Post Office was the celebrated American author Charles Bukowski’s first novel, chronicling the life and escapades of anti-hero Henry Chinaski, which all revolve around his soul-destroying employment in the titular post office. Bukowski to me is like a proverbial breath of fresh of air – his writing is honest, unpretentious and straight-from-the-hip, and this book is all the more vivid and real for that.
When we first meet Henry, he is a hard-drinking average Joe, putting in a long tough slog as a stand-by postman. His boss is the ultimate hard-ass, who makes it his mission in life to make things as tough as possible for Henry. Bukowski really paints a grim picture of minimum-wage working conditions in America here, it really wipes the glamour off the “American Dream” for me; in fact, Henry’s life reads like the American Nightmare.
Despite all his travails, Henry has a real lust for life – the job just can’t beat that out of him. This is evident from his ever-fascinating love life, with women who clearly love and respect him, and have a lot of “time”, shall we say, for him. Its evident from his unexpected compassion towards the same women in times of extreme stress – you can really feel his pity and sorrow for his young wife when he sees her falling for another guy for example, who he knows is only after a one-nighter.
In fact, the above episode also demonstrates another exemplary quality of Henry – his acceptance of all the curve-balls life just throws at you. From cheating lovers, to torturous bosses, to Dickensian work environments, he just motors on to the next seemingly good thing. So yes, this novel is a litany of bad-luck stories and amazingly unfortunate happenings for Henry, but its a real testimony to the human spirit that he can “keep on keepin’ on” throughout it all.
Technically, the style is brash and stripped of all literary niceties, yet it is profoundly coherent and gripping. Henry maintains a dark sense of humour throughout, and without ruining it for you, there is one particular scene involving the boss-from-hell, Henry and a certain favoured employee, that is one of the funniest passages I can ever remember reading. All the more impressive when the humour is delivered so effortlessly and economically by Bukowski – its really wonderful.
Overall, my main memory of this book will be the life of vain toil of the semi-autobiographical Henry Chinaski – I really shudder to think what life must be like working the insane soul-sucking shifts our protagonist did in this book. That said, I loved the ending – its reminiscent of the classic ending to Trainspotting, where Renton is donning the proverbial garb of normality, and coming to live in a town near you!