This post was first published by Suite101. It contains spoilers.
First published in 1971, Charles Bukowski’s debut novel Post Office has since sold over one million copies around the world. Set in 1950s and 60s America, the novel deals with issues that are still very relevant today: the mind-numbing aspects of repetitive menial labour, the sense of isolation created by working in large organisations, and the addictive nature of drugs and alcohol. Bukowski writes from experience – Post Office is said to be at least in part autobiographical – and his main character Henry Chinaski is honestly drawn. Imbued with a dry sense of humour, a sharp intelligence, and a heavy sense of hopelessness, Chinaski is a character that readers easily sympathise with, and that gives Post Office its global appeal.
Broken up into six parts, Post Office begins with Chinaski’s first job as a substitute mail carrier for the U.S. Postal Service. The novel relates, in the first person, twelve years of Chinaski’s life – his relationships, his addiction to alcohol, and his predilection for gambling. However it is the Post Office that dominates this time; that dictates how Chinaski lives outside working hours as well as inside of them. There are no really remarkable events in Chinaski’s life – a marriage, a divorce, a brief winning streak at the racetrack, a baby. And all the while, lurking in the background is the Post Office – a seemingly innocuous institution that pays good wages and delivers America’s all important mail. In Chinaski’s life, however – and the lives of thousands of other employees – the Post Office is a ruthless machine that has robbed them of their spirit through monotonous and degrading labour.
Post Office is a testament to the way lives are often slowly worn away by menial labour. It illuminates, through the character of Chinaski, the way in which jobs in urban Western societies can be draining and dehumanising. And while by the end of the novel Chinaski has been reduced to an empty shell of a human being, there are numerous moments throughout Post Office that indicate his complexity, and his potential. When his ex-girlfriend dies of alcoholism, Chinaski is the only person by her side. And when a later girlfriend falls pregnant to him and has a baby, Chinaski continues working at the Post Office to support the child. Chinaski’s descriptions of Post Office politics and his co-workers are bitingly witty and insightful. He may be an alcoholic with a gambling problem and a weakness for women, but Chinaski is much more than that as well. He has the potential for profound thought, creativity and love. But the demands of his job rob him of the opportunity to be any more than a Post Office employee, surviving on alcohol, sex, and black humour.
Post Office is the antithesis of the American dream – a life of hard work that destroys the spirit and fuels addiction. And while the novel is written with a sense of humour, there is a fundamental feeling of sadness and desperation that runs through Post Office. The novel stands as a warning, about what is lost to humanity and the human spirit in order to support the industrial system.
Bukowski’s other works include the novel Ham on Rye, as well as numerous collections of short stories and poetry. Bukowski died in 1994.