decided to read Charles Bukowski’s “Women,” because I could honestly not remember much of it. I am perhaps 75-100 pages in, and am wondering what trauma to the head affected my decision making to the point I would keep this book for the past ten or so years. The lead character, Henry Chinaski, seems to have no redeeming or likeable qualities. Perhaps as the novel unfolds, this will change. But so far, all he has done is drink, vomit, drink some more, smoke, have sex, and degrade women. Much like the lead character, the ladies are one dimensional caricatures- crazy bitches too happy to spread their legs for a flicker of attention.
I get that his writing is supposed to portray a sense of realism, to chronicle the life of the average Joe rather than some noble untouchable hero. But are everyday people without depth and common decency? If I wanted a firsthand account of the boredom of alcoholism, I have a number of relatives who could provide front row seats. So what is the appeal of this author?
Unlikeable characters seem to come in three varieties: villains, charming assholes, and curmudgeons. Villains are self explanatory- you’re not supposed to like them. Charming assholes are the guys who possess enough charisma and wit to render them likeable, even if they commit unlikeable deeds. As Mr. Sanchez noted, most of these types perform some sort of redeeming act in the end. Or perhaps they get their just desserts. Think of the final Vince Vaughn scene in “Swingers.” Curmudgeons are the guys who appear unlikeable at first glance, but over the course of the movie or book, the layers are peeled back. The curmudgeon’s actions do not change, but upon a more lengthy examination, the viewer or reader gains access to why the curmudgeon does the things he does. The result is usually sympathy and understanding.
I recently watched “Lincoln” and Thaddeus Stevens, played by Tommy Lee Jones, seems to be a prime example of a curmudgeon. His speaks in gruff sentences, usually to belittle the recipient of the exchange. He moves in a closed off, cold manner, as if he might turn and hiss if tapped on the shoulder. He even wears a terrible, obvious wig, daring glances to ridicule him. But over the course of the film, we see that he appears brusque because he is so focused on assisting the passage of the 13th amendment. I enjoyed the film, and Jones performance immensely. In fact, I often root for the unlikeable characters because their dimension makes them interesting.
So why such trouble with this Chinaski fellow? I am not sure why I keep reading. Probably because I still have yet to make it to the library and I’m trying to soak up the last few moments before I am forced to spend my free time reading text books.
I don’t believe the character will change, and that would be fine, if I thought he was interesting. But he’s not. He’s just a boring drunk. Maybe I am waiting for the spark of what everyone else sees. I read that James Franco is developing one of his books into a movie. Sean Penn once said he would play Bukowski for $1. I had an ex-boyfriend who quoted from him all the time, perhaps the reason I held on to the book. Is there some extraordinary event that happens on the second to last page of the book? By the end, will I be so bombarded with monotony that even the slightest witty exchange will read as brilliant? Maybe it is a “guy’s” book, much like the movie “Smokey and the Bandit.”
I don’t know. If you have any suggestions for a good book I can run into the library and grab quickly (it’s hard to look for books for myself with two kids in tow), I would be grateful. If I keep reading this Bukowski, I might have to resort joining him in a drink just to muddle through it.