Picking up a cult classic is always a little bit of apprehensive for me. I had read a little of Bukowski’s poetry before reading this novel, one in particular kept me creatively driven through difficult circumstances. But from what I’d been told about Bukowski’s writing and reputation I expected machista, bold gritty machismo writing with a good helping of the lewd, depressing realism that comes from a cynic. I was pretty bang on if I do say so myself. (But don’t let that put you off)
Someone once told me this was a funny book. But I don’t agree. The protagonist Henry Chinaski is a chocolate teapot person. His biggest commitments are to alcoholism, gambling, and finding places to put his cock. He comes across depressed and downtrodden and seems to run on superficial quick fixes rather than addressing the real unhappiness in his life.
The actual Post Office is continually in the background, a monolithic structure that seems to be the only tangible thing in Chinaski’s life. But it breathes tainted air in the background, it fills the novel with dread by the end. The rest of Chinaski’s time is a blur that sometimes seems as mediocre and mundane as his job. Chinaski is an ordinary man, who flits from woman to woman and discovers his terrible capacity for grief when one of his ex’s dies. This is really a quite depressing novel when you take a glance at it from afar but close up it is more of a frank untucking of a shirt while the narrative wobbles drunkenly on a bar stool. It sways a little, it’s probably dribbling into an empty glass, but it certainly isn’t pretending that it isn’t drunk.
At the start of the novel Chinaski hears that the Post Office are throwing jobs at people and finds himself as a substitute mailman quicker than he can blink. His days are a little unbelievably, a little outrageous, like a comic he dodges dogs, butts heads with his petty boss and pursues horny housewives. Away from work he boozes with his girlfriend Betty but after two years delivering mail he packs it all into gamble at the races.
This first part of the novel still seems to have some sort of vague optimism. But that begins to change when another woman comes along and he gets married. Joyce is from a well-moneyed background but insists on them working and proving that they are self sufficient. Reluctantly Chinaski agrees and goes back to the Post Office as a Clerk and stays there for the next twelve years and from there everything seems to spiral downwards.
Bukowski’s writing is direct and casual, sometimes dry and tense but generally it can be described as abrasive. Often I wondered if I could light a match from the printed pages, as this novel sometimes seemed the antithesis of the deeply sensitive and touching. Because of that at times I felt it seemed a little two dimensional, a little too much surface without much underneath. But this is a novel that I think is supposed to hold you at arms length while it barks the story at you (well lubricated with spittle). It is a novel that wants to fight with you, it wants to argue it’s point and more than anything it tries to refuse your empathy.
I have been thinking about this novel for a while and I’m not entirely sure if I like it. Post Office has a brilliant advantage of being Bukowski’s semi autobiographical account of his life at the Post Office as a college drop out. Mostly it doesn’t feel elegant or fabricated to the point that outrageous details sometimes seemed dulled. Perhaps this is because the novel cuts quite close to the nerve of a working class life, that anything outrageous is tarnished and a little lost.
The mundanity and sometimes desperation was a little bit too relatable at times, certain moods, certain power trips, certain procedural nonsense seemed to be the bulk of what I related to in this novel. This is a common man in an ordinary job and the longer he stays within his sense of stasis, the more broken he seems to become. Perhaps this is the part of the novel I could find enjoyment in. If Henry is a chocolate teapot, the tea tray he spends most of his time sitting on is a stark and a desperate reality that anyone living pay check to pay check can potentially find themselves in. It doesn’t read like cathartic writing, but it does read as something cruelly honest that isn’t hiding it’s ugly side.
It reads easy enough, but on the hole I’m not altogether convinced by the Post Office. It strikes me as a novel that you either love or hate but I’m not sure where I fall. I think I need another Bukowski novel to make up my mind.