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.
“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.