Netty’s got the mail on Bukowski …

March 9, 2010

“This is presented as a work of fiction and dedicated to nobody.”

Oh? Is that so, Hank?

The above line is the epigraph to Post Office, Charles Bukowski’s debut novel, first published in 1971, when its author was already 50. And it’s all a bit disingenuous, really. It might not be dedicated to anybody, but it certainly is NOT a work of fiction – rather, it’s the first of Bukowski’s six novels (don’t be fooled by the seemingly meagre number – he also published reams of poetry, short stories and letters amongst 20 years of published works) that sets the tone for those to come and dealing with what appears to be his favourite subject – himself. His alter-ego Hank Chinaski narrates five of these novels, and appears as a character in the sixth. What’s that they say about when you’re on a good thing, stick to it?

Nothing wrong with the odd roman a clef in a writer’s oeuvre – and indeed most debuts are widely considered to be semi-autobiographical at best – but it kind of initially lessened my opinion of a writer considered right up there amongst the pantheon of late 20th century greats, in that he was continually mining his own life for his material. I mean, how hard is it to write about oneself? I may be nit-picking, but I suspect I would have higher regard for Bukowski if he’d looked past his own mirror (and admittedly, I am saying this without having read the poems or short stories).

Interesting that Andy associates Bukowski with the beat writers, as I would have thought the only thing he had in common with them was the era in which he started writing. For mine, he is far more closely aligned with the dirty realists (a movement also associated with January’s ANRC10 author, Raymond Carver, and a far more superior writer, IMHO). And, I dunno, maybe I would also have been more impressed if I had read Bukowski – as most of my peers seem to have done – at a much, much younger age, say my mid-teens, which was a time when I first read his contemporaries such as Kerouac, Burroughs and Selby (the former two of whom definitely fit the beat category). Certainly, the sort of stuff young Australian grunge writers were doing in the early 1990s, authors such as Andrew McGahan, Justine Ettler and Leonie Stevens – who operated in a similar vein to Bukowski in both tone and subject matter, just a couple of decades later and from an antipodean perspective – also had a far greater effect on me. So yeah, maybe it is, in the words of Rebecca Barnard, a time and place type thing.

Back to the book. It opens with Henry (who shares a first name and nickname with the author) Chinaski taking a casual position with the Los Angeles postal service delivering mail over the Christmas period to earn a bit of cash, most of which he spends on grog, to the point where he forgoes buying clothes and sometimes even food. Hank spends his nights drinking and shagging his live-in girlfriend Betty (apparently based on Bukowski’s one-time real-life partner) and his days at work, hungover, dealing with petty superiors and irritating co-workers (sound familiar, anyone?) Occasionally he shags other women, some of whom he encounters on the mail trail. Three years pass. He has success on and off at the racetrack. He resigns from his job and breaks up with Betty. He meets and marries a young, monied Texan nymphomaniac, Joyce (modelled on Bukowski’s first wife). He gets a job back with the post office, this time as a clerk. Joyce leaves him for a co-worker and they get a divorce. He works, he punts, he drinks, sometimes he shags women; eventually he hooks up with a writer named Fay, who bears him a daughter, Marina Louise (who shares her name with Bukowski’s daughter), then abandons him for a New Mexico hippie commune. He gets letters of warnings from work. Twelve years pass. He resigns. He drinks more. He wakes up one morning after a bender that almost kills him and decides to write a book.

OK, as a plotline, it all sounds a bit pedantic, and it IS pedantic – but that’s also a huge part of its charm. It is also undercut with the slyest of humour – a very good thing, seeing Bukowski/Chinaski is about as far away from any semblance of “politically correct” as is possible. He may love women (some of the time), but there is neither a feminist bone in the author or his alter ego’s body. Chinaski is a rogue – rarely lovable but certainly compelling, often in the same way as a train wreck, but still mundane and human enough to elicit a certain amount of sympathy for both the character and his circumstances. He never sinks into maudlin self-pity, even though he has more than a few reasons – and opportunities – to do so. And unlike other author/alter ego pairings (and yes, I am thinking about Updike/Rabbit here), and despite a few misgivings here and there, I am intending to read Bukowski’s other novels. That there is but a handful, and they are all quite short, certainly makes it a more realistic proposition. And I am definitely keen to see Bukowski’s progression as a writer – some of Post Office is rough around the edges, to say the least, so it will be interesting to see if time, and fame, ironed out his prose.

In conclusion, I would say that Bukowski is still a worthwhile read, but I think it’s one from which the reader would most benefit at an early age. So now you know what to stick in your teenage son/daughter/nephew/niece’s Christmas stocking this year! (Although perhaps make sure they’ve got somewhat liberal parents first …)

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