THIS IS NO PARABLE. No well-researched, seventeen-draft mishmash of literary exhaustion. Post Office is without extended metaphor, without clever allusion, without plot or character development, without positive role models, patriotism, pride, or civic virtue.

It does, however, have punchlines. In bitterness and exhaustion and even glee Bukowski cracks wise. In each brief chapter, in each blunt paragraph, he shows his poet's flair for the suspense in beginning, for the shock of ending. But ultimately this is a serious novel, a novel of struggle, of frustration, of quiet desperation—and of the moments (I won't call them redeeming, never redeeming) that allow life a certain bearability. A novel of the working life.

Charles Bukowski spent fifteen years working for the Post Office. For three years as a mail carrier, for nearly twelve as a postal clerk—working overtime, overnight, working for sadistic supervisors and alongside certifiable coworkers, through various wives and dogs and sleeping arrangements. And at forty-nine years old he quit the Post Office, sat down, and in three weeks wrote this novel.

It is this burst of storytelling that, much like Kerouac's On the Road (also written in three weeks), transmits a certain frenzied pulse to the text. Bukowski had, on leaving the Post Office, convinced his small-press publisher to pay him a salary for life to write full-time; one can imagine the rush of freedom, of unburdening, that came with those first days as fifteen years of life flowed over his fingers, rattling into his "typer." It was not until nearly the end of his life, having recovered from a two-year bout with tuberculosis, that he would replicate the same sort of pent-up storytelling, in the excellent collections Septuagenarian Stew and The Last Night of the Earth Poems.

POST OFFICE IS A NOVEL of short anecdotes, "presented" (its dedication reads) "as a work of fiction"; and in so presenting it, Bukowski does change names and chronologies and even details. It is a work, like most of his work, of augmented autobiography—and as in most of his work he writes here of his alter-ego Hank Chinaski.

Bukowski writes in simple sentences—the logical conclusion, I suppose, of something Hemingway started—and he tells simple stories. In my own simple way I think of these as "gut" stories, a label to which I don't think Bukowski (or Hemingway for that matter) would have objected. And for the sake of not taking my word for it, I'll tell you one:

HANK CHINASKI IS MARRIED to a small-town Texan at this point, living in L.A., working 12-hour night-shifts at the Post Office. In the middle of the day, one day, his wife, Joyce, wakes him, telling him she's gotten them a dog and named it "Picasso."

I walked in and looked at the dog. He couldn't see. Hair covered his eyes. I watched him walk. Then I picked him up and looked at his eyes. Poor Picasso!
    "Baby, you know what you've gone and done? . . . He's a subnormal. He has an I.Q. of about 12. You've gone out and gotten us an idiot of a dog."
    . . .
    Just then Picasso started to piss. Picasso was full of piss. It ran in long yellow fat rivulets along the kitchen floor. Then Picasso finished, ran and looked at it.

Eventually Hank housebreaks Picasso, but he has to be careful—the dog will happily sit outside and collect hundreds of fly-bites if left to its own devices. And Joyce is little help: "Well," she says, "you were the one who housebroke him."

Later on, Hank walks in on Joyce and Picasso:

I got up for a glass of water and as I walked into the kitchen I saw Picasso walk up to Joyce and lick her ankle. I was barefooted and she didn't hear me. She had on high heels. She looked at him and her face was pure small-town hatred, white-hot. She kicked him hard in the side with the point of her shoe. The poor fellow just ran in little circles, whimpering. Piss dripped from his bladder. I walked in for my glass of water. I held the glass in my hand and then before I could get the water into it I threw the glass at the cupboard to the left of the sink. Glass went everywhere. Joyce had time to cover her face. I didn't bother. I picked up the dog and walked out. I sat in the chair with him and petted the little shitsnot. He looked up at me and his tongue came out and licked my wrist. His tail wagged and flapped like a fish dying in a sack.

I TELL THIS STORY because it stays in my mind. Because, while watching the film American Psycho, I've seen a room full of people barely notice axe-killings and decapitations and all the more mundane murder techniques only to groan in some sort of primal outrage at the stomping of a bum's mutt. Because just today I read Halspal's The Perfect Puppy, which makes a hell of a point about dependency, among other things.

There's something very telling in how a person treats a dog.

I tell this story finally because it begins to explain Bukowski. His core philosophy seems to be one of fatalism, of acceptance: to take the pleasures he can out of life, knowing that most of the rest of it is ugly and demeaning and pointless. To watch in bewilderment the rush of emotion all around him, to draw his characters as products of this emotion, and yet in himself to detach his voice from any rage or love or jealousy. To speak of these in very nearly the third person.

I catch myself calling this detachment a weakness, his greatest weakness I nearly write—because Bukowski is such a documentarian—but then I consider the alternative: to write of rage or to write with rage, to write stories of moral weight or stories of thick sentiment, to write fiction of truth or that paperback bin that is the alternative. No, the more I think of it, the clearer it is that the numbness, the detachment, is all more of the same fatalism that always has been the center of his work.

THIS IS A FUNNY NOVEL, but it is not comedy; it's sad though indeed not tragedy; it is explicit, yet finally not pornography. This is a life—a life told bluntly and well, with a certain necessary detachment. Most, I suppose, have a more sophisticated definition, but for me it is this very sort of undefinable humanity to which I refer when I use the word "literature."

Post Office by Charles Bukowski
184 pages, Copyright © 1971 by Charles Bukowski
Black Sparrow Press
ISBN: 0-87685-086-7 (paper)
ISBN: 0-87685-087-5 (cloth)