Let’s start at the end:
In the morning and I was still alive.
Maybe, I’ll write a novel, I thought.
And then I did.
The largely autobiographical novel Charles Bukowski wrote in 1969 was a short book, Post Office, which sold over one million copies and gives all us other fifty-year-old bums that do a bit of writing a bit of hope. Somebody took a chance on Bukowski and it’s the classic rags-to-riches story, which is so fucking depressing, because it’s the very stick used to beat the rest of us would-be writers ( and artists), in general with. Bukowski would understand that we can’t be all sitting in an Edinburgh café writing about fucking boy wizards. The magic wand of publication is based on a myth-making lie.
To simplify realism there’s lived experience and there’s stuff we read about and make up.
Here’s the character Henry Chinaski kicking off the sixties and subbing in a job in the post office.
Every route had its traps and only the regular carriers knew of them. Each day it was another god damned thing, and you were always ready for a rape, murder, dogs or insanity of some sort. The regulars wouldn’t tell you their little secrets. That was the only advantage they had—except knowing the case by heart. It was gung ho for a new man, especially one who drank all night, want to bed at 2 am., rose at 4.30 am. after screwing and singing all night long, and, almost, getting away with it.
Let’s cut to the bone. Here’s one of his crazy customers he carries for and corners him.
‘Now let me out of here!’
With one hand I tried to push her aside. She clawed one side of my face, good. I dropped my bag, my cap fell off, and as I held a handkerchief to the blood she came up and raked the other side…
I reached down and got one of her tits, then switched to the other.
‘Rape! Rape! I’m being raped!’
She was right, I got her pants down, unzipped my fly and got it in, then walked her backwards to the couch. We fell down on top of it.
‘RAPE!’ she screamed.
I finished her off, zipped my fly and picked up my mail pouch and walked out leaving her staring at the ceiling.
I missed lunch, but still couldn’t make the schedule.
‘You’re 15 minutes late,’ said The Stone.
The Stone is Chinaski’s supervisor, a thirty-year veteran of the Post Office. ‘The subs themselves made Johnstone [Stone] possible by obeying his impossible orders.’ The Stones of this world we are all familiar with. Company men and women that make the little people’s life hell. They are the type of buffoon, and generals, mirrored in Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk. Them and us. The Howl of Ginsberg and the Beat Generation and anti-establishment. But certainly not #MeToo.
They can be contrasted with the ordered Post Office world of Alan Johnstone, Please Mr Postman, in seventies London, who did much the same job as Bukowski in the sorting office and delivering mail, with overtime keeping him afloat.
Henry Chianski likes to gamble on the track. Play the odds. He hooks up with a young chick and marries her, leaving Betty in the lurch. He can’t save Betty when they hook up again. Her ass is no longer firm and she’s gone to pot. She drinks herself to death and Chinaski has his own Howl moment as he rages at the nurses not caring for her in a public hospital.
I’ll bet if that were the president or the governor or mayor or some rich son of a bitch, there would be doctors all over the room doing something! Why do you just let them die? What’s the sin in being poor?’
The great sin of being poor is being powerless. Bukowski’s pared down and honest prose captures that circle of hell for the working poor very well. He’s a drunk and a bum and a rapist, but he’s not a liar. That’s all I ask for a book. Don’t tell me middle-class gob-shite and expect me to lap it up as some kind of nectar. Bukowski saint and sinner, but a real novelist. He tells it like it is, genital warts and all.