Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Post Office

Post Office
By Charles Bukowski

In the morning it was morning and I was still alive.
Maybe I'll write a novel, I thought.
And then I did.

These are the last three sentences in Charles Bukowski's first novel, Post Office, published in 1970. These words will resound in my head forever. Perhaps some of the best closing words I've ever read.

I have always equated Charles Bukowski with Tom Waits. The similarities are actually pretty obvious. Both obsess themselves with the margins of humanity. The losers, low-lifes, freaks, hookers, junkies, flunkies, gamblers and bums. Both have the ability to transform the mundane experiences of failure into something slightly magical (in a bleak, tragic sort of way). Both sure as hell know how to tell a story and both have achieve an almost mythical place among their contemporaries and peers. It is no surprise that I read Post Office in Tom Waits's voice.

Once upon a time, Charles Bukowski, the poet and novelist, worked in a Los Angeles post office. Legend has it that the owner of Black Sparrow Press, John Martin, offered Bukowski $100 a month for the rest of his life if he would quit his job and write full time. Bukowski accepted the offer and wrote Post Office in less than a month in what is one of the great tongue in cheek moments in the history of literature. Until that point, Bukowski was a poet on the fringe of the fringe of the poetry world. Post Office marks his entry into the fringe of the fringe of the literary world, a place he would occupy until his death in 1994.

And I admit it, I always seem to forget about Charles Bukowski. When I'm thinking about artists of his particular generation and style I have no trouble remembering the likes of Alan Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson and R. Crumb to name a few. But somehow Bukowski's name consistently eludes me despite the fact that I actually like his work more than his peers (I don't much care for the work of Ginsberg, Kerouac or Burroughs). It speaks to the way in which Bukowski haunted the borderlands of the literary work for years without really, truly breaking out. Much like the characters in his novels, Charles Bukowski will forever be the forgotten man. A genius of 20th century literature buried under the weight of names with half his talent.

Post Office is a stark, autobiographical novel recounting the life of Hank Chinaski, a down and out alcoholic that stumbles into a full-time gig with the... ahem... Los Angeles post office. It is a existential account of life as a U.S. postal employee and how grinds Chinaski down into a shell of his former self. The Post Office becomes a metaphor for the relentlessly systematic manner in which life needles away at the human spirit, one compromise at a time. Post Office is also depressingly prophetic of the notion of "going postal," a gruesome idiom that would wriggle its way into the common lexicon a couple of decades after the publication of this novel (though the idiom has absolutely nothing to do with this novel, lest you are wondering).

At its core, Post Office is a quintessential Bukowski offering and Chinaski is the stereotypical Bukowski anti-hero: the unrepentant bachelor who is was he is and does what he does without apology or shame. A marginal man with virtually nothing going for him in life except his next paycheck, his next night at the track, his next fifth of whiskey, his next floozy girlfriend. The vicious circle of mediocrity. Charles Bukowski's work may repulse readers with its prosaic style and narrative, but one often forgets that this was Charles Bukowski's life, once upon a time.

As a writer, he was honest and Post Office (along with a slew of his other work) is Bukowski's life as a work of fiction. The alcoholism is real. The self-destructive lovers are real and the abject resignation is real. This is the very definition of quiet desperation in the American male. Post Office is perhaps one of the most poignantly honest accounts of the marginalization of a man ever written. Hank Chinaski is marginalized emotionally, intellectually, professionally, romantically and physically over his 11 year career as a post office clerk. He gets it from all sides and takes it on the chin like the down-trodden man he is. Chinaski lives for the simple pleasures: getting drunk, going to the track and a roll in the hay with his girl. The rest is inconsequential.

If you have never read any thing by Charles Bukowski, first of all shame on you! But fear not! there's still time. Post Office is a perfect primer. It is a brilliant account of the slow, incremental tragedy of life, an existential shoulder shrug with a dash of sly, self-deprecating humor. In that sense, it is a definitive Bukowski novel and, not surprisingly, it would make a perfect Tom Waits song.

I'd call it: Once Upon A Time.


Jenny said...

Obviously you and I don't read the same type of books...well not always but you always manage to make books sound irresistible.

Ryan said...

Why, thank you.

Thomas Raymond said...

Great review. I will pick this one up at the library. There is a quaint if unpolished pub in Cambridge (MA) called C.I. Bukowski's. Great burgers and eclectic beer selection. A mural of Bukowski, along with excerpts of his poetry covers the walls. Dark and wry stuff. I have always planned on reading more of his work, and you have helped me make the choice. I look forward to reading Post Office. Thanks -

Man of la Book said...

Great review. I'd be surpised if Chinaski's experience ("marginalized emotionally, intellectually, professionally, romantically and physically") is not the status quo for most of us regardless of how we see ourselves or how we are told we are. Frankly, most people are happy if at the end of the week the family's safe and they have enough money for pizza and a beer.

Brian Joseph said...

This sounds like a book that I would really like. Alas I have not read Bukowski yet! I find the concept of the system and life in generals eroding our humanity through tedium and compromisses to be fascinating.

bookspersonally said...

Eek, shame on me! Sounds fantastic... adding to the list of must-reads.

Ryan said...

@Thomas Raymond. I don't know why Bukowski is consistently forgotten. He is a giant of 20th century literature and yet remains so obscure at the same time.

Thomas Raymond said...

I really liked Post Office. Bukowski mastered that lean voice like Elmore Leonard, who famously stated, "I leave out the part that most people skip". Your review is excellent, and thanks again for the recommendation.

Parrish Lantern said...

Totally agree with you on the Tom waits & Bukowski similarities they occupy a shared space in my own mind. Here's a you tube video of Tom Waits reading a Bukowski poem

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