Right, my last three reviews have encompassed a lot of serious philosophising and whatnot. Charles Bukowski’s Post Office (1971) isn’t quite in the same league there, but what it does represent is a fine instalment in addiction, and down and out, literature, as well as something genuinely funny to read.
The former sprung forth through the likes of Thomas De Quincey in the 19th century, who candidly discussed his addiction to opium. The latter, down and out literature, I first came across when I read several of George Orwell’s works, which dealt with poverty and social and economic injustice – a sad situation which hasn’t advanced a great deal since Orwell’s day.
I’ve covered Down and Out in Paris and London on this blog already – Bukowski’s Post Office is, essentially, an American version of this! By this I mean it, naturally, loses all Britishness in favour of a laconic, profane, salacious, and often downright perverted nature. It’s also pretty hilarious.
Bukowski’s path to writing his debut novel was not an easy one. In a life fraught with personal and professional problems, he stumbled through to his 50th birthday after a long, unhappy spell working at the post office in America. He found this work so mundane and stressful he took to drinking heavily and would often struggle to get into his job as his hangovers were so bad – coupled with this, he struggled with his physical appearance and had a deeply unhappy childhood.
Despite these issues, he was able to take his life’s story, add in a rock ‘n roll alter ego called Henry Chinaski, and the result was a bestseller and an instant, spectacularly downtrodden classic in the style of beat generation writing. It also remains his best-known work – hold onto your beer kegs!
This is presented as a work of fiction and dedicated to nobody
Whilst Bukowski’s work can be classed as semi-autobiographical, I think it’s necessary to point out there was a lot of truth-bending at play here. In some ways, this was to make his story more entertaining, but there were also a lot of personal issues which Bukowski found too painful to discuss in full detail until Ham on Rye (1982). It’s with this in mind, in part I, we come across his literary persona Henry Chinaski, a deadbeat, heavy drinking, accident-prone, womanising, jack of all trades dry wit who is bumbling his way through life sticking it to the man.
It began as a mistake. It was Christmas season and I learned from the drunk up the hill, who did the trick every Christmas, that they would hire damned near anybody, and so I went and the next thing I knew I had this leather sack on my back and was hiking around at my leisure. What a job, I though. Soft!
Deluded into thinking ahead was an easy job, Chinaski signs on up.
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.
After passing the practical and physical exams, he quickly realises the job isn’t as easy as he’d first hoped.
Once or twice a week, already beaten, fagged and fucked we had to make the night pickups, and the schedule on the board was impossible – the truck wouldn’t go that fast. You had to skip four or five boxes on the first run and the next time around they were stacked with mail and you stank, you ran with sweat jamming it into the sacks. I got laid all right. Jonstone [his first post office boss] saw to that.
This rapidly becomes a common theme in Post Office (and the follow-up – Factotum) – Chinaski hates his bosses. He usually comes across power crazy sorts who roar orders at him, which he exacerbates by just falling short of outright petulance.
The subs themselves made Jonstone possible by obeying his impossible orders. I couldn’t see how a man of such obvious cruelty could be allowed to have his position.
Infuriated, Chinaski fills out a report highlighting his bosses’ obnoxious nature and has the temerity to get this processed at the postal service’s Federal Building. A clerk immediately begins screaming at him.
‘You’re a wise son of a bitch, aren’t you?’ – ‘I’d rather you didn’t curse me, sir!’ – ‘Wise son of a bitch, you’re one of those sons of bitches with a vocabulary and you like to lay it around!’ He waved my papers at me. And screamed: “MR. JONSTONE IS A FINE MAN!’ – ‘Don’t be silly. He’s an obvious sadist,’ I said. ‘How long have you been in the Post Office?’ – ‘3 weeks.’ – ‘MR. JONSTONE HAS BEEN WITH THE POST OFFICE FOR 30 YEARS!’ – ‘What does that have to do with it?’
“I believe the poor fellow actually wanted to kill me” is Chinaski’s final assessment of the situation, but he doesn’t attempt to file a report about one of his superiors again. However, an enraged Jonstone ostracises Chinaski from his station – unable to get work, and regularly hungover, he’s tipped off to try another station across town. Despite this being an easy run, Jonstone soon catches on and he’s called back to work. “I was back on the cross again” as Chinaski puts it.
This is how the flow of most of the book goes – it is a short one, barely 200 mini pages, but the variety and regularity of the incidents Bukowski found himself in (or invented for entertainment purposes) remains a constant source of hilarity. This pacy nature also adds a modern element to the book – it feels like it could have been released last month as there’s a timeless quality to it. Mundane work is mundane work and despite technological advancements, post office routine is more or less unchanged.
He soon finds out about the many stereotypical perils of being a postman, such as being chased by a German Shepherd.
It was hot summer and he came BOUNDING out of a back yard and then LEAPED through the air. His teeth snapped, just missing my jugular vein. “OH JESUS!” I hollered, “OH JESUS CHRIST! MURDER! MURDER! HELP! MURDER!”
40 minutes late, Jonstone writes him up again. This is another consistent theme in Post Office and Factotum – Bukowski lays down how he’s seemingly cursed to always being late for work, whether it’s his fault or not. It’s usually a mixture of bad luck, hangovers, or other incidents, but the post office must have had some leniency on the real-life writer as, despite his missed days due to hangovers, he wasn’t fired.
Every route had its traps and only the regular carriers knew of them. Each day it was another god damned thing, and you were always ready for a rape, murder, dogs, or insanity of some sort. The regulars wouldn’t tell you their little secrets. That was the only advantage they had – except knowing their case by heart. It was gung ho for a new man, especially one who drank all night, went to bed at 2am, rose at 4:30am after screwing and singing all night long, and, almost, getting away with it.
At one point he has to deliver mail to a church but is confused with what to do, eventually stumbling on in, finding a bottle of wine, and taking a swig from it.
I thought about taking a shower but I could see the headlines: MAILMAN CAUGHT DRINKING THE BLOOD OF GOD AND TAKING A SHOWER, NAKED, IN ROMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH. So, finally, I didn’t have time for lunch and when I got in Jonstone wrote me off for being twenty-three minutes off schedule.
In chapter 10 (these are quick fire chapters, so I’m not listing them in this review for a more, shall I say, free-flowing experience – it’s what Bukowski would have wanted… maybe), we have very possibly my favourite section of the book. It’s a damp one, with a thunderous rainstorm as part of the “rainy season”.
Despite most regular and part-time workers ringing in sick to avoid the rain, Chinaski tells us: “I didn’t call in sick because I was too tired to think properly.”
This particular morning I was sent to Wently Station. It was one of those 5 day storms where the rain comes down in one continuous wall of water and the whole city gives up, everything gives up, the sewers can’t swallow the water fast enough, the water comes up over the curbings, and in some sections, up on the lawn and into the houses.
Soon struggling due to the water, and with his shorts barely clinging to his backside, Chinaski heroically continues with the shift. And it is heroic! This also includes dealing with members of the public, not something an introverted man like Bukowski would have enjoyed.
Another Old Nelly, meaning to be nice, asked me, ‘Wouldn’t you like to come in and have a cup of tea and dry off?’ – ‘Lady, don’t you realise we don’t even have time to pull up our shorts?’ – ‘Pull up your shorts?’ – ‘YES, PULL UP OUR SHORTS!’ I screamed at her and walked off into the well of water.
He confirms his first “swing” takes an hour, but there are 11 more to go – 11 more hours: “impossible”. Skipping lunch to try and stay on target, he bustles on until able to take an opportunistic break.
Finally I was so wet I thought I was drowning. I found a front porch that only leaked a little and stood there and managed to light a cigarette. I had about 3 quiet puffs when I heard a little old lady’s voice behind me: ‘Mailman! Mailman!’ – ‘Yes, mam?’ I asked. ‘YOUR MAIL IS GETTING WET!’ I looked down at my pouch and sure enough, I had left the leather flap open. A drop or two had fallen in from a hole in the porch rood. I walked off. That does it, I thought, only an idiot would go through what I am going through. I am going to find a telephone and tell them to come get their mail and jam their job. Jonstone wins.
Heading off to get a cup of coffee and relax, Chinaski is pleased to see there’s a break in the weather. Moments like this, when you’re having a bad are, are often all it takes to turn your mood around and send you packing back into work. Bills have to be paid, of course, along with rent and, in Bukowski’s case, six packs of beer. Heading back out, he completes his route.
His good fortune doesn’t last long and Chinaski’s downtrodden ways continue – Jonstone sends him on an even more treacherous delivery route, this time in a giant truck (it’s interesting that, despite Jonstone’s obvious dislike of the man, he’s still willing to lend him the responsibility of driving a truck). The relentless rain is back and Chinaski is alarmed to find the water levels rising: “several times I had stepped into water up to my ankles. Then the dashboard light went out.” Unable to read his clipboard with all the delivery details on it, he resorts to using his box of matches to read essential information: “I would light a match, memorise the directions and drive on.”
For once, I had outwitted Adversity, that Jonstone up there in the sky looking down, watching me. Then I took a corner, leaped out to unload the box and when I got back the clipboard was GONE! Jonstone in the Sky, have Mercy! I was lost in the dark and the rain. Was I some kind of idiot, actually? Did I make things happen to myself? It was possible. It was possible that I was subnormal, that I was lucky just to be alive.
Reasoning the clipboard, which had been tethered to the van’s dashboard, has dislodged itself and will be nearby, with gritted teeth he heads on out into a river to find the thing.
I got out of the truck with my pants rolled up around my knees and started wading through a foot of water. It was dark. I’d never find the goddamned thing! I walked along, lighting matches – but nothing, nothing. It had floated away. As I reached the corner I had sense enough to notice which way the current was moving and follow it. I saw an object floating along, lit a match, and there it WAS! The clipboard. Impossible! I could have kissed the thing. I waded back to the truck, got in, rolled my pantlegs down and really wired that board to the dash.
With a seemingly endless list of stops to see to, Chinaski ploughs on.
With the last match I made the last stop, deposited my mail at the station indicated, and it was a load, and then drove back toward the West Garage. It was in the west end of town and in the west the land was very flat, the drainage system couldn’t handle the water and anytime it rained any length of time at all, they had what was called a ‘floor’. The description was accurate. Driving on in, the water rose higher and higher. I noticed stalled and abandoned cars all around. Too bad. All I wanted was to get in that chair with that glass of scotch in my hand and watch Betty’s ass wobble around the room.
That final section, incidentally, is a regular occurrence throughout Bukowski’s books, which has led many to accuse him of casual misogyny. You can barely go a page without some mention of his better half’s wobbling something or other, but, eventually, you get used to it.
The water got higher and higher but mail trucks are built high off the ground. I took the shortcut through the residential neighbourhood, full speed, and water flew up all around me. It continued to rain, hard. There weren’t any cars around. I was the only moving object. Betty baby, yeah. Some guy standing on his front porch laughed at me and yelled, ‘THE MAIL MUST GO THROUGH!’ I cursed him and gave him the finger. I noticed that the water was rising above the floorboards, whirling around my shoes, but I kept driving. Only 3 blocks to go! Then the truck stopped. Oh. Oh. Shit.
Wondering what to do, such as if a rescue squad would swoop out to save him, Chinaski soon decides to lock up the truck – he steps out waist deep into the water.
Suddenly the water rose another 3 or 4 inches. I had been walking across a lawn and had stepped off the curbing. The truck was parked on somebody’s front lawn. For a moment I thought that swimming might be faster, then I thought, no, that would look ridiculous. I made it to the garage and walked up to the dispatcher. There I was, wet as wet could get and he looked at me. I threw him the truck keys and the ignition keys. Then I wrote on a piece of paper: 3435 Mountview Place. ‘Your truck’s at this address. Go get it.’ – ‘You mean you left it out there?’ – ‘I mean I left it out there.’ I walked over, punched out, then stripped to my shorts and stood in front of a heater. I hung my clothes over the heater. Then I looked across the room and there by another heater stood Tom Moto is his shorts. We both laughed. ‘It’s hell, isn’t it?’ he asked. ‘Unbelieavable.’
Life ticks on by and he continues his shifts with the same sense of half-arsed commitment. “I was hungover again, another heat spell was on” he notes. Being hungover is something Bukowski never mastered in his life. Despite being a functioning alcoholic, he actually stopped drinking entirely in his final few years after being diagnosed with cancer. To add to this, although he died in 1994 aged 73, he predicted he would cop it in 2000 – a close guesstimate.
During his post office career, his hangovers were often so bad he couldn’t make it into work, but the stress of the job, perched on his stool filing letters as quickly as possible, led him back to the bottle time and time again.
The drinking went on each night, and in the early mornings and the days there was The Stone and the impossibility of everything … The whiskey and beer ran out of me, fountained from the armpits, and I drove along with this load on my back like a cross, puffing out magazines, delivering thousands of letters, staggering, welded to the side of the sun.
In his frustration and stress, he often seems to have been involved in borderline severe incidents with people. After one such event, a really bad one, Chinaski returns to the office expecting Hell to pay for from Jonstone.
I stood there, looking down at him, waiting. The Stone glanced up at me, then down at what he was reading. I kept standing there, waiting. The Stone kept reading. ‘Well,’ I finally said, ‘what about it?’ – ‘What about what?’ The Stone looked up. ‘ABOUT THE PHONE CALL! TELL ME ALL ABOUT THE PHONE CALL! DON’T JUST SIT THERE!’ – ‘What phone call?’ – ‘You didn’t get a phone call about me?’ – ‘A phone call? What happened? What have you been doing out there? What did you do?’ – ‘Nothing.’ I walked over and checked my stuff in. The guy hadn’t phoned in. No grace on his part. He probably thought I would come back if he phoned in. I walked past The Stone on my way back to the case. ‘What did you do out there, Chinaski?’ – ‘Nothing’. My act so confused The Stone that he forgot to tell me I was 30 minutes late or write me up for it.
Part I concludes with the writer acknowledging, after three years, he has finally made “regular” with the company. As he notes, the stress of the job ensured he was still coming in regularly hungover. After a final incident with The Stone, however, Chinaski admits he’s had enough of it and heads to the Federal Building to resign.
And so there it was. I drove home to Betty and we uncapped the bottle. Little did I know that in a couple of years I would be back as a clerk and that I would clerk, all hunched-up on a stool, for nearly 12 years.
I faced a similar issue back in the winter of 2014 – after being made redundant, and work being so scarce in England, I signed up for the Christmas run at the Royal Mail. I turned up early at a hotel reception in central Manchester, where I found vast queues of people from all walks of life.
After an hour, a door was propped open – the processing room – whereupon 300+ people attempted to cram into a narrow passageway to get into the room and bag some work. I had to claw my way through the overcrowded mass of desperate people for minimum wage manual labour, like cattle crammed into a hotel reception area jostling to get into the room before it was too late – there was the very real, desperate fear if you didn’t make it in in time, there would be nothing left for you. I managed it, though, after which I had my personal details poured over for one month’s paid employment. The whole nonsense lasted four hours and was so badly organised it went beyond insulting – it is, unquestionably, the worst I’ve ever been treated in any form of employment. Thanks for that, Royal Mail!
The job itself was back-breakingly dull and mundane, but jobs like this rely on routine and before long it becomes automatic – your mind can wander off and think about other things. Plus, there’s the camaraderie which develops between staff to keep spirits up, even to the point (having missed two days due to a hideous cold I’d picked up from one weirdo who kept sneezing and not covering his mouth) I received a huge cheer from the other Christmas workers upon returning. I’d also befriended a very pretty young Nigerian mother called Olu, who studied politics at university, and was in the same fix. She flung herself at me in delight – we’d had conversations and she was worried about the future of the country, with right wing politics coming back to the fore and anti-immigration types lurking around ready to blame the world’s problems on a minority. She was, and no doubt still is, a cool lady.
For me, after this spell of unemployment, and despite the seeming desperation of the situation, a few weeks after finishing that horrific job I was finally able to bag the next step up in my copywriting career. It’s clear there can be a bright side, for some, although I feel dreadfully sorry for the individuals who have to spend their lives in these places on minimum wage, with no hope of furthering their careers or finding any sort of satisfaction in work – or financial security.
Bukowski eschews such inherent sadness in the situation with endless dry humour. You’ll no doubt have picked up on it by now – it’s a downtrodden wit which has clearly come from facing up to years of adversity. There’s a 2003 documentary called Bukowski: Born Into This (see the trailer above) which chronicles his alcoholism, poetry, prose, and dry humour. His writing style, and public appearances, were fueled by the many everyday, unfortunate situations he found himself in, such as defecating in a public toilet one time at a racetrack (he loved his gambling) and reaching over only to see his wallet plunge into the u-bend.
Naturally, there’s a small part of us all that revels in other peoples’ misfortune, whilst also delighting in the knowledge other people are as clumsy as yourself. Arguably, this is why his books were (and still are) so popular – it’s learned misfortune which keeps you turning those pages.
Now, Bukowski was prone to the behaviour of a schlub, but he was a cultured man – as you can hear in the clip above, there’s lots of classical music. Why? The man himself claimed he just left the radio on the classical music station, but there was clearly an inherent love for the stuff there, so it’s this natural intelligence which elevates his work above merely being about downtrodden luck. It is, in fact, lofty stuff, just delivered in the style of a boorish drunk.
Part II begins at the racetrack, where his gambling runs earned him a steady living (i.e. he could scrape through each month). It’s at this point he brings up Joyce, a woman with wealthy parents. Due to this, her father despises him as he thinks alter-ego Chinaski is after their money. The family decides to play a trick on him at one point, taking the hapless man out to see a buffalo.
We drove on a way until we came to this empty fenced-in field. The ground sloped and you couldn’t see the other end of the field. It was miles long and wide. There was nothing but short green grass.
He senses they’re going to “play the old drive-away joke” when he fails to notice any buffalo in this particular field. He’s not overly bothered about this and he walks into the field expecting them to drive off.
I walked further in, then turned, cupped my hands and yelled ‘WELL, WHERE’S THE BUFFALO?’ My answer came from behind me. I could hear their feet on the ground. There were 3 of them, big ones, just like in the movies, and they were running, they were coming FAST! One had a bit of a lead on the others. There was little doubt who they were headed for. ‘Oh shit!’ I said. I turned and began running. That fence looked a long way away. It looked impossible. I couldn’t spare the time to look back. That might make the difference. I was flying, wide-eyed. I really moved! But they gained steadily! I could feel the ground shaking around me as they beat up earth getting ahead right down on me. I could hear them slobbering, I could hear them breathing. With the last of my strength I dug in and leaped the fence. I didn’t climb it. I sailed over it. And landed on my back in a ditch with one of those things poking his head over the fence and looking down at me. In the car, they were all laughing. They thought it was the funniest thing they had ever seen.
At the behest of Joyce, to improve his standing amongst her family, he takes up another job but soon finds it tedious going, despite being cushier than the post office run. Quitting that, he talks to an “old drunk” on the street and is told his job as a postal clerk is easy. Almost without realising it, he’s back in the game and taking a civil service exam with a gang of 150-200 others. The writer notes:
Nearly 12 years later, out of these 150 or 200, there would only be 2 of us left. Just like some guys can’t taxi or pimp or hustle dope, most guys, and gals too, can’t be postal clerks. And I don’t blame them.
Shown around the building, Chinaski had to punch in for his shift immediately. “Twelve and one half hours later we punched out. That was one hell of a swearing-in ceremony.”
After nine or ten hours people began getting sleepy and falling into their cases, catching themselves just in time. We were working the zoned mail. If a letter read zone 28 you stuck it to hole no. 28. It was simple … Using the same muscles over and over again was quite tiring. I ached all over. And at the end of the aisle stood a supervisor, another Stone, and he had this look on his face – they must practice it in front of mirrors – they looked at you as if you were a hunk of human shit.
It’s not long before the role starts driving him “crazy”. Monotonous jobs tend to do this to you. As a student in Nottingham, late 2004, I had a Christmas job at a clothes shop (possibly the worst line of work for someone like me ever). Shifts involved standing around on the floor and occasionally putting new clothes out – it was the most boring job I’ve ever had, made worse by my bosses’ insistence I approach anyone who entered the shop within 60 seconds to ask if I could help them.
What type of vacuous and condescending sales approach is that? Dodderingly enforced upselling. Most of the customers gave me a bemused look and said something along the lines of, “I’ve only just come in”. Mind you, I had another retail interview test in a, now defunct, movie rental store – a part-time role, it consisted of pointing out to customers there was a deal on. The deal featured signs across the store promoting it. I distinctly remember one man giving me an “Are you a simpleton?” amused look as I pointed out to him the deal right before his eyes was, indeed, on. Anyway, I had no interest in that job and turned down any opportunity for them to foist it upon me.
Bukowski, however, stuck with his. His alter-ego also soon finds out many of his superiors take their work rather seriously. In what’s called a Training Class, he’s taught about the need to wash correctly.
‘… now there’s nothing like the smell of good clean sweat but there’s nothing worse than the smell of stale sweat…’ Good god, I thought, am I hearing right?
Corporate nonsense is such there are often time-wasting irrelevances such as this in mundane roles. It’s as if some companies genuinely believe their employees are imbeciles. In Chinaski’s day, this went a whole lot further and he’s lectured patriotically.
‘I want you to understand that we’ve got to hold down the budget! I want you to understand EACH LETTER YOU STICK – EACH SECOND, EACH MINUTE, EACH HOUR, EACH DAY, EACH WEEK – EACH EXTRA LETTER YOU STICK BEYOND DUTY HELPS DEFEAT THE RUSSIANS! Now, that’s all for today.’
Eccentricities such as this aside, this was borderline hard manual labour Bukowski was committing himself to. Tedious work, too, but a lot of it to get through.
They couldn’t keep enough to help to get the mail out, so those who did remain had to do it all. On the schedule board they had us working two weeks straight but then we would get 4 days off. That kept us going. 4 days rest. The last night before our 4 days off, the intercom came on. ‘ATTENTION! ALL SUBS IN GROUP 409!’ I was in group 409. ‘YOUR FOUR DAYS OFF HAVE BEEN CANCELLED. YOU ARE SCHEDULED TO REPORT FOR WORK ON THESE 4 DAYS!’
It’s around this point, exhausted, Chinaski begins to get bored of Joyce and her relentless advances, which he, with hyperbolic glee, classifies as “rape”. His girlfriend has picked up a peculiar dog called Picasso, whom the writer feels sorry for in the creature’s immense stupidity. Joyce also purchases a pet bird, but matters come to a head between the two and Chinaski releases the birds into the wild, forcing Joyce into a rage. This is followed by a bizarre incident where he buys, on his day off, a load of seafood and sits at home chewing through it all, to the disgust of Joyce.
Such casual antagonism is the hallmark of the Henry Chinaski alter ego. It’s subtle, but well-defined, malice. Unsurprisingly, his relationship with Joyce doesn’t last.
In real life, Joyce was Barbara Frye. As part of this alternate reality Bukowski invented for himself in literary form, he makes out she is an attractive lady who all the men are after. However, Frye actually suffered a deformity – with two missing vertebrae, she was left hunched over.
You can read in my review of the poignant Ham on Rye why Bukowski skewed the personalities of many of the women in his literary works. In Post Office, Joyce is sex crazed and rich. In other works, such as Factotum and Women, the ladies he meets are typically harbingers of doom, a nuisance, eccentric, alcoholic, or dismal failures in life.
There’s always a sense of intrinsic sadness when you read Bukowski’s work, despite the dry humour sprinkled throughout. In Post Office, this comes with learning the real love of his life, Jane Cooney Baker (Betty) died due to complications from alcoholism, leaving Bukowski distraught and jaded. It’s almost as if he warped the truth in order to cope with his grief, which is certainly one reason why his relentless drinking continued, dulling out his personal anguish.
Joyce gave me the car. She didn’t drive. All I had lost was 3 or 4 million. But I still had the post office.
At this stage, Chinaski hitches back up with Betty. A peculiarity of his era is revealed here, as he begins skipping work to fool around with Betty and drink heavily. The Post Office, being obsessive of its employees, would actually send out a registered nurse to the employee’s address upon them phoning in sick. I’m not sure if this exists anymore with any jobs out there, but I’ve certainly never come across it. For Chinaski, it’s a case of smoking a cigarette to kill the alcohol on his breath and phoning it into the unfortunate, obviously dubious nurse who arrives.
Eventually, Chinaski is hauled before personnel at the Federal Building when someone finally checks his record.
‘Mr. Chinaski, we have been wondering if you have filled out this application properly.’
Now, I’m not sure if the next section is true or not, but given Bukowski’s overall attitude it wouldn’t be surprising. Petty infringements were his speciality, but he sure did wrack up a vast amount of them.
‘Uh?’ – ‘We mean, the arrest record.’ She handed me the sheet. There wasn’t any sex in her eyes. I had listed 8 or 10 common drunk raps. It was only an estimate. I had no idea of the dates. ‘Now, have you listed everything?’ shed asked me. ‘Hmmm, hmmm, let me think…’ I knew what she wanted. She wanted me to say ‘yes’ and then she had me. ‘Let me see… Hmmm. Hmmm.’ – ‘Yes?’ she said. ‘Oh oh! My god!” – ‘What is it?’ – ‘It’s either drunk in auto or drunk driving. About 4 years ago or so. I don’t know the exact date.’ – ‘And this was a slip of the mind?’ – ‘Yes, really, I meant to put it down.’ – ‘All right. Pit it down.’ I wrote it down. ‘Mr. Chinaski. This is a terrible record. I want you to explain these charges and if possible justify your present employment with us.’
Given 10 days to do this, it was another opportunity for the man to show his wily ways.
I didn’t want the job that badly. But she irritated me. I phoned in sick that night after buying some ruled and numbered legal paper and a blue. very official-looking folder. I got a fifth of whiskey and a six pack, then sat down and typed it out. I had the dictionary at my elbow. Every now and then I would flip a page, find a large incomprehensible word and build a sentence or paragraph out of the idea. It ran 42 pages. I finished up with, ‘Copies of this statement have been retained for distribution to the press, television, and other mass communication media.’
This statement is promptly handed in.
She took the 42 pages back to her desk. She read and read and read. There was somebody reading over her shoulder. Then there were 2, 3, 4, 5. All reading. 6, 7, 8, 9. All reading. What the hell? I thought. Then I heard a voice from the crowd, ‘Well, all geniuses are drunkards!’ At if that explained away the matter.
Eventually cleared, he can return back to the job, this time forced to study policies as well as complete his 12 hour shifts.
You didn’t adjust, you simply got more and more tired. I always picked up my 6 pack on the way in, and one morning I was really done. I climbed the staircase (there was no elevator) and put the key in. The door swung open. Somebody had changed all the furniture around, put in a new rug. No, the furniture was new too.
In a blur of exhaustion, hangovers, and casual ignorance, Chinaski even finds the time one evening to stumble into the wrong apartment, the flat one floor below his.
Despite these discrepancies, professionally and personally, Chinaski makes regular and is placed on an 8 hour shift, rather than 12, and pay during holidays. By this stage, his aforementioned list of 150/200 during the inauguration process is down to just the two of them.
Gambling heavily, Chinaski claims he’s raking in $3,000 a month at the racetrack, which was a genuine love of Bukowski’s. He was initially sceptical of the idea, but it turned into a lifelong passion for him. To capitalise on his good fortune, he takes another leave of absence and is handed 90 days off.
His run of luck fades, particularly after another womanising session, and he spends the rest of his time off drinking and hanging around his flat. The real Bukowski was, of course, also a prolific poet, so it wasn’t as if he was entirely frittering away his existence.
His intemperate attitude, as always, lands him in difficult situations, though. One day, in need of the toilet…
There was a doorway down by the men’s crapper. I looked at the sign. WARNING! DO NOT USE THIS STAIRWAY! It was a con. I was wiser than those mothers. They just put the sign up to keep clever guys like Chinaski from going down to the cafeteria. I opened the door and went on down. The door closed behind me. I walked down the second floor. Turned the know. What the fuck! The door wouldn’t open!
After bemusing some individual unfortunate enough to get on the tail end of his wrath, he’s left, once again, to get back on with his job.
I began getting dizzy spells. I could feel them coming. The case would begin to whirl. The spells lasted about a minute. I couldn’t understand it. Each letter was getting heavier and heavier. The clerks began to have that dead grey look. I began to slide off my stool. My legs would barely hold up. The job was killing me.
Chinaski also welcomes a baby into his life at this point, the product of one Fay, with the child named Marina Louise (her real name). I had a look around online to try and find out what she’s up to, but could only find an article from 2016, in German, about the reveal of a bust of her famous dad which she attended – she’s now 53, but she is interviewed in the documentary film above.
It’s worth baring in mind Bukowski really speeds up events in Post Office – he crams about 15 years into 15,000 words. As such, if you’re wondering if I’ve sped this review up and jumped over giant chasms of time, it’s not the case – it’s just the way the book is.
Part V is dedicated to a series of warning letters, seemingly typed out verbatim by the now unconcerned writer, labelled to Bukowski during an unexplained, and extended, period of absence.
It’s back to work for Bukowski, but not for long. By this stage, the new chapters and parts are shortening the further you get into Post Office – this appears to represent the writer’s ever-shortening patience with his job.
He’s called up before a supervisor for an unsatisfactory pace of work.
‘Sit down, Chinaski.’ [He] had some papers in his hand. He read them. ‘Chinaski, it took you 28 minutes to throw a 23 minute tray.’ – ‘Oh, knock off the bullshit. I’m tired.’ – ‘What?’
He lays it to the man.
‘You know better. Each tray is 2 feet long. Some trays have 3, or even 4 times as many letters than others. The clerks grab what they call the ‘fat’ trays. I don’t bother. Somebody has to stick with the tough mail. Yet all you guys know is that each tray is two feet long and that it must be stuck in 23 minutes. But we’re not sticking trays in those cases, we’re sticking letters.’ – ‘No, no, this thing has been time-tested!’ – ‘Maybe it has. I doubt it. But if you’re going to time a man, don’t judge him on one tray. Even Babe Ruth struck out now and then. Judge a man on ten trays, or a night’s work. You guys just use this thing to hang anybody who gets in your craw.’
Arguably, because we’re able to live out some vicarious glee billions of people across the world unhappy in their jobs would like to commit to, but simply can’t – this is why Bukowski is so popular: Insubordination, impertinence, subversive disdain towards one’s duties. It’s all there – it’s grand scale escapism.
To build on this, he promptly, in the closing section of his story, takes a hedonistic spiral towards bottles of scotch and ultimately abandoning his job. The time has come for him to leave the Post Office. A career as a writer who can capture the absurdity of day-to-day existence through down and out wit is here. It is 1971.
In the morning it was morning and I was still alive. Maybe I’ll write a novel, I thought. And then I did.
With beer effectively steaming off the thing, Post Office is a brilliantly entertaining book which is at once hilarious, sad, and pretty accurate for 99% of the world’s workforce.
Time magazine called Charles Bukowski “a laureate of American low life” and this is spot on. He’d worked at the Post Office for 12 years until, in 1969 (thanks to decades of obscurity as a poet), Black Sparrow Press was founded and its CEO, John Martin, insisted he quit the job to write for them exclusively (due to Bukowski’s years of poetry writing) – this is exactly what the man did and, in only three weeks, he’d completed Post Office. His debut was a bestseller and Bukowski’s life was transformed almost overnight.
He became a literary sensation and, in older age, began to live out some of the fantasies he’d entirely missed in his youth. Women threw themselves at him, men wanted to be him, and all of sudden the introverted ageing man was the talk of the town.
Whilst we’ve seen some criticise him for blatant misogyny (kind of hard to argue with this assessment), or for being rubbish (easy to argue against that!), his alcohol-soaked insights on life, how to live it, and why sardonic asides will get you through it all, make for revealing and hilarious reading. Above all else, it’s the dark humour which should lift you through your day. Post Office is funny. It’s sad. It’s a joy to read. Just be wary of the profanity.