Thursday, October 27, 2011
BOOK REVIEW: Charles Bukowski POST OFFICE. Originally published in 1971
The descriptions of working as a post carrier and clerk in Post Office are intriguing but can sometimes be as repetitive and boring as mail sorting. You enter the world of the mail carrier through Bukowski's alter-ego, Henry Chinaski and discover the idiosyncrasies of his various routes, his fellow workers and the people he delivers to. After three years, he lands a job as a regular postie but resigns shortly afterwards because he is sick of the rules and regulations. He marries Joyce, and following a short interlude in Texas, he returns to L.A. and scores a job as a mail clerk. The work involves sorting mail and it is deadening and exhausting: 'We were working in zoned mail. If a letter read zone 28 you stuck it to hole no. 28. It was simple.' According to the production schedule, Chinaski must 'stick' each two-foot tray of mail containing hundreds of letters in 23 minutes. He is closely watched by supervisors that 'looked at you as if you were a hunk of human shit.' He works 12 hours a night for two weeks straight and then gets four days off- unless he is asked to work overtime.
The novel acts as a sort of prelude to Women (1978) in that away from the post office, Chinaski describes how he frequents the race track and hops into bed with a variety of women. His descriptions of sex are not as explicit but his view of women as 'flank' or 'a piece of ass' typical. He says of Vi: 'She looked all right. Stocky. But good ass, thighs and breasts. A hard tough ride.' He sees women as nurturers who 'like a bit of screaming, a bit of dramatics.' After Fay gives birth to his child, he says matter-of-factly, 'Women were meant to suffer; no wonder they asked for constant declarations of love.' One day he is at the track and sees Mary Lou for the first time and remarks: 'God or somebody keeps creating women and tossing them out on the streets, and this one's ass is too big and that one's tits are too small, and this one is mad and that one is crazy and that one is a religionist and that one reads tea leaves and this one can't control her farts, and that one has this big nose, and that one has boney legs... But now and then, a woman walks up, full blossum, a woman just bursting out of her dress... a sex creature, a curse, the end of it all.'
After 11 years at the post office, Chinaski suffers from dizzy spells and 'each letter was getting heavier and heavier.' He looks at the depleted men around him and realises the job is killing him: 'They either melted or they got fat, huge, especially around the ass and the belly. It was the stoll and the same motion and the same talk. And there I was, dizzy spells and pains in the arms, neck, chest, everywhere. I slept all day resting up for the job. On weekends I had to drink in order to forget it. I had come in weighing 185 pounds. Now I weighed 223 pounds. All you moved was your right arm.'
After numerous conflicts with management, Chinaski is charged with being absent without leave on 16 occasions, and after taking 28 minutes to throw a 23 minute tray in a time-test, he is counseled by the post office. Shortly afterwards, he finds the only way he can keep from dizzy-spells is 'to get up and take a walk now and then.' He explains to his supervisor Fazzio: 'If I stay on that stool much longer I am going to leap up on top of those tin cases and start running around whispering Dixie from my asshole and Mammy's Little Children Love Shortnin' Bread through the frontal orfice.'
Near the conclusion of the novel, Chinaski understands that he has continued to work because he is trapped by the system: 'I don't know how it happens to people. I had child support, need for something to drink, rent, shoes, socks, all that stuff. Like everyone else I needed an old car, something to eat, all the little intangibles. Like women. Or a day at the track. With everything on the line and no way out, you don't even think about it.' He is fed up with the post office and resigns.After a two week bender, he wakes up and concludes, 'Maybe I'll write a novel, I thought. And then I did.' No mention is made earlier in the novel that Chinaski is a writer and no mention is made of Bukowski's generous benefactor, John Martin, whose financial backing enabled him to leave his post office job in January1970 after eleven and a half years to allow him to write full-time.
According to Barry Miles biography Charles Bukowski (2005) after Bukowski quit his job he was sick with worry and was suicidal for ten days. After being cheered up by some friends who brought along their guitars, he started writing. Each night he would sit at his desk at 6:18 pm- his former post office starting time- with a pint of scotch, two six-packs of beer and some cheap cigars. It took only 20 evenings & nights to complete the first 120,000 word draft of Post Office. It was eventually pared down to 90,000 words.
Overall, this is a funny, highly entertaining novel. Post Office is a great model for those thinking of writing about their job from a working class perspective. You have to admire the guts and brains of John Martin in 1970 to offer Bukowski $100 a week for life to write what ever he wanted. It eventually made both men very rich. But as the recent City Lights publications of Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook (2008) and Absence of the Hero (2010) attest, it was a 'no brainer' for Martin- Bukowski was an extremely hard working and fearless advocate of free speech and underground writing in the 1960s and had a huge backstory dating back to 1944 with the publication of his first short story 'Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip.' He was a sure bet.