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.