For Charles Bukowski, years spent in the employment hinterlands gave rise to Post Office, a book that shook the US. As it turns 40, David Dean examines the novel’s impact Post Office opens with the words “This is presented as a work of fiction and is dedicated to nobody”. The first line proper is: “It began as a mistake.” And it ends like this: “In the morning it was morning and I was still alive. Maybe I’ll write a novel, I thought. And then I did.”
In the pages between, Charles Bukowski tells the autobiographical story of working for the US Postal Service in Los Angeles, first as a mailman, then as a sorter. It’s a short, blunt novel, covering a period of 17 years in less than 200 pages. When it was published in 1971, it appalled the sniffy literary world and became a cult hit. The simple, hilarious, often filthy way Bukowski wrote was scorned by many, but adored by many more. It was revolutionary in its style and subject matter, and fans of Irvine Welsh and David Peace may see much of their no-nonsense approach in Bukowski’s debut novel.
The book begins with Bukowski’s alter ego, the alcoholic and bitter but smart Henry Chinaski, getting a job as a substitute mailman after hearing “that they would hire damned near anybody, so I went and the next thing I knew I had this leather sack on my back and was hiking around at my leisure”. His days become filled with fighting off his petty boss, dogs and horny housewives (OK, he doesn’t fight them off so strongly: “I couldn’t help thinking, God, all these mailmen do is drop in their letters and get laid. This is the job for me, oh yes yes yes.”) His nights are about boozing and dealing with his similarly alcoholic girlfriend Betty. He quits the job after two years to concentrate on gambling at the race track, gets married to rich-girl Joyce, then returns to work as postal clerk where he remains for the next 12 years.
FOR THE UNDERCLASS
The unfussy, almost casual style Bukowski uses to describe his life is the antithesis of the usual self-consciously try-hard writers of ‘proper literature’. “Although Bukowski modelled his writing style on other writers — from Ernest Hemingway to John Fante [Bukowski had written short stories and poems for many years] — he developed a style all of his own in Post Office,” says Howard Sounes, author of Charles Bukowski: Locked In The Arms Of A Crazy Life. “It’s written in simple, direct English, with short sentences, paragraphs and chapters. The language is terse and dry.” Also groundbreaking was the way this tragic and comedic story wasn’t just a loosely autobiographical tale embellished by outrageous fabrications; it was his life. Nearly everything that happened to Chinaski on the page happened to Bukowski in reality, he only “changed the names to protect the guilty”.
Bukowski really did enter the postal service in 1952, aged 32, a college drop-out and wannabe writer. ‘Joyce’ was Barbara Frye, his first wife of two years. ‘Betty’ was Jane Cooney Baker, Bukowski’s on-off drinking buddy and lover, who dies in the book after a heavy drinking binge just as she did to his great distress in 1962. Bukowski was unflinching in his recounting of all this, holding nothing back.
His widow, Linda Lee Bukowski, who herself featured in Bukowski’s work, tells us, “Post Office is about a common man doing common things and being honest about his reality. He doesn’t make anything up, there’s no need to. I know because he didn’t lie about us, and it was very embarrassing.” In writing about himself, he was also creating something new in depicting the lives of normal working-class Americans, the ones who are ignored in the big myth of American power — a practice that bestowed upon him the apt title of ‘Poet Laureate of Skid Row’. Bukowski was from a tough background. He was born in Germany in 1920, and christened Heinrich Bukowski (friends always called him ‘Hank’). His mother was a native German, his father a US serviceman who soon relocated the family to Los Angeles in 1930.
The young Bukowski was regularly beaten by his father, and this, coupled with an extreme case of acne vulgaris, made him a withdrawn child. Only upon discovering drink in his early teens did he begin to come out of his shell and show his character. When he was 19, Bukowski finally stood up to his father and knocked him out with one punch. He left home, went to college in New York with hopes of becoming a writer, but drifted back west again, became a ‘barfly’, worked in casual jobs, then into full-time bondage with the post office. With his ‘fiction’ he chose to just tell the stories of this life, the story of underdogs, losers, outcasts.
“The fact that Bukowski wrote about work, and not glamorous work, but boring everyday jobs, makes him an unusual and important American writer,” says Sounes. “His is not the aspirational go-ahead US that one sees on television, but what lies beneath the American Dream: a lot of poorly paid people doing stuff they don’t want to do in order to pay the rent.”
In being honest about his own life, Bukowski was revealing a way of living that many people can relate to, but can very rarely read about. Post Office is also a tale of everyday madness, and while humans tend to try to hide their weaknesses, Bukowski put it all down on paper, his breakdowns, his rage and vulnerability there for all to see: “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.”
It was brave but also necessary. “He was a poster boy for child abuse,” says Linda. “I don’t think he was rebelling as such, he was just trying to get out of this horrible emotional prison. It’s going to take you all of your life to get over that kind of pain.” Post Office is vibrant with the emancipation from that emotional prison from which a lot of his peers couldn’t escape. Chinaski is downtrodden, sometimes desperate, but determined to live life his own way.
RISING ABOVE IT
And it ends with his triumph. He quits the post office to become a writer. In reality, John Martin from Black Sparrow Press had discovered Bukowski via his home poems, and been blown away: “He’d worked 12 or 13 years in the post office. He was an alcoholic. Suicidal. A wild man. But there was a sweet, gentle man underneath.” Martin said he’d give him $100 a month for the rest of his life if Bukowski quit his job to write. He did so at the age of 49, and wrote Post Office in a month. “Post Office was Krakatoa,” says Linda. “He’d been holding it all in. And Post Office was the volcano erupting.”
When it hit the public, Bukowski became a cult hero, unlikely sex symbol and considered the latest Beat writer, after Jack Kerouac and co. Bukowski was not pleased with the association with those intellectuals that dogged him forever after. “Hank was not a Beat writer,” says Linda. “He highly resented being considered that group, or any group. He followed his own path in his life and in his writing. He was just not interested in hanging out with other writers. He would rather talk to a plumber.”
Until his death of leukaemia in 1994, he would also find himself labelled as a misogynist, a pornographer, a fraud — which missed the point entirely. He was just fearlessly honest, willing to expose his ugly side as well as his good, and refusing to be a standard-fare pretentious writer. He remained an outsider, and was perhaps never given his dues, but Post Office stands as testament to a down-to-earth hero. Just as his epitaph on his gravestone simply states: “Don’t try.”