I recently finished Post Office from Charles Bukowski, and I can’t emphasize how much I enjoyed this nasty little novel, so special thanks to Max at Pechorin’s Journal for steering me towards my first Bukowski.
A few weeks ago, I read Memoirs-of-a-Good-for-Nothing–the story of a 19th century happy-go-lucky slacker who’s basically booted out into the world by his frustrated father. When I finished Post Office, I wondered if we could also say that its anti-hero, Henry Chinaski, qualifies for the title of good-for-nothing. Well probably not as Chinaski does manage to stick it out at the post office for 12 miserable years, but in some ways Chinaski might qualify as a good-for-nothing as he doesn’t ‘amount’ to anything in the sense of ‘getting ahead’ in the world. On the surface, the two books are complete opposites, but then again after consideration, are they fundamentally so different? Both books chart the progress (or lack thereof) of their subjects. Memoirs of a Good-For-Nothing is the story of an eternally optimistic loafer while the protagonist of Post Office takes an acidic, sardonic view of life, but when the books conclude, both men are largely unchanged.
Back to the book.
The anti-hero of Bukowski’s novel is Chinaski, and I absolutely loved this character. He’s antisocial, crude, profane and misogynistic. The list of Chinaski’s bad qualities is endless, but then again he does love his dog and shows kindness to an alcoholic ex lover. Most of the novel gravitates around Chinaski’s job at the post office, and when he’s not at the post office, Chinaski is at the track or bedding some new woman.
It all starts from a wrong impression:
“It was Christmas season and I learned from the drunk up the hill, who did the trick every Christmas, that they would hire damned near anybody, and so I went and the next thing I knew I had this leather sack on my back and was hiking around at my leisure. What a job, I thought. Soft! They only gave you a block or two and if you managed to finish, the regular carrier would give you another block to carry, or maybe you’d go back in and the soup would give you another, but you just took your time and shoved those Xmas cards in the slots.”
Chinaski meets an overly friendly, buxom female customer who wants more than just a Xmas card delivered. This encounter impresses Chinaski who concludes:
“But I couldn’t help thinking, god, all these mailmen do is drop their letters and get laid. This is the job for me, oh yes yes yes.”
He starts as a temp and immediately bumps heads with the “soup” Jonstone AKA The Stone. While Chinaski at first swallows the party-line that the post office is a decent job with great benefits, from his descriptions it appears as though the post office employee rules and regulations have been created by a sadistic madman. Someone should hang a sign over the post office door that reads: “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here” because it really does seem as though Chinaski has died and gone to post office hell. The average day at the post office is replete with mindless Sisyphean tasks while Chinaski battles the elements, the dogs and the people who seem hell-bent on making his life impossible. Bukowski captures the sheer drudgery, the mind-numbingly boring tasks, the petty office politics, and the endless rules that range from how often Chinaski can use the toilet to where he can place his hat.
But scrap any idea of Chinaski being a victim. When he gets off work, he drinks all night long, and Chinaski’s normal state of affairs is to begin the day with a hangover. It’s hard to feel sorry for Chinaski in spite of the fact that he hates his job, and this is because our anti-hero is always funny and he isn’t out to please. It never occurs to him to worry about what people think of him. Ah, yes… it’s so refreshing to read this character’s vision of the world.
It’s with women that Chinaski is arguably his most reprehensible. When the novel begins he’s with a “shackjob” --a woman whose absence (she goes to work) frees Chinaski for his opportunistic sexual encounters. To Chinaski women are objects–no more, no less. They are mostly described by their body parts, and to Chinaski, the bigger the better. Here’s an exchange between Chinaski and his “shackjob” Betty who finally decides she’s had just as much as she can take:
“It’s over, she said, I’m not sleeping with you another night.”
“All right. Keep your pussy. It’s not that great anyway.”
There’s a sense that Betty breaks off the relationship because of its unconventionality rather than Chinaski’s perpetual infidelities, and indeed Chinaski’s lack of conformity is a theme that continues throughout this extremely funny novel. It’s worth pointing out that while Chinaski treats the women who cross his path quite abominably, he, in turn, is also objectified. This is certainly true at the post office where he is treated as little more than a machine, but then again the women in Chinaski’s life–Betty, Joyce and Fay seem to view him as some sort of accessory to their various self-images. Why do they express surprise or frustration with Chinaski when the relationships fail? After all, it’s hardly as though he ever puts on a good front for anyone. With Chinaski, what you see is what you get, and whoever decides to be his “shackjob” of the moment must either be deranged, insanely optimistic, or in a state of some sort of chemical dependency.
Bukowski apparently referred to his own live-in girlfriend as a “shackjob,” and he also suffered years at the post office, so it should come as no great surprise that the novel is largely autobiographical. It certainly rings with an authenticity that’s hard to beat.
Here’s Chinaski on the idea of “security” with the post office:
“Security? You could get security in jail. Three squares and no rent to pay, no utilities, no income tax, no child support. No license fees. No traffic tickets. No drunk driving raps. No losses at the race track. Free medical attention. comradeship with those with similar interests. Church. Roundeye. Free burial.”
Of course, those who’ve ever actually been in prison would probably disagree with Chinaski’s assessment of the ‘security’ of prison life. So here’s Chinaski discussing the hollowed-out shells of men after a decade or so of working as a clerk at the post office:
“They either melted or they got fat, huge, especially around the ass and the belly. It was the stool and the same motion and the same talk. And there I was, dizzy spells and pains in the arms, neck, chest, evrywhere. I slept all day resting up for the job. On weekends I had to drink in order to forget it. I had come in weighing 185 lbs. Now I weighed 223 pounds. All you moved was your right arm.”
Bukowski’s work falls under the mantle of Dirty Realism–although I’ve also seen it described as Transgressive Fiction. Post Office is not the only novel to feature Chinaski. Factotum, Women, Ham on Rye, and Hollywood are Bukowski novels which are narrated by Chinaski, and Chinaski also appears in Pulp, Bukowksi’s last novel.
On a final note, in the spirit of liberation I made a point of stopping my postman, and I showed him the novel and suggested that he reads it as soon as possible. I wonder if I’ll ever see him again or if he’ll read it and head for the nearest race track?