Tuesday, 7 December 2010
Going postal in 60’s L.A.
Based on the recommendation of a friend I’ve just finished reading the novel Post Office by American author and poet Charles Bukowski.
This was an interesting book for me as it was well out of my comfort zone and not the sort of thing I’d usually go for. For a start, there’s no real story, just a collection of fairly random events covering over a decade in the life of Bukowski’s close-to-home alter ego Henry Chinaski. Chinaski is an alcoholic, womanising, gambling low life who aimlessly lurches from one menial job to another before ending up working for the US Postal Service where he remains for eleven years stuck in the soul destroying limbo of brain dead and degrading work. According to Chinaski the Post Office is a place populated by all kinds of annoying, repulsive loudmouths, dictatorial jobs worth managers and other assorted broken and downtrodden characters. Chinaski survives the place and his years spent there through copious amounts of booze, women, and his extremely cynical view of the world. To note: the term going postal comes from the fact that in the past quite a few US postal workers have snapped and done the whole workplace murder spree thing. Reading this you can see how that could happen.
After a slow and wary start, and after putting it down for a few weeks due to not really feeling the vibe of the thing, I persisted and picked the book back up a couple of days ago. And for some reason I got in to it a lot more this time and finished off the remaining hundred or so pages pretty quickly (it’s only one hundred and sixty pages in total so is more of a novelette than a novel). And I gotta say...I enjoyed it a fair bit. It’s still not really my cup of tea but it is an interesting look in to a life totally alien and in to the world of sixties America - specifically Los Angeles when many of the riots were kicking off. But even though Chinaski’s sort of life is alien to me, I could still kind of identify with some aspects of it such as the sheer drudgery and boredom of menial work and the attitudes of some of those little Hitler types who when they get the slightest whiff of power just love to make others life hell. Luckily I haven’t had too much experience of that, but I have had some, just as many surely have. So you can’t help but smile and give a silent cheer when Chinaski, through his cynical wit, or a small act of defiance, gets one up on em and on the system.
Stylewise, Bukowski’s writing is refreshingly basic, unfussy and to the point. Description is brief and limited and mostly focuses around the size and shape of women or the things he particularly dislikes about a person or a place. Sentences are short and dialogue dominates. And that dialogue is usually dry, cynical and bleakly humorous. And it does make you laugh. Bukowski constructs short, punchy, (oft dark) comic set pieces throughout. The one about the two birds Chinaski’s wife keeps in a cage that keep him awake with their incessant chatter and then what he decides to do with them is particularly funny.
Post Office was Bukowski’s first novel. It was released in 1971 and is said to be an autobiographical account of the writers own experience working on and off for the US Postal Service. Bukowski was quite a fascinating character. He became a willing alcoholic from his early teens saying that it helped him overcome his chronic social ineptness and withdrawn nature. Arguably it also helped fuel his writing ability giving him that extra dimension through which to tell his low life tales and to impart his poetry. The alcohol did harm to him for sure (bleeding ulcers and other complaints) as well as hindering him socially as much as he thought it helped him. But the argument that says how drugs and booze have helped form some of the greatest art, literature and music through the ages could be applied. For without the booze, Bukowski would probably not have become the renowned and influential writer he did. He died in 1994 from Leukaemia aged 74.
I may go on and read some more of his stuff, the continuing saga of Henry Chinaski in the likes of Ham on Rye, Factotum and Women. But the relentless low life, cynical (though amusing) gloom might be too much to take in extended doses. So I think I’ll leave it for a while. As a total antithesis to Bukowski I’m currently reading the official 2009 sequel to the wonderful A Little Princess entitled Wishing for Tomorrow by Hilary McKay. Then it’ll be Stephen King’s Cell, all being interspersed by the odd Edgar Allan Poe poem and short story. Some nicely eclectic reading over the Christmas period.