I picked up Post Office by Charles Bukowski at Booksmith because one of the shelves claimed it was hilarious and because I hadn’t read anything relaxed and just funny in a while. I had heard of Bukowski before but wouldn’t have been able to tell you anything beyond that he had a hand in writing Barfly, a movie starring Mickey Rourke which I haven’t gotten around to seeing yet.
The main character in Post Office (and Barfly) is named Henry Chinaski. You know when you wander into a bar at 2pm on a weekday to kill some time, and the bar is filled with the kinds of people that look like they’ve been sitting there for the past 20 years? Henry Chinaski is the that type of guy. He drinks and screws his way through the story, comes into lucky situations, squanders his fortunes, and somehow manages to keep a job at the Post Office for most of the story. Actually I found that pretty admirable. He’s an alcoholic but what I guess we would call high functioning.
It turns out that Chinaski is basically a thin alias for Bukowski himself. According to the Wikipedia article about the book:
"Black Sparrow Press founder and owner John Martin, offered Bukowski 100 dollars per month for life on condition that Bukowski would quit working for the post office and write full time. He agreed and Post Office was written within a month. Post Office was Bukowski's first foray into writing a novel. All of his earlier work had been poetry. Martin was actually a little worried that Bukowski would not be able to make the transition to prose. However, the fear turned out to be quite unfounded as Bukowski had no trouble writing stories about his life."
I have to say that makes sense. The way he talks about the small injustices and boredoms of working in a post office seem way too close to the mark. I doubt anyone without experience in that kind of role would have given such a cavalier yet authentic feel to things.
Most of the entertainment of the story comes from humorous situations he finds himself in and the observations he makes of his terrible job. Yet I found the description of his period as a “sorter” the most fascinating. He has to sort through trays of mail, putting them into boxes which correspond with routes, which he has to memorize. So if he looks at a street address on an envelope, he has to know which box to put it in just based off of the numbers and street. There’s even a point where he’s supposed to study because he’s going to be tested on how well he memorizes his section.
He’s under an aggressive quota most of the time. He complains that they get rated based on trays, but the trays have different amounts of mail, based off of the thickness of the envelopes within. I liked that because he’s not just some guy complaining that life is unfair because he feels ambiguously wronged. He knows life is unfair because he knows the exact mechanism by which it is unfair.
A while ago I learned that the word “computer” used to mean a person who carried out calculations by hand. It’s a term which has surprisingly been around since 1613 but was in use until electronic computers were invented. By 1965 US post offices were already implementing OCR to classify addresses. So in 1971, when this book was written, Chinaski was pretty much a last-gen computer, on his way out. Maybe by 2055 we’ll look back on fast food employee memoirs in the same way.
I thought it was a great read, but alien—that world no longer represents our own. Maybe that added a bit of sadness to the book, but I think that was already supposed to be there.