Thursday, 30 September 2010

Charles Bukowski's Alter Ego in Post Office

When I hear Bukowski I no longer associate it with this terrible cafe a friend of mine made me go to because of some bartender, cocktail or whatever. Now I connect it to Charles Bukowski, definitely a unconventional author. Born in the beginning of the 20th century, the American poet, novelist, and short story writer is highly influenced by the atmosphere of his home city LA. He focuses on the life of poor and ordinary American citizens, on the act of writing, booze, women, and on the drudgery of work. Critics call Bukowski the Hemingway of the West Coast and absolutely deservingly assign him a very special place in the modern American literature.

Post Office is the first novel, which features the author's alter ego Henry Chinaski. The story follows the years the author worked in a post office; the female characters in Chinaski's life resemble Bukowski's women. Before reading Post Office I wasn't quite prepared for the brutality and vulgarity of Bukowski's descriptions. By the end of the novel I got used to this language and I must admit I enjoyed reading something honest, light, funny, and ironic for a change. 

The plot is simple. Henry Chinaski is the regular 30 something guy, who starts work at the post office as a substitute mail carrier. The work is tedious, boring, and unimaginative. Henry has to endure his boss's hatred, his colleagues' stupidity, and the ingratitude of the rest of the society, whom he supposedly serves. Chinaski survives the monotonous life by indulging in booze and women. The protagonist quits for a while and lives on his winnings on the track. Yet, he again returns to the post office to become a mail clerk. With a great sense of humor and reasonable sarcasm Bukowski explores the life of the ordinary person, who is trapped in a boring, degradative, and menial work. 

Personally, Henry Chinaski is not my protagonist. He is unambitious and sluggish; he hates his job and his boss but he does nothing to change it. Whenever Henry feels like it (and this is very often) he gets drunk and spends money he doesn't really have on women. Without any purpose in his life, Chinaski has left himself on the flow, not caring where it will take him. Women, people, jobs, even events pass by him without making any change to the degradative and purposeless life he has chosen to live. It seems as if Henry doesn't care about anything that happens around him as long as he has booze. As a friend of mine, who recommended the book, correctly pointed out, the protagonist in the Post Office reminds of Holden Caulfield from Catcher in the Rye by J.D.Salinger. However, in the latter novel Holden is a confused and lonely teenager, for whom the whole world is simply phony. Here we are introduced to a middle-aged man, who behaves just like a careless and irresponsible child. 

Do not get me wrong. I am not criticizing Bukowski's novel. On the contrary, I sincerely loved it. I am just pointing out that this kind of life is a great contradiction to all my morals and perceptions. 


  1. I thought Post Office was one of his worst novels. If you're interested in getting to know Bukowski, I'd recommend starting with Love Is A Dog From Hell first and maybe Ham on Rye second. His magic is primarily in his poetry.

  2. Maybe you are correct. I haven't read anything else from Bukowski so I cannot really compare. About the poetry, I have also heard that it is better than his novels. I will be sure to check it out. Thanks!

  3. the novels contain elaborations on a lot of content summarily collected in his poetry and shorts. i think the novels are more accessible and the poetry will be understood better after reading them. read factotum first, or a book of short stories like the most beautiful woman in town. vice versa, love is a dog from hell if you're going to start with poetry.
    the chronological order order of the Buchinowski novels is:
    Ham on Rye (written later, kind of a prequel), Factotum, Post Office, Women, then Hollywood. i may have missed one. ignore the movie factotum, watch the movie barfly, if you can find it.
    He's good. you'll like him.

  4. I've found 'Tales of Ordinary Madness' very interesting. But even in those shorts it is pretty clear that his best lies in his poetry. A great writer of his time, together with Kerouac and Salinger.

  5. I've read only a piece from Kerouac and Salinger..but I'm impressed by both of them

    As for poetry, I am not a very good poetry reader. I might as well stick to novels and short stories.