Post Office – Andy thinks there’s a lot of alcoholism bouncing about in ANRC 2010. And not just between the covers

March 4, 2010

“In the morning it was morning and I was still alive.” – Bukowski, Post Office

I’d like to hope that at some point in the future I might be lucky enough to have a book of short stories published and if I’m that lucky I’d like to hope that this line from the last page of Bukowski’s debut novel will be my epigraph. Although it kind of pisses me off to discover that there are 65.000 hits when I Google that specific quote. I guess other people like it too. Bastards.

“I was full of shit.” – Bukowski, Post Office.

Maybe that would make a better epigraph. It would certainly make a cracking epitaph.

Post Office, in a nutshell, is a vaguely (barely) fictionalised account of Bukowski’s life in the 60s. Boozing, shagging, gambling… oh, and working for the Los Angeles post office. For a book by an allegedly “Beat” writer there’s very little about The Sixties, in capital letters, the stuff that Beat writers I’d have thought would be excited about. Sure Bukowski/Chinaski fucks around but so did everyone. He doesn’t appear to have the remotest interest in the political concept of sexual freedom. He works with blacks and at one stage there’s a race riot and he seems to sympathise with the black population but when you look at the pages and pages of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man that are dedicated to the New York race riots and then you look at the handful of paragraphs that deal with the riots in Post Office … Um. Yeah, There are a few references to fags and they’re not necessarily vindictive or abusive or aggressive but they’re not necessarily inclusive, either.

If there is an aspect of Post Office that is remotely political it’s Bukowski/Chinaski’s job in the post office, but even here it’s less a political engagement and more an existential one. Sure, Hank Chinaski hates the way he’s treated, who wouldn’t, he hates the way his loo breaks and trips away from his desk are timed and noted by his superiors, he hates the way he’s humiliated and victimised and exploited by anyone in a position to do so but Bukowski doesn’t make this frustration explicitly political. And to be honest, as a self-proclaimed raving leftie although I am now past 40 and people get tired, they really do, but as a self-proclaimed raving leftie it’s actually quite nice to see this frustrated, impotent workplace rage depicted not at all subtly but with a lack of obvious ideological drive. It makes Post Office a more enjoyable read, a more interesting read and perhaps, even, ultimately a more powerful one.

There’s not a lot about Bukowski’s style that suggests a Beat writer to me, although when I think about the Beat writers I’m most familiar with – Kerouac and Burroughs – there’s not a lot about their writing that suggests an affinity. Not superficially, at least. There’s none of Kerouac’s stream-of-consciousness, hippie-let-it-be stuff happening here, nor Burroughs’ paranoid delusions of worldwide conspiracy. Bukowski/Chinaski isn’t paranoid; he knows the fuckers are out to get him. And he has little time for stream of consciousness musings or nickle-and-dime spirituality. Although this is the first of his books that I’ve read. Perhaps in his later fiction and his poetry he explores these concerns.

Interesting (for me, anyway) diversion: I’ve just taken delivery from Amazon of Raymond Carver’s collected poems. One of the earliest of these poems (it was collected in Fires, published in 1983, by which time Carver was well and truly sober, but originally published in 1972, when he was still well and truly shitfaced) is called “You don’t know what love is (an evening with Charles Bukowski)”. The Bukowski depicted is presumably drunk, shamelessly egotistical, aggressive, sexist, arrogant, utterly repellant and presumably awesomely good company because the implication of the poem is that Carver’s evening with Bukowski involves more than a few people and Bukowski is clearly the centre of attention. I’m surprised he didn’t do or say something about this poem though. I suppose maybe he did, because he comes across as an absolute prick.

Chinaski frequently comes across as a prick in Post Office too, and more often than not that’s because the job makes him that way. Occasionally though Bukowski has the honesty to at least imply that he’s a prick because he’s a drunk, or a sleazebag, or a gambler. But ultimately Chinaski comes through his bureaucratic bastardisation seeming just – just – sympathetic enough for the reader to like him. The Carver poem casts a new light on some of those assumptions, or at least it did for me.

I like this book, although I didn’t like it as much as Carver (Netty and I have ordered not just Carver’s collected poems but his complete – yes, complete – short stories. I will get around to reading more Bukowski in the very near future, but he doesn’t fill me with quite the same urgency that Carver did). Netty isn’t nearly as impressed, as you’ll soon discover. But together with Where I’m Calling From, Post Office gets ANRC2010 off to a cracking start. And if nothing else, I have to say Bukowski is one of the few novelists who can use CAPITAL LETTERS oh so frequently and not shit me to tears.

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