“Post Office,” by Charles Bukowski, 1971
Bukowski has always been a conflicted figure – both repulsive and attractive. This ‘ring of truth’ book drove his persona into the national limelight. Unlike Bukowski’s image as a hard-drinking, womanizing, lazy bastard, in this book Bukowski’s alter-ego Chinaski works at the Los Angles Post Office over two periods for a total of more than 15 years. No shit! No Tom Waits’ coffee drunk loitering in dark bars, Chinaski here lugs heavy bags of mail up hills, through rainstorms and sorts mail like a tired machine, hung-over, dreaming of scoring at the racetrack. That is when he’s not being forced to work overtime. He is cursed by petty and implacable post office supervisors, nutty coworkers or pathetic, mostly female customers waiting for their letters.
This is probably the ONLY book written about working in the post office and as such, deserves a pride of place in the literature of labor - even though that might not have been its intention. I myself got hired at the Post Office in the 1970s after passing the tests. But when they toured us through the job-to-be – sitting at a machine for 12 hours sorting letters by zip code – I never showed up for work.
Chinaski/Bukowski shows up, and defies his bosses time and time again. They write him up and write him up to no avail. This is mostly during the 1960s and the spirit of rebellion is in the times, even if ‘the times’ are invisible in this book. This is the book’s main flaw. Rebellions are breaking out all over the country; students are on strike; there are continual confrontations in the street with police; murder is the order of the day. The ‘brothers’ at the P.O. are seen by supervisors as dangerous thugs. The postal workers union (APWU) is nigh invisible, though in 1970 there was an illegal postal workers wildcat strike that went national. Los Angles was part of all this. Yet hung-over gambler and sex addict Chinaski barely notices or cares about any of this. You see, it is all about him.
|In the Cold Rain & Snow|
So the book becomes a humorous exercise in solipsism. At this point in history, clammy sexist attitudes towards women and drunken writer romanticism don’t really fly, though they can still be funny. After leaving the Post Office the first time, Chinaski tries to make money at racetracks. He succeeds for awhile and just comes off as another greasy parasite when he wins.
Workers in U.S. culture are usually depicted as buffoons or lumpens. Here the book leans to the latter, a form of vicarious slumming. The real value of the book is not this low-life shtick, but its crazy descriptions of 1950s and ‘60s life as a route carrier or mail clerk sorter – helpful should you be so lucky as to get hired at the Post Office.
Other reviews on fiction books about working: “Factory Days,” “Polar Star,” “Red Baker,” “Cade’s Rebellion,” “Night Shift.” Use blog search box, upper left.
And I bought it at Second Story Books in Ely, MN.
The Kulture Kommissar
June 18, 2019