Every route had its traps and only the regular carriers knew of them

Post Office, by Charles Bukowski

Most authors don’t write about what it’s like to have a job, possibly because all too many of them haven’t really had much by way of jobs. They’ll write about what it’s like to be a struggling author, there’s an ocean of novels covering that territory, but there’s not much about life as most people actually live it.

Well, that’s a hideous exaggeration of course, there’s the marvellous Something Happened by Joseph Heller; there’s What was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn; Microserfs by Douglas Coupland; Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe; arguably one could even say much of Revolutionary Road. Still, it’s not territory most authors are that comfortable in.

Charles Bukowski’s an exception. His (apparently largely autobiographical) 1971 debut novel Post Office has a lot to say about work, about the sheer grind of clocking in, day in and day out. It’s the story of his alter-ego, Henry Chinaski, and his twelve or so years working at the US post office, first as a substitute mail carrier (mailman in other words) and later as a sorting clerk. It includes absurd bureaucracy, idiot rules, petty and malevolent supervisors, banal inhumanity. It’s very well written, often extremely funny, and desperately sad.

Chinaski is drunk and a womaniser, he plays the horses (generally winning, for a while he makes a living at it), he cheats on his live in girlfriend (whom he refers to as his “shackjob”, because he shacks up with her) casually and without thought. He’s a man who on being presented for the first time with his new born baby assesses the nurse’s figure. He’s lazy, has an attitude problem and hates all his jobs, he keeps up with them just because the women he’s with expect him to make an honest living (rather than one at the tracks) and because he can’t generally be bothered to quit and do something else.

Bukowski clearly understands Chinaski’s world, given he lived it I guess he should. He’s tremendous at bringing to life the stupidity and sometimes downright insanity of the public, with their dogs and demands and random aggression. I’ve worked retail, as a student, and I still remember people asking me as I worked the pick’n’mix if they could both pick and mix, I remember the guy who held up two bottles of water, one in each hand, and asked me which one was colder. People individually in my experience are ok, the public though are insane. Bukowski knows this:

The voices of the people were the same, no matter where you carried the mail you heard the same things over and over again.
“You’re late, aren’t you?”
“Where’s the regular carrier?”
“Hello, Uncle Sam!”
“Mailman! Mailman! This doesn’t go here!”
The streets were full of insane and dull people. Most of them lived in nice houses and didn’t seem to work, and you wondered how they did it. There was one guy who wouldn’t let you put the mail in his box. He’d stand in the driveway and watch you coming for 2 or 3 blocks and he’d stand there and hold his hand out.

For the record, Catherine O’Flynn captures the experience of working in retail better than anyone else I’ve read, Chinaski of course is a public servant, if anything that’s even worse. It comes with additional feelings of entitlement on the part of the public.

Chinaski works for sadistic supervisors who take pleasure in making his life miserable, assigning him impossible routes in brutal conditions and denying him work when he answers back. Employees are expected to look up to old timers whose lives have plainly been ruined by the job, men of stunted horizons whose every interest and spark of life has been crushed under years of repetition. When these figures break, as they do, they are discarded like old machine parts, and never spoken of again.

As the novel continues, Chinaski moves from woman to woman, sometimes hitting it lucky, sometimes not so much. He leaves his job as a mail carrier, but later returns to the post office, now as a sorter. It’s an indoor job, better money but lacking the challenge of making difficult routes on time in bad weather. That said, it is secure:

After swearing us in, the guy told us:
“All right now, you’ve got a good job. Keep your nose clean and you’ve got security the rest of your life.”
Security? You could get security in jail. 3 squares and no rent to pay, no utilities, no income tax, no child support. No licence plate fees. No traffic tickets. No drunk driving raps. No losses at the race track. Free medical attention. Comradeship with those with similar interests. Church. Round-eye. Free burial.

Security here is the trap. The post office offers a good job, good conditions, decent pay, it’s hard to get fired (Chinaski routinely turns up drunk and takes time off without permission). There’s constant chivvying, tasks to be performed in times calculated by external consultants who’ve never done the job, penalties for going to the bathroom or getting a drink of water outside your allotted ten minute break, requirements as to how you sit on your stool while you sort, but if you can put up with all that you could spend decades with the post office. Those who do put on weight, sag and spread, but they’re secure. To Chinaski, it’s a form of death, a way of losing your own life.

Bukowski doesn’t just write about work, Chinaski is popular with women, despite being described by more than one character as looking like a wino. He’s obviously got some charisma, some charm, and although he generally treats women like convenient objects there’s a level at which he remains aware of their essential humanity. At times, there’s even a tenderness:

The blankets had fallen off and I stared down at her white back, the shoulder blades sticking out as if they wanted to grow into wings, poke through that skin. Little blades. She was helpless.

Chinaski just doesn’t connect that humanity, that vulnerability, with any implication that maybe he shouldn’t sleep with the next woman who’s available as soon as his current one is off to work.

Post Office is full of damaged people. Workmates who shout and boast of sexual conquests they’ve clearly never had. People who break down, crying in the locker room as they become too old to still sort post as fast as management requires. Chinaski’s world is a brutal one, supervisors care only about delivery targets, institutions are faceless and indifferent to those they employ, people are messy and drunk and needy but their society requires them to be none of those things. Chinaski inhabits the world of those who slip through the cracks, the people who stop coping, who maybe could never cope, the people who get old and never made enough to create a cushion that could make that bearable:

She got a job as a waitress, then lost that when they tore down the cafe to erect an office building. Now she lived in a small room in a loser’s hotel. She changed the sheets there and cleaned the bathrooms. She was on wine.

She went back to her room and put on her best dress, high heels, tried to fix up. But there was a terrible sadness about her.

This is a plotless novel. Stuff happens, but there isn’t really a story arc. Chinaski gets a job with the post office, leaves it and does some other stuff for a while, then returns to the post office. He has relationships, few friendships, he spends a lot of time drunk. That’s about it. What it is though is a portrait of what it’s like to be part of the itinerant underclass, the people in lousy jobs on poor wages, seen as unreliable by bosses who neither understand nor care about the chaos of their lives. These people start out with dreams, ambitions, desires like all of us. But along the way they get crushed, and Post Office in part shows us how:

I don’t know how it happens to people. I had child support, need for something to drink, rent, shoes, shirts, socks, all that stuff. LIke everyone else I needed an old car, something to eat, all the little intangibles.

It’s no surprise to me that Post Office had the impact it did. This is a great novel. It’s ugly, vulgar and crass. It contains a lot of block capitalised shouting. It’s characters are unpleasant, mad, pathetic, often cruel, sometimes downright repugnant (including Chinaski). But it’s true, and for me truth is the essence of good art. This is good art.

Post Office

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15 Comments

Filed under Bukowski, Charles, California, Social Realism, US Literature, Vernacular Literature

15 responses to “Every route had its traps and only the regular carriers knew of them

  1. Got this post in my mailbox this morning, and it’s another one of those enticing novels. I like the distinction made between people and ‘the public.’ This one goes on THE LIST.

  2. I really liked this one, but then I’m a sucker for novels which are serious but talk about something other than the lives of the well off but vaguely disaffected.

    Now, to be fair the novels of the well off but vaguely disaffected include much of the greatest literature ever written, Madame Bovary for example, but it’s still nice to see other voices. Did you see my Alan Sillitoe writeup? It’s an older one, about Saturday Night and Sunday Morning which is well worth checking out.

  3. No I haven’t seen the Sillitoe review. I’ll remedy that. I agree on all counts about the wealthy disaffected. Of course literature focused on that group for the reading market (I suppose) of the 18th and 19th C, but it is always pleasant to find something to relate to (your retail experiences, for example).

    You might appreciate Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar–totally different subject, but I just finished it and thought it might be something you’d enjoy.

    As for (funny) workplace novels, I’d recommend Max Barry. And then there’s Paul Neilan’s Apathy and Other Small Victories. The main character does anything to avoid work and that includes napping on the toilet and building paper clip sculptures. I thought it was brilliant.

  4. I’ll take a look at those, thanks for the tips.

    Have you read Heller’s Something Happened? I only remember it dimly now (I read it years ago), but I do recall being very impressed by it.

  5. Amazing timing on this review — I sent in an order for Post Office just yesterday. Stewart from booklit (who introduced me to John Fante) reminded me in a comment on my top 10 list (which includes Fante’s Bandini Saga) that Bukowski was the champion who brought Fante’s name back into discussion. Both this one and Ham on Rye (great title) are on the way.

    Keep an eye out for Martha Baillie’s The Incident Report if it ever gets published in the UK (or you are ever placing a North American order). Baillie has worked in a public library for a couple of decades and the novel is constructed around the “incidents” that library users create. Sort of a cross between retail and public service, if you will — I loved it.

  6. No, I haven’t read Something Happened. It does sound good. Part of the Amazon description reads: [he had] “all the mistresses he desired.” I get the idea that Chinaski had plenty of women too.

    Interesting…perhaps we are seeing the discontent male, with sexual needs met but basically operating at some level of unfulfillment. Does that fit with Chinaski do you think?

  7. This is interesting: I first heard of Bukowski only this week, and, as if to fill me in, you came out with this review.

  8. GB Steve

    I love Bukowski’s novels (I’m less bothered about poetry), even when he, through Chinaski, is being horrid to everyone around him, there’s a Tom Waits kind of charm that shines through and it seems impossible to hate him. Jeff Gomez’s Our Noise says something similar for a more middle class 80s crowd. Clearly its lack of direction annoys many readers but that’s part of the message.

  9. I bought Tao Lin’s Shoplifting from American Apparel the other day, a novella that clearly has irritated some people with its lack of direction, but as you say sometimes that’s part of the point being made.

    It’s not a surprise to read that Bret Easton Ellis discovered the Gomez, it strikes me there’s a similarity (going on the description at Amazon anyway, I’ve read Ellis but hadn’t heard of Gomez), a focus on surfaces and giving equal weight to the essentially trivial. I read a Tao Lin short story which very much did that, giving all details equal attention, which is an interesting technique though it flirts with boredom.

    Guy, I think there is an element of existential dissatisfaction, but also I think these characters are attractive in part because of what makes them unhappy. Their lack of conformity derives from a mix of intelligence and spark, but leads to them chafing against a society that requires neither.

    Kevin, the Baillie is on my watch list, I found your review very interesting. I picked up Bukowski due to the Fante link too, I’m glad I did.

    Ronak, happy to help. It’s interesting stuff, and it clocks in at around 160 pages so if you don’t like it at least it’s not a major investment of time.

  10. Pingback: Post Office, by Charles Bukowski « KevinfromCanada

  11. I would like to read Something Happened, also. I have it and have started it but can’t seem to get past the fact that it is not Catch 22.

    I continue to be amazed every day at the number of people enthralled by Bukowski and his work. But he does tell the workman’s story and there are many workers like him.

    Another novel, Postal Service, demonstrates that the Post Office Bukowski wrote about is alive and well in today’s postal service. I wrote this novel, which is also very autobiographical, although Bukowski and I have only the post office and a desire to write in common.

  12. Pingback: His Futile Preoccupations....

  13. leroyhunter

    “He’s a man who on being presented for the first time with his new born baby assesses the nurse’s figure.”
    You actually couldn’t sum him up any better then this Max.
    I loved this, Bukowski takes all the thinkgs you describe, the grind, the madness etc and turns them into gold.

    I have to read more of his stuff. Did you ever pick up any more?

  14. I doubt Phil will see this now but apologies for missing your comment Phil. Something Happened isn’t Catch-22 I admit, but it is worth reading.

    The workman thing is I think key. Many authors have never had ordinary jobs, and can’t write about them. Bukowski can (and much else besides). That alone makes him valuable.

    George Orwell, a very different writer, had the same knack of course.

    Leroy, not yet so thanks for the reminder. I’ll pick up Factotum and try to read it soon. He is great.

  15. Pingback: Packing was always a good time. | Pechorin’s Journal

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