Monday, 16 May 2011

Post Office

I picked up 'Post Office' by Charles Bukowski on a two-for-one deal at a local charity shop, somewhat surprised to find that he had written a novel. In fact he wrote six, though his poetry collections must number nearly 40 (many of them published after his death in 1994). I quoted one of his poems on this blog back in June last year. I guess the fact that this book is about his time working as a postman really appealed to me.

In the flyleaf of the book is a memo from the Office of Postmaster:
"All postal personnel must act with unwavering integrity and complete devotion to the public interest. Postal personnel and expected to maintain the highest moral principles and to uphold the laws of the United States and the regulations and policies of the Post Office Department. Not only is ethical conduct required, but officials and employees must be alert to avoid actions which would appear to prevent fulfilment of postal obligations."

Now I had assumed that Bukowski was considered to be part of the Beat Generation, but I discover apparently not, though I feel that this book owes a lot to On The Road, partly in that it was similarly written in a mammoth one month stint, but also in it's style and delivery. It is pretty much what it appears, a recounting (although he claims it as a work of fiction) of his time working for the US postal service, some years spent on delivery and then an extended period working as a letter filing clerk (the use of sorting machines does date from around this time but much was still done by hand.) From a professional point of view I did enjoy his recounting of his job as it is fascinating to see how little the role has changed in sixty years. I know exactly what he means here, I like the challenge of taking on new duties and have no desire to get settled down, stuck on the same walk every day:

"After 3 years I made 'regular'. That meant holiday pay (subs didn't get paid for holidays) and a 40 hour week with 2 days off. The Stone was also forced to assign me as relief man to 5 different routes. That's all I had to carry - 5 different routes. In time, I would learn the cases well plus the shortcuts and traps on each route. Each day would be easier. I could begin to cultivate that comfortable look.
Somehow, I was not too happy. I was not a man to deliberately seek pain, the job was still difficult enough, but somehow it lacked the old glamour of my sub days - the not-knowing-what-the-hell was going to happen next." (p.39)

The main character Henry Chinaski is a dissolute drunk who's only aim in life appears to be to keep body and soul together so he can go on drinking. The story follows his desperate struggle against the supervisors who seem hell bent on making his life a misery, the women who drift in and out of focus, the mostly futile gambling and the ever present alcohol. What is great about the style is the atmosphere, the picture he creates of the lowest section of working class america, the people who have had the hardest of lives, the places that have been perpetually neglected and run-down, a sense of hopelessness and yet people just get on with living. He is a very astute observer of people, and it is the people that make this an interesting read.

"I was casing next to G.G. early one morning. That's what they call him: G.G. His actual name was George Greene. but for years he was simply called G.G. He had been a carrier since his early twenties and now he was in his late sixties. His voice was gone. He didn't speak. He croaked. And when he croaked he didn't say much. He was neither liked nor disliked. He was just there. His face had wrinkled into strange runs and mounds of unattractive flesh. No light shone from his face. He was just a hard crony who had done his job: G.G. The eyes looked like dull bits of clay dropped into the eye sockets. It was best if you didn't think about him or look at him." (p.34-5)

He knows his life is stuck in a rut, and intermittently he tries to change things, but then the book ends abruptly when he finally quits his job, gets drunk "I got drunker and stayed drunker than a shit skunk in Purgatory" with some kids he hardly knows, then ...
"In the morning it was morning and I was still alive.
Maybe I'll write a novel, I thought.
And then I did." (p.160)
Which kind of stunned me since there had been no hint of literary aspiration at any point through the rest of the saga, but it refers to the fact that his publisher at Black Sparrow Press who had been publishing his poetry, convinced him to quit and write full time, and this book was the result. Not sure I will try another novel but I am sure some more Bukowski poetry is definitely in the cards.

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