Post Office, Charles Bukowski. Ecco. 208pp, $13.95.
The mythology of the man swirls thick and fast around Charles Bukowski, an author whose lasting influence on the literary zeitgeist remains impermeably splashed like spilled dregs of Carlo Rossi. Apocryphal legends abound regarding Bukowski the drinker, Bukowski the womanizer, Bukowski the belligerent, Bukowski the unexpectedly tender-hearted. What is perhaps most striking about these legends is that, among the many titles bestowed upon a man with over 40 published books to his name, that of “working stiff” is rarely invoked. It’s undeniably more glamorous to imagine our heroes drowning in whiskey and women than parked for eight hours a day in front of the typewriter, but it is precisely that unglamorous discipline from which books are born, and precisely that unglamorous discipline, plus the attendant drinking, womanizing, belligerence, and tenderness, that gave rise to Bukowski’s first novel, Post Office.
“I have one of two choices—stay in the post office and go crazy . . . or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve.” With these infamous words, Bukowski quit the post office for good at the age of 49 (reportedly just before he was due to be dismissed), and wrote his first novel within a month. Aided by a small monthly stipend from Black Sparrow Press, and further fueled by his intense desire for the fame which would vindicate his toil, Bukowski developed a tireless devotion to the typewriter that was as formidable as it was fruitful. As Howard Sounes observes in his Bukowski biography, Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life, after working a full shift in the post office as a trainee distribution clerk, Bukowski would go back to his rooming house to drink and type all evening until the other tenants complained about the noise, at which point he’d switch to hand-printing until late in the night. When submitting to editors such as Jon Webb of Loujon Press and John Bryan of Notes from Underground magazine, he sent cartons, not mere envelopes, overflowing with original material.
However, it’s Bukowski’s other excesses that dominate the autobiographical tone of Post Office, a book that helped establish his reputation as an anti-authoritarian proto-slacker just as Tropic of Capricorn, set in part in the “Cosmodemonic Telegraph Company” (Western Union), did for Henry Miller. But unlike Miller’s base yet overtly verbose internal monologues, Bukowski’s spare and direct observations ring entirely unaffected.
From the opening line: “It began as a mistake,” Bukowski, as alter-ego Henry Chinaski, writes straight from the hip in unambiguous, accessible prose. A congenital loser trapped in a dead-end profession from which he can derive no personal satisfaction, yet possessed of enough self-awareness to recognize the absurdity of his situation, Chinaski is an Everyman of the underclass. By turns insincerely servile and unrepentantly sarcastic, he constantly chafes under the seemingly unnecessary regulations imposed on him at the post office and delights in the all-too-rare occasions where he is able to get the better of a superior by delivering the last word. His slyly humorous on-the-job exploits with desperate housewives, fierce dogs, sore muscles, and endless sheets of rain are interspersed with moments of the very real frustrations of an adjunct at the mercy of circumstances against which he seldom has recourse: the sadistic spite of Jonstone (aka “the soup”) who delights in doling out physically impossible workloads and written warnings to his team of beleaguered substitute carriers, the dogged subservience of the other subs who “made Jonstone possible by obeying his impossible orders,” the slow-grinding irritations, both mental:
Old ladies standing in halls, up and down the streets, asking the same question as if they were one person with one voice:
“Mailman, you got any mail for me?”
And you felt like screaming, “Lady, how the hell do I know who you are or I am or anybody is?”
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, everywhere. I slept all day resting up for the job. On weekends I had to drink in order to forget it . . .
In just under 200 pages broken into 87 micro-chapters, Post Office manages to convey the not-so-quiet desperation of three separate post-office stints totaling some 14 years, plus a winning streak with the horses, a string of failed relationships with beautiful and broken women, a marriage, a funeral, and the birth of Bukowski’s first and only child. Without resorting to ideological posturing, the maligned mailman simultaneously champions and skewers the proletariat by evoking a life measured out, not in fey teaspoons but in fifths of liquor, 12-hour shifts, petty office politics, imperfect fidelity, and racing forms. He observes the slow decline of his co-workers—GG “the dedicated man” who suffers a nervous breakdown over a bundle of laundry soap coupons, Jimmy Potts, once “a well-built guy in a white T-shirt” grown stooped and weary, “too tired to get a haircut”—and realizes that he himself, after eleven years at the same job, “didn’t have a dime more in my pocket than when I had first walked in.”
Though certain chapters pander obviously to the banal titillations favored by readers of the men’s magazines Bukowski sometimes wrote short stories for (a gratuitous quasi-rape scenario in section one, a close encounter with a knife-wielding pimp and his bait, Mary Lou, “a woman just bursting out of her dress” in section four), the protagonist’s struggle to keep his private life separate from his public sector work speaks honestly to the American wage-slave experience. Buried in work, enslaved by work, brutalized by work, Chinaski still manages to retain a sense of autonomy and independence, perpetually unwilling to let the daily grind wear him down entirely.
Illuminating the schism between “work” and “after-hours” that so often characterizes the lives of an industrialized labor-force, Bukowski mines his protagonist’s downtime for some of his most memorable moments. Whether dodging flowerpots in the marital bed, arranging the funeral of an old lover, winning (and losing) at the racetrack, or celebrating the birth of his daughter (“a major improvement”), the territory of Chinaski’s personal life is as rich as it is raucous. His self-image is constructed mainly from the juicier elements of Bukowski’s own reputation—drinker, lover, fighter, gambler. If he considers his work at all it is to stigmatize it: “Any damn fool can beg up some kind of job; it takes a wise man to make it without working.” He is continually eluded by the presumptive reward for a job well done (the “dedication to service” mentioned by senior carriers), while the “security” of his position as a government employee equally fails to impress him.
Security? You could get security in jail. Three squares and no rent to pay, no utilities, no income tax, no child support. No license plate fees. No traffic tickets. No drunk driving raps. No losses at the race track. Free medical attention. . . . Free burial.
Finally, facing dismissal for chronic absenteeism, Chinaski beats the post office to the punch and voluntarily resigns—an uncharacteristically definitive act for a player in a tale of hardscrabble woe. One of the early progenitors of “dirty realism,” Bukowski himself might have once scoffed at the unlikely literary event of a career drunk chucking in his career work “eight months from (his) 50th birthday,” but having accomplished the same trick himself just weeks earlier, he is able to impart a sense of reality to the scenario. After likening his escape from drudgery to the unexpected freedom enjoyed by previously caged birds, Chinaski acknowledges that he is in for a case of “a particular type of bends.” As much as he has railed against the regimentation of the post office over 14 years, it still represented the single most stable thing in his life.
“I got drunker and stayed drunker than a shit skunk in Purgatory. I even had the butcher knife against my throat one night in the kitchen and then I thought, easy, old boy, your little girl might want you to take her to the zoo . . . ” Like his creator, Chinaski survives his self-destructive urge and emerges from his shock ready to put his newly minted liberty to creative use. The last lines of Post Office, as characteristically unsentimental and terse as those in the beginning, downplay the monumental nature of this life-affirming moment:
In the morning it was morning and I was still alive.
Maybe I’ll write a novel, I thought.
And then I did.
A gambler with a love for a long shot, Chinaski/Bukowski bets on himself to win at independence. And beats the odds.
Nicole Gluckstern is a writer living in San Francisco. She is a frequent contributor to the San Francisco Bay Guardian and a contributing editor of Other magazine.
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