Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Post Office, by Charles Bukowski

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Post Office chronicles 12 years of the poet’s life – the booze, the women, the gambling and his job as a postal worker. There is a cartoonish humour and Rabelaisian spirit in this short novel that makes every page irresistible. 

Charles Bukowski is one of those writers whose reputation precedes him. This is not a good thing for writers, as it can put potential readers off who may think they already know what the books are about. I’m guilty of this with regards to Bukowski.

Post Office was Bukowski’s first novel, published when the author was in his early fifties. The title pretty much explains all. Bukowski was an employee of the United States postal service for 12 years. He uses those experiences as the basis of Post Office. Other autobiographical details are thrown in – women, gambling and plenty of drink.

Bukowski first published as a poet, and this sensibility comes through in the text. Post Office gives a 12 year personal history, with all the boring bits taken out. There is no plot, characters come and go, but the one mainstay is Henry Chinaski (quite transparently the author himself). We eagerly read on to see what happens to him in his life, how his relationships pan out and the dramas he goes through on the job.

The most wonderful thing about Post Office is Bukowski’s blunt, pared back style and punchy humour. If the artist Robert Crumb or film maker Russ Meyer had written novels, they would probably read like this. Bukowski is a master comedy writer. His timing is absolutely awesome. He knows what to leave in, what to take out and how to arrange it to ensure his dialogue goes off like a series of firecrackers. There were many sections in the book where I laughed out loud and thought ‘brilliant!’ Like this piece of dialogue. In it, Henry Chinaski has stupidly burnt his hand. He goes to visit the workplace nurse, and a sexual frisson builds up:

“How did it happen, Henry?”
“Cigar. I was standing next to a truck of the 4th class. Ash must have gotten in there. Flames came up.”
The breast was up against me again.
‘Hold your hands still, please!”
Then she laid her whole flank against me as she spread some ointment on my hands. I was sitting on a stool.
“What’s the matter, Henry. You seem nervous.”
“Well…you know how it is, Martha.”
“My name is not Martha. It’s Helen.”
“Let’s get married, Helen.”
“What?”
“I mean, how soon will I be able to use my hands?’
“You can use them right now if you feel like it.”
‘What?’
“I mean on the work floor.”

As you can gather, the novel doesn’t really aim to do anything else beyond speaking the truth as its author sees it. Bukowski is so funny and engaging and human that it’s impossible not to enjoy every page that he writes. He’s like a cartoon character, and as with so many cartoons, he hits on the truth in a pithy and immediately recognisable way.

Post Office, by Charles Bukowski. Published by Virgin. ISBN:  9780753518168  RRP: $19.95