Hail the Dirty Old Man: On Charles Bukowski’s Post Office

I’ve never been a huge fan of Charles Bukowski’s poetry. I’ll admit it. I own five of the almost two dozen collections published by Ecco Press, and I haven’t found the consistency in beauty, language and thought that makes me a fan of a certain poet. From my reading experience, in every ten Bukowski poems, there’s three that’s good and seven that quite simply is forgettable. Sure, they’re funny, entertaining as hell, I mean who wouldn’t snort at the image of DH Lawrence taking a piss, right? However, in the other works I’ve seen, I couldn’t figure out for the life of me what the hell he’s driving at, where’s the sound that makes a verse a poem or the just where is that freaking restraint I have come to love in the genre.  He is not my favorite poet and I doubt he will ever be. It’s a different story when it comes to his prose. I have come to love Bukowski’s fiction ever since I met Henry Chinaski. Post Office, another novel which features the loveable and insane son of a bitch is no exception.

Post Office make up twelve years of Henry Chinaski’s life. In that span of time, he spent it working in the US Post Office, where as an employee of the United States Post Office, he is required to “act with unwavering integrity and complete devotion to the public interest.” It is a job that expects him to “maintain the highest moral principles, and to uphold the laws of the United States.” Of course, when one is familiar with Henry Chinaski, one is aware that he is the complete opposite of whatever the Postal Service Code of Ethics demands of its employees. He is a sleazebag. He is a low-life. All he cares about is women, booze and gambling. In the first chapter, as a mail man, all he ever wants is for the arduous day to end just so he could “stick it up to Betty’s (who has been Chinaski’s lover for years) ass.” In the next, free from the job he loathes, he lets Betty works, and simply just drinks and screws at night and gamble at the racetrack in the afternoon. In the succeeding chapters, after Betty has left him and Henry has acquired himself a new lover, one that has unquenchable thirst for sex, and a new job, at the post office, this time as a clerk, all he wants is to lounge around in bed to rest his sore back. He is a bastard, probably one of the biggest bastards of them all. He is everything that is wrong with the male gender. He is crass and vulgar. Yet despite all of that, seeing his character, seeing him revel in his drunken and disgusting manner, is the only reason why I’d pick up a Bukowski novel. He is utterly enjoyable. Say what you want about all of Henry’s macho and chauvinistic crap, but his shit and idiocy is entertaining. Sometimes, it’s a relief to stray away from all the eternally narcissistic, pseudo-intellectual and emotional male characters one finds in the great American novels after the Second World War, and just actually have a dumb, decrepit and despairing imp.

In one character, Bukowski was able to sum up a generation beat up by the war, by the “post-depression depression,” by the society that lives in constant fear of another global conflict. Henry’s bleak view of the world is the way the adults of that era looked at the world. It was utterly hopeless. All they had was the fleeting ecstasy of sex, the numb one gets from alcohol and the thrill of the unknown, which they acquired through gambling. These are the men who Ginsberg referred to in his masterpiece, Howl, the “best minds of his generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, /dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,/.” Tarnished and imperfect Chinaski may be, he remains to be the gem of Bukowski’s fiction, a perfect and accurate rendering of just who the children of the generations were and who we just might we be in the near future.