Post Office, by Charles Bukowski

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Charles Bukowski (1920-94) published more than 45 books — and until a few days ago I had not read one. In addition to the ambitious publishing schedule, Bukowski is known for his determination to keep the work of John Fante in the public eye. That cause did attract me although I was only vaguely aware of his role; the four-volume Saga of Arturo Bandini was on my top 10 list for 2009. Stewart at booklit used that selection to remind me that I should read Bukowski. And I had just ordered a copy of his second book, Post Office, when Max at Pechorin’s Journal checked in with a review. With this review added to the mix, I’d say the blogging world is doing all it can to encourage people to read Bukowski.

Post Office is not what you would call a subtle read. Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego, hires onto the U.S. postal service as a substitute mailman and begins what will become a 12-year career, although “period of torment” might be a more accurate description. Even in the early days, he does not find it particularly rewarding:

“Chinaski! Take route 539!”

The toughest in the station. Apartment houses with boxes that had scrubbed-out names or no names at all, under tiny lightbulbs in dark halls. 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?”

At first glance, working for the U.S. post office seems to be a not-bad job. It is steady, outdoor work for those who like that and so on. Bukowski is determined to show us the other side of the coin. All systems have power structures and the less power that there is in the system (say, the post office) the more cruel the abuse. Chinaski’s demon is the “soup” (that’s Bukowski for superintendent), one Jonstone, known to those who work for him as The Stone, and someone who is determined to exercise his power, such as it is, in the most ruthless way possible:

We sat an hour or so. A sub was assigned to Matthew’s case [that's the compartmentalized wall unit where mail gets sorted]. The other subs were given other jobs. I sat alone behind The Stone. Then I got up and walked to his desk.

“Mr. Jonstone?”

“Yes, Chinaski?”

“Where’s Matthew today? Sick?”

The Stone’s head dropped. He looked at the paper in his hand and pretended to continue reading it. I walked back and sat down.

At 7 a.m. The Stone turned:

“There’s nothing for you today, Chinaski.”

I stood up and walked to the doorway. I stood in the doorway. “Good morning, Mr. Jonstone. Have a good day.”

He didn’t answer. I walked down to the liquor store and bought a half pint of Grand Dad for my breakfast.

That excerpt provides a representative sample of Bukowski’s straight-forward prose style — he doesn’t let elaboration get in the way of his point. And it introduces us to another of Chinaski’s issues: He drinks a lot, he often drinks late and that makes a 4:30 a.m. wake-up to get to the postal station to report for work on time an issue. Without getting too sexist about it, he doesn’t drink alone and there always seems to be a “shackjob” — Chinaski’s term for the girlfriends whom he shacks up with — on hand.

There is not much more to Post Office, but don’t treat that as an indictment of the book. Bukowski is committed to portraying the demeaning nature of much of the work that we take for granted and, imperfect as Henry Chinaski is, the novel does exactly that. The author makes no attempt to place this in some grander scheme (Henry’s non-post-office option for making a living is betting on horse races, something he is actually quite good at).

Bukowski and Fante do come from the same space — and I have to say that Fante does a better job. Despite that, I’m glad I read this book — I’m not sure how many of the other 44 will eventually hit my reading agenda. Some definitely will.

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16 Responses to “Post Office, by Charles Bukowski”

  1. john h Says:

    I read this book a long, long time ago. Don’t remember much about it. Can’t help but think of J. Robert Lennon’s “Mailman” in connection with it. That was a much better book but then I’ve never been that much of a Bukowski fan.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    John Self’s review of Lennon’s Castle was posted while I was reading Post Office and did bring Lennon’s earlier novel (which I have not read) to mind. I have nothing against Bukowski’s book but will admit that I have found other books more rewarding. He does portray an aspect of Los Angeles that is very different from the normal fictional picture.

  3. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’m glad you read this too Kevin, I have to admit on the strength of this one book I am something of a Bukowski fan, I thought he captured something of the experience of living a marginal existence with a lousy job and no real control over your own life. That said, I do wonder if his others will live up to it, after all after this he left behind all that had given him his material.

    For me the lack of a grander scheme, the artlessness of the novel in part too, were elements that I really responded to. It seemed to me that it captured ordinary life, working class life for that matter, in a way few novels manage. Novelists tend to be middle class, and to write of middle class experiences, which made this all the more refreshing for me. Fiction all too often speaks only to the lives of the comfortable.

    My impression is you didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I did, I’m pleased though that you are glad you read it and whatever other merits and demerits it may have I will note that it has at least the definite merit of brevity. That said, it’s been a jinx for me, I’ve got almost no reading done since finishing it, and still haven’t finished volume 12 of Dance despite having spent the last fortnight with it (just no time to read recently, deeply frustrating, particularly given how good volume 12 is).

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I think you did like Post Office more than I did — perhaps mainly a reflection of my own frame of mind when I read it. I do have Bukowski’s Women on hand and hope to get to it in the near future.

  5. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Who can say? John Self once spoke of the alchemy between a reader and a book, sometimes it’s there and sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s even that on one occasion it might be, and on another not, but there’s never a guarantee it’ll be present.

    Still, it’s marvellous when it is, particularly (as for me here) when it’s unexpected.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Agreed, Max. At another time, there might have been much more “alchemy” for me.

  7. deucekindred Says:

    Actually It was Fante which inspired Bukowski to write ( Hemingway and Celine were other touchstones).

    To be honest I think his output varies some of it is fantastic and some of it borders on the dull. I mean how many times are you going to read about gambling and drinking.

    Personally the works which shine are Post Office, Factotum and Ham on Rye, the latter being one of my top ten favourite books.

    A lot of his poetry is worth checking out as well. The Days Run Away like Wild Horses over the Hills is a good place to start.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    dk: I have read enough good things about Ham on Rye that I will get to it eventually. One of the things that I did like about Post Office was the way that it portrays an aspect of Los Angeles — a nice complement to Fante and Raymond Chandler, among others. One of my interests is exploring the way that different novelists portray some of the world’s major cities (New York and London certainly come to mind). While LA is much younger, it has attracted some interesting attention — since I know the city relatively well from vacations, I’m intrigued by these different impressions.

  9. deucekindred Says:

    Coincidentally that’s something that interests me as well. I like the way a cit (or country) can change according to the author’s perspective.

  10. Isabel Says:

    Interesting topic?

    Have you read any of Magnus Mills’ novels? He writes about the working man also.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I haven’t read any Mills but do have him marked down for the future. My impression from the reviews that I have read is that he has a greater sense of satire and sardonic humor than this book has.

  12. Trevor Says:

    From your review, Kevin, I think I’ll put off reading Bukowski for a while. That is actually a relief!

  13. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I’ve not even heard of Magnus Mills, what am I missing out on?

    It wouldn’t be hard to have a greater sense of satire and sardonic humour than Post Office, if anything it’s a grimly serious novel, incidents like when Chinaski runs into his girlfriend at the start of the book near the end are positively tragic.

    Kevin, oddly enough I didn’t get a huge sense of place from Post Office, perhaps because I haven’t been to LA – I don’t know. Did it feel to you that LA was key to it, that it couldn’t have been set just as well elsewhere? Chandler to me makes the city integral, and while I haven’t read the later Fante’s yet I understand he makes California central too, I wasn’t sure Bukowski quite did but perhaps I didn’t fully pick up on that aspect.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: It is true that Bukowski never actually says Post Office is set in Los Angeles, although it pretty obviously is. And you are quite right that there is more sense of place in both Chandler and Fante (particularly the last three Bandini novels). Part of what interested me about Bukowski, however, was precisely that — the LA that he describes is equally as real, it just attracts a lot less attention. In some ways (but only some), my comparisons would be to Selvon’s picture of London. In both cases, the sense that the streets really are not paved with gold for many people is what I feel they contribute to completing the overall picture.

    I should probably also admit that like Bukowski and Chinaski, I have been known to gamble on race horses — the reason for my frequent visits to Los Angeles is that it is home to Santa Anita race track. (Santa Anita and Del Mar tracks are pretty recognizable in the book if you know them.) And I’ll also admit that I would have been more engaged with the book if it had more of those racing gambling segments, but that’s just selfish on my part.

    The best description of Magnus Mill’s work for me can be found at the Asylum (how true that is of many authors!), not just in John’s review but in many of the comments. My impression is that there is quite a bit less anger in his critical view of bureaucracy (that’s what I meant by “sardonic”) than Bukowski’s portrayal — but then, I haven’t read the books.

  15. Max Cairnduff Says:

    I just accidentally deleted my own comment. How annoying.

    Anyway, thanks for the extra info on the racetracks and the capturing of LA, I’d missed that in part I think as I’ve not been there and just didn’t recognise it. I have a California category I use sometimes, and I’ve amended my own blog entry on this to include it in that category (I’m interested in different depictions of California in literature, an interest I suspect I may have got from you actually).

    I’ll check out the Asylum on Mills, I have to admit he’d escaped my radar.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: Ah, the joys of deleting your own comment — or losing it to an ill-timed computer hiccup.

    You do have to know a bit about Los Angeles to appreciate Bukowski’s understanding of it (and it certainly isn’t necessary to appreciate the other strengths of his work). He lived in San Pedro, a rather gruesome community at the far south of the metropolitan district near the Port of Los Angeles (as I recall, Fante’s second Bandini volume is set in this area). In some ways, it is like port areas the world over — in others, it is like California; bigger, newer, different, but still pretty much the same. When you do go to LA, make sure you get a window seat on the plane — the overview you get coming in (assuming the plane comes in from the east which is almost always) is lesson one in how incredibly varied LA is. The entire 20 minute landing glide takes place over an urban grid and if you are on the right side of the plane, the Hollywood hillside sign is one of the last horizon things you see — it isn’t hard to transmute Bukowski’s realism into the world you see below.

    All of which is idle wondering of course. But if you do plan on heading to Los Angeles sometime, set aside a day to spend in the Port/San Pedro area exploring (Seal Beach offers a nice luncheon escape) Fante and Bukowski territory and then plan for afternoon and evening in Santa Monica (Chandler territory). I will predict that both halves of the day will bring books to life — although in my case, the books brought the memories back to life.

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