Monday, March 05, 2012

Post Office by Charles Bukowski


Charles Bukowski is one of those writers you approach with trepidation, especially if reading them for the first time in middle age: they have a reputation these writers, a cult following, the heavy weight of expectation is on those books. John Kennedy Toole is another such, and A Confederacy of Dunces passes the test. Hunter S. Thompson failed miserably. I read Carson McCullers for the first time last year and fell in love with both The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and the woman herself. So what of Charles Bukowski? Well, he’s no McCullers, but happily he’s no Thompson either. Post Office is very much a take-it-or-leave-it kind of experience.

Henry Chinaski, the novel’s central character, is apparently loosely based on Bukowski himself. That being the case, the author wasn’t a person you’d want to spend much time with. Not that this matters, of course: the writer himself is irrelevant when judging fiction. But Chinaski is a central character for whom it is impossible to develop any degree of sympathy. Again, this is not necessarily a problem: the idea that a central character should be in some way sympathetic is facile. In Chinaski, though, Bukowski does take the idea of an anti-hero to an extreme. And this is not because he is especially nasty or repulsive or evil: he’s just an, unpleasant, self-satisfied, cynical, lazy, womanising jerk. Making something cohesive out of such low-grade material is a tough ask. James Purdy could pull it off consummately. So could Nathanael West. Bukowski, whose affectedly easy style clearly echoes those two giants is, alas, not so successful. West’s and Purdy’s losers – Miss Lonelyhearts or Cabot Wright, say – have a humanity that inevitably rises above the mess of their lives. Henry Chinaski never quite transcends his solipsistic dullness.

Chinaski’s life is a succession of boring interludes. He works for the mail service and is lost within its labyrinthine and cruel bureaucracy. He finds solace in women, flitting from bed to bed and body to body with casual disinterest. He drinks excessively. He appears to positively avoid success or happiness or comfort, preferring to subsist in penury and even misery. All of this is well enough portrayed. It’s funny too, at times. It’s just that, in the end, it’s hard to care. Nicole Gluckstern calls Chinaski an “Everyman of the underclass”. I don’t know. I see her point but “underclass” has a precise meaning and Henry Chinaski is not, to my mind, included within it. An underclass is the lowest social class in the social hierarchy, unprivileged and lacking influence. There is about an underclass an element of inevitable subjugation. That is not Chinaski. Chinaski is only representative of an underclass if its definition is widened to include the feckless and the useless. Such a definition would unfairly depict the underclass in pejorative terms, the interpretation, say, of a Margaret Thatcher or a Rick Santorum. Henry Chinaski is not an everyman because he stands only for himself.

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