In early March of this year, Titus Andronicus came to the A.V. Club office to record their (controversial) version of They Might Be Giants’ “Birdhouse In Your Soul.” My favorite part of their performance was the prologue, where the band used an audio recording of Harry Dean Stanton reading Charles Bukowski’s poem “Bluebird.”
I knew Bukowski’s name and his reputation, but had never read any of his stuff. In my mind, I lumped him in with Raymond Carver (justifiably, given the existence of a book called The Dirty Realism Duo: Charles Bukowski & Raymond Carver) and Jack Kerouac, writers who, in my experience, tended to appeal to males who are very into the idea of being writers—and the binge drinking they apparently consider a prerequisite for the lifestyle. These are guys who’d scoff at the “tortured artist” archetype for being pretentious and overly intellectual, only to embody it on more ostensibly blue-collar terms. They’d wear hangovers like badges of honor and mistake misogyny for musedom.
That’s not to say I disliked Carver or Kerouac; I enjoyed the former, though I was a little let down by the latter’s On The Road. I read it at 19 after hearing people go on about it, thinking I’d find some kind of non-conformist tome and instead discovered a dude getting loaded around the country. (That was the review I wrote in my zine, at least. I’ve been meaning to re-read it as a real adult.)
Back to Bukowski. I asked Twitter where to start with him, and was surprised by the number of “don’t bother” responses. This being Twitter, the writers didn't have much space actually critiquing Bukowski—they just reassured me about my blind spot by saying I wasn't missing anything. Bukowski’s first novel, Post Office, seemed as good a place as any. Supposedly written in three weeks, the book is highly personal; like his fictional surrogate Henry Chinaski, Bukowski worked in the post office as a carrier and sorter for years, and also supported himself for a while making money betting on horses. He based two of the female characters on women in his life. And, like Chinaski, Bukowski was an inveterate boozer. As Chinaski reminisces in Ham On Rye (another semi-autobiographical book about Bukowski’s childhood) about his first time getting loaded: “I thought, ‘Well, now I have found something, I have found something that is going to help me, for a long long time to come.’”
Of course, no one reading Bukowski’s Post Office would think alcohol did anything but keep Chinaski in a life of squalor, barely able to hold down a (shitty) job and living hand to mouth. Rare is it—or maybe unheard of—that Chinaski starts his day at the post office without a raging hangover. At one point, he’s so out of it that he walks into the wrong apartment in his building, thinking nothing of the different interior or the woman on sofa. (“She looked all right. Young. Good legs. Blonde.”) In Bukowski’s world, Chinaski is practically irresistible to women, despite his alcoholism, misogyny, and general crankiness, so the blonde flirts with him instead of freaking out.
“Yes,” I said, “I really like the way this place looks. It’s really going to lift my spirits.”
“That’s nice. My husband likes it too.”
“Now why would your husband...What? Your husband? Look, what’s this apartment number?”
“309? Great Christ! I’m on the wrong floor. I live in 409. My key opened your door.”
“Sit down, sweetie,” she said.
He leaves, but not before she says, “Don’t forget where I’m at”—because, really, who wouldn’t be charmed by this man? On the job, he’s insubordinate, irritable, and generally a pain in the ass to his bosses and the people he services. Oh, and he rapes a customer.
I reached down with my mouth, got one of her tits, then switched to the other.
“Rape! Rape! I’m being raped!”
She was right. I got her pants down, unzipped my fly, got it in, then walked her backwards to the couch. We fell down on top of it.
She lifted her legs high.
“RAPE!” she screamed.
I finished her off, zipped my fly, picked up my mail pouch and walked out leaving her staring quietly at the ceiling…
My sister once dismissed Oliver Stone’s The Doors by describing Jim Morrison in it thusly: “He’s either having fucking sex, doing fucking drugs, or singing a fucking song.” You could pretty much swap out “Morrison” for “Chinaski” here, minus the drug part: He’s either having fucking sex, drinking fucking booze, or fucking complaining about work. Bukowski renders it all in economical prose, spare to the point of being utilitarian. Here’s a pretty typical example, from chapter 24: “She even helped me pack. Folding my pants neatly in suitcases. Packing in my shorts and razor. When I was ready to leave she started crying again.” Or this: “There were long black hairs sticking out all over my face. Suddenly I had to sit down and shit. It was a good hot one.”
Post Office ambles, in no hurry to cover the small distance it travels. There isn’t too much of an arc or plot per se, though it ends with a sort of redemption. Chinaski quits the post office for good and becomes a writer—much like Bukowski did. Readers don’t really have enough emotional stake in Chinaski for the ending to do much; I found myself rooting for him to best his oppressive bosses at the post office, but not much beyond that.
Readers are given little indication that Chinaski wants anything in life besides a stiff drink, a good lay, and not to be hassled. The only sign of an interest in writing is his critique of a co-worker’s terrible novel. Forty years after Post Office was published, Bukowki’s persona so heavily informs the book that it’s easy to see the final lines—“Maybe I’ll write a novel, I thought. And then I did.”—coming from Bukowski himself, not Chinaski. I wondered if the ending seemed like more of a curveball back in 1971, when Bukowski wasn’t as well known.
As slight as Post Office is, it has funny moments. The wisdom of this one struck me, as it sounds like Dan Savage being channeled through Bukowski:
“I’ve had over 50 jobs, maybe a hundred. I’ve never stayed anywhere long. What I am trying to say is, there is a certain game played in offices all over America. The people are bored, they don’t know what to do, so they play the office-romance game. Most of the time it means nothing but the passing of time. Sometimes they do manage to work off a screw or two on the side. But even then, it is just an offhand pastime, like bowling or t.v. or a New Year’s Eve party. You’ve got to understand that it doesn’t mean anything and then you won’t get hurt.”
Post Office doesn’t offer much in the way of tenderness or real emotion. The loss of Betty—Chinaski’s former common-law wife—is one of the only real indications of genuine love under the boozy exterior. A serious illness sends Betty to the hospital, where she’s ignored, causing Chinaski to unload on a nurse.
“SIR! SIR! SIR! FORGET ALL THAT ‘SIR’ STUFF, WILL YOU? I’ll bet if that were the president or governor or mayor or some rich son of a bitch, there would be doctors all over that room doing something! Why do you just let them die? What’s the sin in being poor?”
Post Office doesn’t have a lot of real feeling, but you get the sense here that this was Bukowski speaking through Chinaski again. He probably bristled at the idea of being a spokesperson for the downtrodden, but critics tended to foist the title upon him anyway: “skidrow-mission stiff-greasy spoon-rented room bard,” said Jack Conroy. Another unnamed critic described him as the “moral spokesman for the American lumpenproletariat, a chronicler of our urban degeneracy, whose dingy furnished rooms, drinking, and fornications are neither bohemianism nor self-indulgence, but a way of life.”
The passage where Chinaski yells at the nurse also speaks to the real-world love Bukowski had for Jane Cooney Baker, the woman on whom he based Betty. He and Baker were basically soulmates, as Aubrey Malone writes in her Bukowski biography, The Hunchback Of East Hollywood: “Hank Bukowski was destined to find such a woman. The pair of them were like two rabbits caught momentarily in the headlights of life, loping their way towards dubious nirvanas...or maybe just marking time until the next hit.”
Bukowski was heartbroken when Baker died in January of 1962, as reflected in the poem he wrote “To Jane Cooney Baker, Died 1-22-62,” “The phone is like a dead animal that will / not speak. And when it speaks again it will / always be in the wrong voice now. / I have waited before and you have always walked in through / the door. Now you must wait for me.”
The feeling in those words makes Bukowski seem a lot less like Chinaski, but it’s hard to separate the two of them in Post Office. After reading the book, I think the positive and negative words I read on Twitter are both right to some degree. Bukowski was more complicated than his detractors would admit, but he wasn't above writing about a hot shit, either.