Thunder Road

January 11, 2011 Leave a comment Go to comments

Post Office by Charles Bukowski.

Foreword: I have read this in French and I will probably make mistakes in using vocabulary related to the post office environment as I had to look for words in the dictionary.  

Bukowski wrote the foreword of Ask the Dust by John Fante, a writer he adored and contributed to re-discover. A writer who praised John Fante is a good recommendation for me, so I thought I should read one of his books and when I saw Post Office in Guy’s Top 10 books for 2010, I decided to read it too. When I told my mother I was reading Bukowski she said “Isn’t he the guy who was drunk at Apostrophes and caused a scandal?” Apostrophes was the most famous live literary talk-show in France from 1975 to 1990. Though it dates back to 1978, the incident was famous and scandalous enough to be related in the foreword of the French edition of Post Office.

But back to the book.

Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) was born in Germany from a German mother and an American father. His real name is Heinrich Karl Bukowski. His parents started to call him Henry after they moved in America. First-names are important here as Bukowski used Charles for his pen name and Henry for his literary alter-ego Henry Chinarski.

Post Office is based on autobiographical elements and relates Bukowski’s years as a postman in Los Angeles. In this novel, Bukowski uses the same technique as John Fante, using a literary alter-ego to turn out his tough years into a literary work.

In the first part, Henry Chinarski is a mailman. His description of his life as a post man is huge fun but does not hide the awful truth. I laughed at his descriptions of crazy clients and frightening dogs:

Then I felt something jamming its way into my crotch. It moved way up there. I looked around and there was a German Shepherd, full-grown, with his nose halfway up my ass. With one snap of his jaws he could rip off my balls. I decided that those people were not going to get their mail that day, and maybe never get any mail again. Man, I mean he worked that nose in there. SNUFF! SNUFF! SNUFF!

I put the mail back into the leather pouch, and very slowly, very, I took a half step forward. The nose followed. Then I took another half step with the other foot. The nose followed. Then I took a slow, very slow full step. Then another. Then stood still. The nose was out. And he just stood there looking at me. Maybe he’d never smelled anything like it and didn’t quite know what to do.

I walked quietly away.

The work is hard, there is never enough time to have lunch and the weather does not help either. The episode of delivering mail during a heavy rain is amazing. Postmen were drenched and here are Chinarski’s misadventures with his underwear:

When you shorts get wet they slip down, down they slip, down around the cheeks of your ass, a wet rim of a thing held up by the crotch of your pants.

When Chinarski marries Joyce, he quits his job as a postman to follow her in her native Texas, where they live upon her father’s money. Back to Los Angeles with Joyce, she insists on taking a job to prove her father that they can make a living without his money. She gets hired in a police station and Chinarski is back to the post office, in a sorting office this time.

If being a mailman was hard, this is even harder. Bukowski describes everything, from the petty and mean chiefs to the inhuman cadences and the appalling work hours. Letters must be sorted in a limited amount of time. To become a permanent employee, postmen must pass an incredibly detailed exam about Los Angeles postal areas. I loved the sex-based mnemonic method Chinarski invented to remember all the areas. So funny.

 His private life seems limited to alcohol, horse races and sex. He often starts his shift at work with a hammering hangover. He developes a strategy to earn money on horse races, and is quite successful at a time. His love life has ups and downs. After a divorce from Joyce, he is back to Betty and then meets Fay. Women are objects for him but he is an object for them too, so it levels the playing field. He always chooses them with one terrible flaw that sort of match with one of his own: Betty is always drunk, Joyce is a nymphoman and Fay is lazy.

Despite all his flaws – the alcohol addiction being the worse one – Chinarski is a decent man. We have a hint of his goodness when he arranges his former lover Betty’s funeral. The birth of his daughter is a moving moment. I read through the lines a stronger attachment than what he was ready to show. I thought he was also quite enduring and not as lazy as one would think, considering his bad living habits and the exhausting work he was doing. In the end, Bukowski/Chinarski worked for the post office during 11 years, which is a considerable amount of time. When he quits, his body is worn out by silly and tiring work.

I’ve read that Bukowski needed only a month after he quit his job to write Post Office. It must have been simmering in him for a while. That’s also why it sounds so right and deprived of any nostalgia.

One personal note. My father used to be a post office clerk and was in charge of organizing mailmen rounds. I have grown up hearing stories about postmen, rounds, lost letters and ridiculous circulars. I can tell that the dog stories are universal as well as the client ones – though hot stories about women in underclothes never came to my young and chaste ears.

Reading Bukowski brought to my mind two books I’ve read in 2010: The Road to Los Angeles by John Fante and Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. Bukowski is at cross-roads between Fante, Steinbeck and Céline, two other Californian writers and a French one. He reminded me of Fante for the description of the working conditions of small employees. Bukowski has common points with John Fante: both were Roman Catholic, from foreign parents, poor, had a drunk and violent father. Both lived in California, although Fante spent his childhood in Colorado. Steinbeck came to my mind for the kind description of the outcast of the American dream and of lives damaged by alcohol. He reminded me of Céline for the spoken language and the argot he used.

That makes three talented god-fathers for a single writer. Bukowski is gifted. Post Office is funny, sad and tender. I must say I prefer Fante, perhaps the alcohol abuse in Bukowski threw a veil of bitterness on the events, when Fante is all sun and fun. Moreover, Arturo Bandini knows he wants to be a writer and this ambition fills him with energy.

A word about the translation. Hmm. There were a lot of outdated argot words. Some I didn’t know, some weren’t even in my French dictionary. I downloaded a sample of Post Office on my kindle – how convenient for quotes! — because I wanted to know how the real text sounded. I’m under the impression that the French translation is a bit inventive on the argot tone.

  1. January 11, 2011 at 9:50 pm

    I’m glad you liked it. Bukowski was pure enjoyment. I have another couple of his on my shelf I should get to soon, and I hope they are as funny as Post Office. Do you have that phrase “going postal” in France?

    I wonder if your father would like the book?

    My favourite Steinbeck is East of Eden. Not that keen on him otherwise.

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    • January 11, 2011 at 11:35 pm

      I don’t know if the others are as funny but the French titles are promising.

      What does “going postal” mean? Is it the same as in French ? We say “être timbré” (literally to be “stamped”), which means to be nuts.

      My father doesn’t read books, so no, I don’t think he would like it. I’m pretty sure the character of Chinarski as a drunk mailman would remind him of someone, though. And the absurdity of administrative rules as well. Chinarski was cynical about his job but at the same time proud of it. After all, he spent a lot of energy to deliver the mail on time, whatever the conditions. I’ve seen that pride at home too. Being a civil servant meant something.

      I wasn’t really blown away by Cannery Row. It is good, witty, well-written, sometimes funny but it missed me. It brushed against my skin but didn’t go under.

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  2. January 12, 2011 at 7:10 am

    I haven’t read any Bukowski in a long time… Still remember the movie Barfly… I’m tempted to read this but I also wanted to read Fante, got quite a few of his books. Cannery Row is one of the funniest novels I have read, it didn’t miss me. The Grapes of Wrath is another of my “reading plans” this year. I read stories of Bukoswki in which he works in an abattoir… That did not strike me a s funny but as very important. He realy has tese two dimensions, making you laugh and think. Many of the jobs he has seen from the inside, we would never get to know… His alcoholism is quite dangerous. I know men who drink too much and often justify it mentioning Bukowski, the truth in the bottle… Alcoholics will always find a way to justify…

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    • January 12, 2011 at 8:58 am

      Fante is excellent. In The Road to Los Angeles he works in a cannery factory and what he tells is terrible It seems many writers have a problem with alcohol. I’ve never had an alcoholic in my acquaintances so I can’t tell but it must be terrible.

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    • January 12, 2011 at 7:56 pm

      The abattoir Bukowski…is that a novel or a short story? I should want to avoid that.

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      • January 12, 2011 at 8:40 pm

        You don’t want to read about killing animals, right? It’s included in General Tales of Ordinary Madness.
        You’d like The Roots of Heaven, it’s the story of Morel who fight against the killing of elephants.

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  3. leroyhunter
    January 12, 2011 at 10:39 am

    Great review, bookaround. Like you I love Fante: I read some Bukowski years ago in school but kind of forgot about him until I was likewise prompted by Guy’s review (and Max’s) to get this – it’s on my shelf now.

    Interesting comment “when being a civil servant meant something”. Has that respect (or self-respect) been lost do you think? Certainly here (Ireland) there has been an increasingly poisonous false oppostion created between public & private sectors…but often the public service is its own worst enemy when it refuses to change or tries to defend crazy practices and failings. My experience is you don’t even get to have those arguments in the private sector.

    “Going postal” does pretty much mean “nuts” – specifically it refers to the unfortunate phemomenon of postal workers in the US cracking up and shooting their colleagues.

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    • January 12, 2011 at 7:28 pm

      Leroy, in fact there is no “when” in my sentence. I think being a civil servant still means something, but maybe less than before. The public sector still employs a lot of people here. Our president loves to oppose public and private sectors and actually tries to set people working in the private sector against civil servants. The current economical crisis and its impacts in Great Britain forced him to abandon the idea he had to cut public services. The British example is no longer a model.
      People usually think public servants are advantaged because they can’t lose their job. And it is true. When public servants go on strike, employees from the private sector sometimes grouch after them, but most of the time they are glad that they do it. Indeed, they can afford to go on strike whereas it is risky for employees from the private sector. So there is a feeling that they go on strike for everyone. (It was particularly true during the long strike of 1995)
      And I also think public services are really efficient in France, from the post office to trains, through tax administration and electricity.

      After reading Post Office, I can understand why US postmen cracked up.

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      • leroyhunter
        January 13, 2011 at 4:13 pm

        Sorry for the misquote, bookaround. I don’t think the sympathy you describe for strikers exists here, in part because our public services are generally not very efficient. But the deliberate creation of that conflict (public v private) is harmful and paralysing.

        It always surprises me how much Sarkozy is supposed to admire Blair and “Blairism”.

        Do you plan to read any more Bukowski?

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        • January 13, 2011 at 9:41 pm

          Leroy, if M. Thatcher and S. Berlusconi had a child, his name would be Nicolas…

          But back to literature. I’ll read more Bukowski but I want to read more Fante first. And I’ll read him in English next time, the old fashioned argot words of the translation bothered me. (The same thing is happening now with No Orchids for Miss Blandish)

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  4. January 12, 2011 at 7:54 pm

    Leroy’s explanation is correct. There are a number of infamous incidents of postal workers opening fire on their workmates. The Post Office is not unique for that, but somehow the phrase stuck and now applies to any worker in any field.

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    • January 12, 2011 at 8:55 pm

      It’s different from the French “être timbré” because it doesn’t apply to violent or temporary madness. It’s more like “to have bats in the belfry.”

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  5. January 14, 2011 at 10:41 am

    I’m not familiar with any of the writers you mention in this post; with the exception of Steinbeck. Grapes of Wrath seems to be an acquired taste: I think too many people have had it forced upon them during their school days. I haven’t read as many of his novels as I would like, but Grapes stands out for me as an exceptional novel, in terms of compassion and righteous anger, perception and observation.

    Sorry! Wasn’t intending a personal crusade. What I meant to say is that your review of Bukowski is entertaining and intriguing, and I shall add this novel to the list. The quote with the dog is funny without being irritating (I can be a real grouch wrt over-done comedy) and, for me, humour can benefit from the contrast with darker elements.

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    • January 14, 2011 at 10:51 am

      Sarah, we all have our list of classics ruined by boring teachers and sleepy classrooms.

      John Fante is a fantastic writer, better than Steinbeck (never managed to finish Of Mice and Men) and better than Bukowski. There are reviews of Fante’s books on Max’s blog and on mine, if you’re interested.

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  6. January 14, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    I read Grapes of Wrath in school and can’t abide it. It’s curious how that can happen, and how often.

    I’m glad you enjoyed this Bookaround. Like Guy for me it was pure enjoyment, though I can see why you might prefer Fante (sunnier, as you say). That first Fante Bandini novel is exceptional, I’ve yet to read the others (but Kevin of kevinfromcanada has covered them all at his).

    Annoyingly, in the UK you can get the first and third Bandini novels as single volumes or all four as one compendium volume, but not the second and fourth as singles. Absurd.

    Interesting on the translation. A certain inventiveness is probably required if you’re to communicate the tone of the original. Too much accuracy could lead to it dying on the page. Slang and swearwords are terribly hard to translate I suspect. When I was learning Italian I noticed it was much easier to be incredibly offensive in that language than English, because the words have no emotional impact for me. I was never told not to say them as a child. An Italian obscenity to me is just another word, how then to translate it to English so that as a reader I feel its actual force?

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    • January 14, 2011 at 3:41 pm

      I’ve read The Pearl in school. Same reaction as you. Can’t you buy the Fante you want from Amazon US ?

      About the translation. From what I’ve seen, the slang words used in French are outdated when the English words aren’t (translation of “damn” for example). I’ll talk about this again in my post on No Orchid for Miss Blandish, because I encountered exactly the same problem. Or maybe “damn” was more slang 50 years ago than it is now. What do you think?
      I know what you mean about your experience with Italian. It’s the same for me with English of course. I probably don’t perceive how offensive or vulgar the words are for English ears. It’s true for slang words and swearwords but also for words expressing feelings or related to sex. They don’t make me blush whereas they might sometimes in French.
      And I wonder if I don’t mix words from different levels of language in the same sentence, creating strange effects for Anglophone readers.

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    • leroyhunter
      January 16, 2011 at 10:17 pm

      Max, I got a singleton copy of Dreams From Bunker Hill in my local bookshop a while ago, just happened upon it. It’s available via Book Depository I think, publised by ecco.

      bookaround, I think “damn” and particularly “goddamn” were considered pretty strong 50 plus years ago. Now they’re almost unnoticed in speech etc.

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      • January 16, 2011 at 10:38 pm

        That’s what I thought. It’s the same for “merde” in French. Is there a “fashion” in slang words in English too?

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      • January 17, 2011 at 8:03 pm

        Thanks Leroy, I must have missed that imprint. I’ll take another look.

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  7. January 14, 2011 at 5:30 pm

    I don’t recall the slang being outdated. Hm. I wonder why they made that choice? I don’t think damn has changed much in the last few decades, save that it’s probably not as rude now as it once was.

    I’ve not noticed any strange effects in your English, but it’s the sort of thing one could easily do.

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    • January 14, 2011 at 6:02 pm

      I don’t think it was a choice. For example, here is the quote Guy included in his post :
      “All right. Keep your pussy. It’s not that great anyway.”
      French translation: “D’accord. Garde-la ta moule. Elle est pas si bath que ça”
      The translator used “bath” to say “great”. Great is neutral in English. In French, “bath” (French pronounciation is ‘bat’) is a typical colloquial word from the 1960s. Nobody ever uses it now except to make a deliberate reference to the youth of that time. When I hear “bath” like this, I see young people dancing the twist.
      And “moule” for “pussy” is very very very rude and negative. I had in mind that “chatte” was the translation of “pussy” and the dictionary says I was right.

      Another example, this sentence “I’ll come by and we’ll talk tonight”. For me, it is neutral in English. Spoken language. In French, it’s translated by “je passerai ce soir et on causera” and the verb “causer” isn’t neutral. It’s lower level of language than “talk”. “discuter” would have been neutral.

      So in the end, Bukowski sounds ruder in French than in English. That’s what I discovered when I downloaded a sample on my kindle and then read your review and Guy’s.

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      • January 14, 2011 at 6:17 pm

        That does all sound odd. I’m glad you’re able to read the English too and get a sense for the original.

        Like

  1. February 14, 2016 at 9:31 am
  2. September 18, 2016 at 6:56 pm
  3. May 25, 2017 at 11:55 am

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