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Thunder Road

January 11, 2011 25 comments

Post Office by Charles Bukowski.

Foreword: I have read this in French and I will probably make mistakes in using vocabulary related to the post office environment as I had to look for words in the dictionary.  

Bukowski wrote the foreword of Ask the Dust by John Fante, a writer he adored and contributed to re-discover. A writer who praised John Fante is a good recommendation for me, so I thought I should read one of his books and when I saw Post Office in Guy’s Top 10 books for 2010, I decided to read it too. When I told my mother I was reading Bukowski she said “Isn’t he the guy who was drunk at Apostrophes and caused a scandal?” Apostrophes was the most famous live literary talk-show in France from 1975 to 1990. Though it dates back to 1978, the incident was famous and scandalous enough to be related in the foreword of the French edition of Post Office.

But back to the book.

Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) was born in Germany from a German mother and an American father. His real name is Heinrich Karl Bukowski. His parents started to call him Henry after they moved in America. First-names are important here as Bukowski used Charles for his pen name and Henry for his literary alter-ego Henry Chinarski.

Post Office is based on autobiographical elements and relates Bukowski’s years as a postman in Los Angeles. In this novel, Bukowski uses the same technique as John Fante, using a literary alter-ego to turn out his tough years into a literary work.

In the first part, Henry Chinarski is a mailman. His description of his life as a post man is huge fun but does not hide the awful truth. I laughed at his descriptions of crazy clients and frightening dogs:

Then I felt something jamming its way into my crotch. It moved way up there. I looked around and there was a German Shepherd, full-grown, with his nose halfway up my ass. With one snap of his jaws he could rip off my balls. I decided that those people were not going to get their mail that day, and maybe never get any mail again. Man, I mean he worked that nose in there. SNUFF! SNUFF! SNUFF!

I put the mail back into the leather pouch, and very slowly, very, I took a half step forward. The nose followed. Then I took another half step with the other foot. The nose followed. Then I took a slow, very slow full step. Then another. Then stood still. The nose was out. And he just stood there looking at me. Maybe he’d never smelled anything like it and didn’t quite know what to do.

I walked quietly away.

The work is hard, there is never enough time to have lunch and the weather does not help either. The episode of delivering mail during a heavy rain is amazing. Postmen were drenched and here are Chinarski’s misadventures with his underwear:

When you shorts get wet they slip down, down they slip, down around the cheeks of your ass, a wet rim of a thing held up by the crotch of your pants.

When Chinarski marries Joyce, he quits his job as a postman to follow her in her native Texas, where they live upon her father’s money. Back to Los Angeles with Joyce, she insists on taking a job to prove her father that they can make a living without his money. She gets hired in a police station and Chinarski is back to the post office, in a sorting office this time.

If being a mailman was hard, this is even harder. Bukowski describes everything, from the petty and mean chiefs to the inhuman cadences and the appalling work hours. Letters must be sorted in a limited amount of time. To become a permanent employee, postmen must pass an incredibly detailed exam about Los Angeles postal areas. I loved the sex-based mnemonic method Chinarski invented to remember all the areas. So funny.

 His private life seems limited to alcohol, horse races and sex. He often starts his shift at work with a hammering hangover. He developes a strategy to earn money on horse races, and is quite successful at a time. His love life has ups and downs. After a divorce from Joyce, he is back to Betty and then meets Fay. Women are objects for him but he is an object for them too, so it levels the playing field. He always chooses them with one terrible flaw that sort of match with one of his own: Betty is always drunk, Joyce is a nymphoman and Fay is lazy.

Despite all his flaws – the alcohol addiction being the worse one – Chinarski is a decent man. We have a hint of his goodness when he arranges his former lover Betty’s funeral. The birth of his daughter is a moving moment. I read through the lines a stronger attachment than what he was ready to show. I thought he was also quite enduring and not as lazy as one would think, considering his bad living habits and the exhausting work he was doing. In the end, Bukowski/Chinarski worked for the post office during 11 years, which is a considerable amount of time. When he quits, his body is worn out by silly and tiring work.

I’ve read that Bukowski needed only a month after he quit his job to write Post Office. It must have been simmering in him for a while. That’s also why it sounds so right and deprived of any nostalgia.

One personal note. My father used to be a post office clerk and was in charge of organizing mailmen rounds. I have grown up hearing stories about postmen, rounds, lost letters and ridiculous circulars. I can tell that the dog stories are universal as well as the client ones – though hot stories about women in underclothes never came to my young and chaste ears.

Reading Bukowski brought to my mind two books I’ve read in 2010: The Road to Los Angeles by John Fante and Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. Bukowski is at cross-roads between Fante, Steinbeck and Céline, two other Californian writers and a French one. He reminded me of Fante for the description of the working conditions of small employees. Bukowski has common points with John Fante: both were Roman Catholic, from foreign parents, poor, had a drunk and violent father. Both lived in California, although Fante spent his childhood in Colorado. Steinbeck came to my mind for the kind description of the outcast of the American dream and of lives damaged by alcohol. He reminded me of Céline for the spoken language and the argot he used.

That makes three talented god-fathers for a single writer. Bukowski is gifted. Post Office is funny, sad and tender. I must say I prefer Fante, perhaps the alcohol abuse in Bukowski threw a veil of bitterness on the events, when Fante is all sun and fun. Moreover, Arturo Bandini knows he wants to be a writer and this ambition fills him with energy.

A word about the translation. Hmm. There were a lot of outdated argot words. Some I didn’t know, some weren’t even in my French dictionary. I downloaded a sample of Post Office on my kindle – how convenient for quotes! — because I wanted to know how the real text sounded. I’m under the impression that the French translation is a bit inventive on the argot tone.

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