Thursday, April 7, 2011

POST OFFICE by Charles Bukowski

I'm not a member of the Cult of Hank, nor has Bukowski ever been an important writer to me, but even I found his 1971 novel Post Office to be a fast, funny and thoroughly enjoyable read. After being unimpressed by Bukowski's poetry, and even less impressed by the portrait of the artist as an old, bullshit-addicted jerk in the documentary Bukowski: Live Through This (or whatever it was called), I was pleasantly surprised by this novel, a rancidly funny account of drudge-life among the clerks and carriers of the LA postal service. A minor classic of the literature of work (a too-small genre in contemporary American fiction, which spends most of its time away from the places where most Americans spend most of their time: in frustrating, repetitive jobs), Post Office descends not only from the hardboiled California law firm of Hammett, Chandler & Cain but also from Celine, the Henry Miller of the Tropics, and early Hubert Selby, Jr. (Hank must've been reading a lot of Grove Press books during the '60s.) Bukowski's prose comes from the hardboileds, but his attitude is that of an American Celine. The descriptions of work here are reminiscent of Celine's great passages on working in the Detroit auto factories in Journey to the End of the Night. Bukowski in this book is closer to French Modernism than to any of the American Naturalists. Those writers, from Sinclair and Dreiser to, I guess, Oates and Franzen, either embrace, or fail to fight free of, some overarching ideology (be it Socialism, Communism or, for the latter two writers, a tepid, bathwater Liberalism). Bukowski is more nihilistic--and thus more European--more of a Nietzschean beast. (This is not to slight the native American tradition of artistic nihilism, a living one from Melville until now that finds perhaps its most succinct formulation in the famous line from Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues": "I shot a man in Reno / just to watch him die.")

I have a few criticisms, of course: the chapter that consists entirely of memoranda reeks of filler, an author's desperate attempt to pad his book up to 200 pages; there are a few passages that ring false in which Bukowski gives us a Chinaski who's a little too righteous and near-heroic, too much of an authorial wish-fulfilment fantasy; I also noticed a couple of places where an officious proofreader seems to have incorrectly 'corrected' Bukowski's text, producing elementary grammatical errors.

And I notice from the books list at the front of Post Office that death hasn't slowed Bukowski down. His prolificity has been unaffected by his passing. There's even a volume of 'new poems' published 11 years after his death. Even if Bukowski left an enormous amount of material lying around, some of these books must be exercises in barrel-scraping. Next year Ecco will probably bring out You Get Tide For 20% Off Sometimes: The Selected Shopping Lists of Charles Bukowski.

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