Thursday, December 5, 2013

Post Office by Charles Bukowski

Yesterday I reread Charles Bukowski’s first novel, Post Office, copyright 1971.  This slim volume (the 1974 Black Sparrow edition I read is just 115 pages) is the semi-autobiographical story of Bukowski’s alter ego “Henry Chinaski,” who works on and off for the postal service in Los Angeles as a carrier and then a clerk, taking time off to go to Texas where he marries an heiress (she divorces him) and then to try to live off his winnings at the racetrack.  The book describes Chinaski’s generally sad, and sometimes brutish, relationships with women, as well as his encounters with various strange characters.  There is little overarching plot; for the most part Post Office is a series of humorous anecdotes, written in a simple, smooth style that employs short and direct sentences.  As these anecdotes pile up, however, they do succeed in generating a sense of the sadness and futility of life.

I think Post Office is laugh out loud funny, but it is crudely sexist, and I do not doubt that some might find it offensive on that score. The unflattering picture Bukowski paints of the black men he meets over the course of his postal career may also raise the ire of readers. Part of the appeal of Post Office is Bukowski’s effort to shock us. Through a little intellectual jujitsu one could perhaps claim that Chinaski’s objectifying women and treating them shabbily is Bukowski’s way of indicting our sexist society. I doubt you could convincingly claim that, when Bukowski describes how blacks at the post office do no work because they will assault any supervisor who gives them an assignment, he is criticizing the racism of our society.

I have no idea how accurate his depiction is, but I found Bukowski’s description of what it was like working in the post office in the 1960s interesting. But I’m also the guy who enjoys the scenes in Moby Dick about whaling. On the other hand the paragraphs about horseracing: the odds, how to choose the winner, etc., bored me.

Bukowski is similar in some ways to Henry Miller. In both men’s most successful fiction we find the first person narrative of a writer, living down and out, casually describing to us his misbehavior and unconventional and/or uncouth opinions, implicitly justifying his misbehavior by pointing out how corrupt and absurd the world and people in general are. Where Bukowski differs from Miller is in how unpretentious he is; Miller repeatedly tells us how his friends proclaim him a genius, Miller talks about his love of such great cultural figures as Proust and Dostoevsky and cult authors like Hamsun, Miller thinks we are interested in his opinions about India and the theories of Spengler, Miller regales us with page after page of his surreal dreams. For the most part Bukowski sticks to funny anecdotes which reveal (revel in?) how much of an outsider and how much of a jerk he is, and sticks to his straightforward pithy style.

I read all of Bukowski’s novels in the 1990s, thinking Ham on Rye the best and Pulp the worst. Post Office made me laugh quite a bit, so I am considering rereading more of Bukowski soon.

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