Skip to main content

No More Waving at Mailmen

Maybe this is common opinion, maybe this is my own hang-up, but I think Charles Bukowski is an idiot. I wanted to like him. This week I checked his first novel, Post Office, out of the library because
a) I’d never read him
b) The books are attractive
c) I might be harboring the dream of being a postman (or woman, I suppose. Post-person)

This was a mistake because now

a) I know he’s an idiot
b) The books are still attractive but I can’t justify buying one
c) My dreams of being a post-person have been squashed




In the novel, a thinly-disguised autobiography, Henry Chinaski gets a job at a post office and keeps it on and off for the next eleven years. At the beginning the job is promising – “But I couldn’t help thinking, god, all these mailmen do is drop in their letters and get laid. This is the job for me, oh yes yes yes” – this quickly changes to apathy, and then to hatred. Though he hates his job, he can’t save enough to leave it (but he ultimately does). Bukowski’s Chinaski is racist and treats women terribly. He rapes a woman on his mail route. He is never committed or ill enough not to be ogling women. He is constantly drunk and hung over and petty. Let’s be fair: he is funny. His use of capital letters is hilarious. But not funny enough (for me, at least).

In the same way my theology professor at college suggested that the efficacy of sacrament was not based upon the person administering it, I think that the beauty and efficacy of a work of art (music, drama, novel, whatever) is not based upon the artist’s personality. If we give any credence to the movie Amadeus, it is Salieri’s downfall that he cannot equate the man he sees as being favored by God to have the soul of genius when Mozart is such a buffoon.

Thus, I might be more understanding of Chinaski’s decrepitude had there been redemption or artfulness in the novel. I read Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son last week and that, also, presented narrators at their worst: an addict, a weak individual, a man who hits his girlfriend, a man with a gun. Johnson’s language, however, begun slowly and heavily and then suddenly, time stops and the grim scene is brilliantly illuminated in a sudden burst of wonder. Bukowski does not have this glow.



I see why Bukoswki is valuable in literature: he presents the opposite to Bloomsbury. He is low-brow art. He is rough and honest and seems to shock for shock’s sake; he makes us feel like we have company in our lowest moments. But I suspect he was also a terrible person. Perhaps that is not a huge crime by itself, but combining with this novel, it might be.

Comments

Ian Woolcott said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ian Woolcott said…
There are a handful of Bukowski short stories that I have enjoyed. But mostly, yes, he's an idiot.

And -odd- that's the second reference to Salieri in Amadeus that I've come across this morning.
if you’re going to try, go all the
way.
otherwise, don’t even start.

if you’re going to try, go all the
way.
this could mean losing girlfriends,
wives, relatives, jobs and
maybe your mind.

go all the way.
it could mean not eating for 3 or 4 days.
it could mean freezing on a
park bench.
it could mean jail,
it could mean derision,
mockery,
isolation.
isolation is the gift,
all the others are a test of your
endurance, of
how much you really want to
do it.
and you’ll do it
despite rejection and the worst odds
and it will be better than
anything else
you can imagine.

if you’re going to try,
go all the way.
there is no other feeling like
that.
you will be alone with the gods
and the nights will flame with
fire.

do it, do it, do it.
do it.

all the way
all the way.

you will ride life straight to
perfect laughter, its
the only good fight
there is.

- Charles Bukowski

Popular posts from this blog

The Private Life of the Diary

I’ve kept a diary since I was twelve. While I composed nearly illegible autobiographical scratchings in my first years of primary school at my teachers’ request, it wasn’t until I was on the brink of becoming a teenager that I felt I needed a more permanent arrangement. I suspect it had to do with reading The Diary of Anne Frank. My diary’s function has changed over the years – it once had a name (having discovered that Zoe was the Greek word for life, I thought my choice extremely clever), and I used to like my diaries in a variety of shapes and sizes, spangled with glitter, ruled with wide lines, shackled with locks and keys. For at least eight years my diary was the space in which to vent my feelings, and offered some form of therapeutic comfort. This meant it was largely about boys and is, as a result, very tedious to reread. But while the function of my journal has changed, each volume has been a solution to the manic desire to scribble. As I discovered reading Anne Frank, each e…

The Short Story Season I

The New Yorker Fiction podcast, which I’ve now gobbled up in its entirety, has recently been a lifeline while I’ve been travelling from house to house, city to city. It’s been responsible for kick-starting my renewed interest in the short story – more to come – and for introducing me to writers I’ve long known by name but never read: like Elizabeth Taylor.

Paul Theroux read Taylor’s ‘The Letter Writers’ this past January for the podcast and the story remains one of her best, alongside (and forgive the list) stories such as ‘Taking Mother Out’, ‘Swan-Moving’, ‘A Sad Garden’, ‘The Ambush’, ‘The True Primitive’, ‘The Little Girl’, ‘Hare Park’, ‘The Prerogative of Love’, and ‘The Thames Spread Out’. Travelling with the hefty paperback on planes, trains, and automobiles, I feel I’ve dragged round my little plot of England to keep me company.

(A quick note on editions: an NYRB edition of her stories has just been published but it is a selection, rather than Virago’s Complete Stories. Forgo t…

Blast-beruffled plumes

I’ve returned to Minnesota to find it transformed into a Brueghel painting.



Our hunters are gone north or even south, wherever there are more deer. This has been a bad year for deer, threatened by the cold of last year’s polar vortex and the high population of coyotes, which now carry a bounty on their heads.

So, while it’s still autumn in England (I’ve been assured), winter has come. The nights are long, the wreaths are out. I’ve been reading restlessly – Robert Walser and GB Shaw. But some nights, Thomas Hardy feels just right for November melancholia. Here’s ‘A Darkling Thrush’:

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land's sharp features seemed to be
The Century's corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
Th…