22 February 2014

Post Office: A Review

Post Office by Charles Bukowski (Niall Griffiths introduction, pp 160, Virgin Books 2009)

Charles Bukowski's work is semi-autobiographical. He writes about Henry “Hank” Chinaski, who relives Bukowski’s experiences. His style is raw, crisp, and realist, which ensures it does not matter if some scenes are fabricated.

This review examines Bukowski’s style and the observations he makes through Hank’s perspective. While I try to avoid spoilers, I quote and discuss the protagonist’s behaviour.

1. Character

Post Office relies on no presuppositions but Chinaski does exist in Bukowski’s other fiction and poetry. Hank is an agreeable man. Readers will relate to him even if this is their first Chinaski-encounter. Hank's story is therefore timeless. This is partly due to Bukowski's acclaimed technical ability and partly because the inequalities Hank faces remain today.

Hank is a polite, underclass, working man and he never discriminates. He negatively judges only those who deserve it. Even the privileged may support his plight because his actions highlight bureaucratic injustices: few who are critical can agree outright with that parasitic modern invention; and so, for as long as officials repress with demands of meaningless paperwork, Hank will shine as a hero.*

2. Structure

Post Office is written simply. There are five sections, each divided by scenes. Each scene revolves around conflict--external or internal--and these outline Hank’s struggle. While the result is easy for consumers to read it is difficult--and doubly so in Bukowski's economic prose--to reproduce his style: sequential conflicts not based in violence or rapid action can become boring in less talented writers’ ink. It is clear, from this analysis, why Bukowski's work is emulated so much: he epitomises the show-don’t-tell mantra.

3. Style

Bukowski's writes sparse and vibrant prose. The imagination is forced to work because the vocabulary captures a focussed image through a lens that blurs all but the foreground: only characters matter.
THERE WAS THIS place. It stretched over the sea, it was built over the sea. An odd place, but with a touch of class. We got a room on the first floor. You could hear the ocean running down there, you could hear the waves, you could smell the ocean, you could feel the tide going in and out, in and out. (p 114)
Description like this draws readers into an intensely personal relationship with Hank: the sea-sprayed, hazy background is filled by the subconscious. Hank's world squeezes into our own histories. Bukowski knows he need not describe the ocean's colour nor the patterns of the hotel's furnishings. Still, the words evoke sea-side nostalgia and invite readers to revisit memories with Hank.

4. Themes

This novel brandishes a cultural snapshot. The modern world stretching back to and including the ’60s, respects certain personality traits. Its requirements for those traits are often farcical, though. Nevertheless, Chinaski ignores the fa├žade of what is deemed acceptable or admonished and usually reaches the best ideals the traits reflect. He satisfies social expectations without being restrained by them, simply through his manifest responsibility.

Henry remains fallible. He strives just to get on with necessary tasks--supporting his family, turning up to work on time, working in the rain. At the same time, he acknowledges higher, corrosive aspirations. Hank aims for success: “I wanted the whole world or nothing” (p 47). Everybody, sometimes, succumbs to the easiest way out. Everybody, sometimes, becomes self-destructive and hurts others in the process.** Bukowski writes Hank as self-aware. Rather than withdraw from pressures adults should accede to, Hank embraces them. He accepts consequences are inevitable and thus helps readers forgive his so-called flaws. Hank, then, respects tacit ideals, breaches them, but admits to his deviation.

Hank's life is tumultuous according to puritan values--he gambles and drinks himself to promiscuity--and through these vicissitudes readers are treated to a glimpse of a world unchanged. The setting precedes and invades 1950s and ‘60s America but the problems Hank faces may be repeated and lived under today’s economic circumstances: there will always be superiors--exploitative, fair, or otherwise; there will always be a few who one rises above. Hank is admirable because he is unimpressed with any above him and because he avoids judging those below him--he knows too intimately how easy it is to sink.

5. Conclusion

I recommend this book to fans of stories and words. The narrative is delightful and less than 160 pages--perfect for light bed-time reading. Aspiring writers should read this because it demonstrates craft quite well. If the myriad derivative works suggest anything, it is that Bukowski has much to teach.

* See Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel (Linda Asher tr, Faber and Faber 1999) for an anecdotal critique of ‘Kafkan’ bureaucracy: ‘a power that has the character of a boundless labyrinth’ (p 103).
** ‘Hurt people hurt people’ (Greenberg Universal 2010).

Created: 2 February 2014. Version 1.0.

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