Charles Bukowski is primarily known as a poet. He was also a lifelong alcoholic and often wrote about his drinking in both his poems and especially in his prose. Post Office was his first novel.
Although it’s labeled “a novel,” Post Office is really a memoir. (I think the only actual novel Bukowski ever wrote was Pulp, a parody of a detective novel, “Dedicated to bad writing,” that was published in 1994, the year he died. I’ll review Pulp in the future.) There’s no plot to Post Office, hardly even a story. A man hires on as a letter carrier, works a few years then quits. He hires on again as a clerk, works a lot more years, then quits again. That’s the story.
In this time frame of some 14-15 years, he goes through a number of wives and lovers, drinks, has a kid, drinks, plays the horses, and drinks. I’ve heard many people say they love Bukowski’s poetry, but hate his prose. In my opinion, they’re not reading him right. His prose is poetry. I’m not saying that every word Bukowski has ever written is poetry. But there are hundreds of poems, disguised as prose, throughout his “novels.” Post Office is a book you can flip open to any page and start reading and you’ll soon find yourself engrossed.
Here’s how I came to read it:
In 1972 I was working as a clerk in the San Diego Post Office. Like all subs, I was working the night shift, sorting letters.
I was 24 years old and had been in San Diego for two years. I was married and had two kids, aged 3 and 4. I wanted to be a writer and had just had my first article published by Screw magazine, a New York satirical sex tabloid. My article, titled “Hot Snot Turns Men On,” was the second feature in that issue. It purported to reveal the results of a scientific study by the San Diego Medical Research Institute that showed that nasal mucous was an aphrodisiac. The feature article in that issue—the title or content of which I cannot remember—was written by another unknown writer at that time, P.J. O’Rourke.
One of the other postal clerks— Lou Sander, probably the best friend I had in San Diego—came by my case and gave me a dog-eared paperback book. “You’ve got to read this,” he said. It was Post Office by Charles Bukowski.
At first glance, I thought the dull blue-gray booklet was an official postal manual. Lou was a shop steward and was often carrying various postal publications and documents for his union work. Then I read the words, “A Novel by Charles Bukowski,” and immediately became interested.
I knew Bukowski’s name because he wrote a column for the Los Angeles Free Press (the Freep to those who read it), So. Cal’s major underground newspaper at the time. I loved his column, which was often funny and very different from the hippie/political slant of the rest of the paper. I knew Bukowski was a poet—probably because I’d read it in the Freep— but I didn’t care much for poetry, had never read any of Bukowski’s poetry, and I only read the Freep once a month or so. To me, Bukowski was just this crazy old guy who wrote hilarious tales about his miserable adventures trying to live in L.A. with precious little money and a really bad drinking problem.
“When you finish it,” Lou said, “pass it on. Then tell them to pass it on to another clerk when they’re done with it.” From the condition of the book, I could tell it had already been making the rounds for some time. I later learned that multiple copies of this book were making the rounds at the San Diego post office. I suspect copies were making the rounds at big city postal facilities throughout the country.
By the time I’d returned to work the next evening at ten p.m., I’d finished the book. I laughed from cover to cover. I read whole chapters with tears in my eyes. Bukowski had reproduced the Los Angeles post office from the perspective of a postal clerk. Every detail was spot on—the sadistic power-mad supervisors, the tediously depressing work, the idiotic rules and regulations that the “soups” were always using to torment employees they elected to pick on.
One thing I learned from that book was that the post office is the post office, no matter what city you’re in. Most people think postal clerks are the people who sell them stamps at the post office windows. It’s true the window clerks are clerks, but those clerks got that job by having a hell of a lot of seniority, or by doing some major ass-kissing, or some combination of the two. For every window clerk, there are hundreds of sorting clerks, who all work the graveyard shift behind closed doors in a building with no windows, terrible ventilation, not enough restrooms, and at the mercy of the soups, who strut the aisles like pit bulls looking for a fight.
Spoiler alert (but don’t worry; it’s not a whodunit): The book ends with the series of official letters Bukowski got from the Post Office (reproduced verbatim!), informing him of escalating disciplinary actions that were being taken against him for his habitual AWOLs. Finally, Bukowski can’t take it anymore and quits the job, rather than giving them the pleasure of firing him.
That book gave me such hope, beaten down as I was by the same job. Bukowski got out, and now he’s a writer. He made it. But I had two kids to feed. I couldn’t just walk out like he did. Still, I knew my day would come. Little did I realize that by the time I got out of the postal service for good, I would have worked in post offices in five different cities over the next twenty-one years. By the time I quit for the last time in December of 1993, I’d read all of Bukowski’s books. He was one of my literary heroes.
The day I quit, I started to write him a letter. I wanted to tell him just a bit of my story and what an inspiration to me he’d been through the years. But how do you write a letter to Charles Bukowski? I wanted every word to be perfectly chosen, no filler, no phony “writerish” embellishments, just clean and to the point. And I wanted to make him laugh. Could I tell him some post office stories? I had a lot of them. But before I sent that letter—before I finished writing it, in fact—he died. In March, 1994, at the age of 73, he was gone.
Post Office ends with Bukowski going on a bender after having quit his job. In his words:
I got drunk and stayed drunker than a shit skunk in Purgatory. I even had the butcher knife against my throat one night in the kitchen and then I thought easy, old boy, your little girl might want you to take her to the zoo. Ice cream bars, chimpanzees, tigers, green and red birds, and the sun coming down on top of her head, the sun coming down and crawling into the hairs of your arms, easy, old boy.
Bukowski’s about the poetry of real life—even a crappy real life in the post office.