[Warning for language. What? What did you expect? It’s a review of a Bukowski book!]
“It began as a mistake.” A tight opening line that sums up the entirety of Charles’ Bukowski slacker alter-ego, Henry Chinaski. Pretty much everything in Hank’s life is a mistake, from the women he loves and leaves (“shacks up with” and “lays”, in his terminology), to the jobs he ends up not really doing, to turning into something of a novelist. Nothing is done with any kind of foresight as Chinaski stumbles through life with a certain bravado, living by the author’s own personal philosophy – Don’t try.
Post Office is written with an honesty that extends only so far as it is convenient for Chinaski. He lies constantly but is, ironically, completely honest about his lying; He doesn’t care for authority and doesn’t recognize its power over him (which means that ultimately it doesn’t have any); He treats women admittedly very poorly, and yet is constantly in relationships; He slips into and out of jobs at the post office without any concerns other than where he’ll get his next bottle of booze and his next companion/girlfriend/wife; And all he really wants to do is have sex, drink, and gamble, preferably all three at once.
At one point, Chinaski feels that he’s found the perfect situation – he’s winning enough at the track that he takes a leave from the post office, he’s able to afford all the booze he can drink, and he’s got a woman to keep him warm, and to keep warm, at night. Plus, she supports his habits and doesn’t judge him. Naturally, he finds a way to mess it all up sooner rather than later, and ends up back at work in the post office. This book is equally about life and work, and how the two are completely untenable but unavoidable at the same time. Only catering to his baser urges makes the whole thing worthwhile in some desultory manner.
This is Bukowski’s first novel, and the story is that it took only three weeks to write. This comes through in the rawness of his prose, and the unapologetic honesty of his own self-reflection. He recognizes that he is, for lack of a nicer term, an asshole, and that the world is full of them. In one scene, he lays into his wife Joyce, who is put off by the fact that the snails they’re eating have assholes. He shouts (in all caps in the text): “WHAT’S WRONG WITH ASSHOLES, BABY? YOU’VE GOT AN ASSHOLE, I’VE GOT AN ASSHOLE! YOU GO TO THE STORE AND BUY A PORTERHOUSE STEAK, THAT HAD AN ASSHOLE! ASSHOLES COVER THE EARTH!” And the thing is he’s right, even if our own sensibilities as readers tend a little toward the precious at times.
Post Office is at no times a comfortable read, but it is always an honest read. Post Office is like that guy that you kind of like, but who is far too insightful and has absolutely no social filters whatsoever, whom you can’t seem to avoid at the office party. When Bukowski’s Chinaski is telling Joyce that she has an asshole, he’s telling us that we do, too.
Bukowski falls solidly under the American Realism movement, and more specifically, Dirty Realism, a term coined by Bill Buford of Granta magazine. This is a genre that grew out of a combination of Noir/Hardboiled Detective novels and Realism, a desire to see things as they really are, without all the fancy adornments. Well, Bukowski definitely drops the adornments. Spare prose and no spared emotions, Post Office is an excellent, honest, hilarious, uncomfortable first novel.
Steve’s Rating: (9 / 10)
Not written for everyone, but Bukowski wouldn’t care what we think anyway. Great example of American Dirty Realism.
Publisher: Ecco (reprint – originally Black Sparrow Press)
Date: July 29, 2014 (First Edition 1971)
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