Review: The Bell Tolls For No One
Author: Charles Bukowski
By Rhys Tarling
The Bell Tolls For No One is a collection of short stories from literature’s dirtiest and drunkest relative, Charles Bukowski. The collection is made up of stories he contributed to forgotten adult magazines in the 1980s and unpublished, possibly unfinished, work.
The short stories are disconnected from one another but the vision of the world is all too coherent. Bukowski’s world is informed by the pitiable creatures that populate a dysfunctional and hellish Los Angeles – the alcoholic, the murderous, and the irredeemable. The pleasure to be found here is the nihilistic kind, the blacker-than-midnight’s-heart-humour, the sort of perverse glee that the inmates get to experience when they’re running the asylum.
Every story has a protagonist that is a thinly veiled Charles Bukowski stand-in – a writer transversing through the waking nightmare with little to amuse himself but his meagre wit, rotating cast of lady friends, and flat beer. It’d be eye-roll worthy if it weren’t for the fact that the Bukowski stand-in knows deep in his unhealthy gut that he’s worthless garbage just like all of ’em. It’s a small thing but it’s vital to the humour of the book.
Nobody is going to seriously say that Bukowski’s voice is as enlightening or as well-crafted as that of Shakespeare’s or Sartre’s, but it is just as distinctive, which makes Bukowski one of the all time must-reads. If you’re going to pick a Bukowski to read, make it this one. He’s most palatable as a shot of angry, absurd grit. The short story format practically begs for his style.
Unlike a typical short story, they’re not titled. Why aren’t they titled? Beats me, but if you listen closely to this book it whispers “It’s all one story, man. One great pit of nameless trash.” Although that might have been some of the book’s madness seeping into me.
And make no mistake, this is an insane collection. The most memorably mad tale being a postmodern science fiction vision of the future of a Third Reich-like America and its enforcers, the government spooks, who arrest Bukowski for his transgressive fiction. It’s an absurd premise that’s genuinely unsettling in parts because there are sprinkles of horrific truth concerning the nature of American foreign policy that are robotically spouted by said pitiless government spooks.
The Bell Tolls For No One is a work of unfiltered imagination. It’s awesome – in the oldest sense of the world – in its coarse prose that tells of cruelty and ugliness. Read this collection at least once and if you can never stand to check out the rest of his oeuvre, you, who are not interested in the fetishisation of the vile, can definitely not be blamed.