HALF A CENTURY AFTER the publication of Post Office (1971), how should we understand Charles Bukowski’s literary achievement? His publisher predicted that Bukowski would never reach a mainstream audience. And yet his books, including his poetry, have sold millions of copies in more than a dozen languages. Writing for The New Yorker in 2005, Adam Kirsch claims that Bukowski’s liminal status and seedy persona were part of his appeal: “He is one of those writers whom each new reader discovers with a transgressive thrill.” Describing his verse as “pulp poetry,” Kirsch also notes the author’s penchant for autobiography. “Bukowski’s poems are best appreciated not as individual verbal artifacts but as ongoing installments in the tale of his true adventures, like a comic book or a movie serial,” he observes. “They are strongly narrative, drawing from an endless supply of anecdotes that typically involve a bar, a skid-row hotel, a horse race, a girlfriend, or any permutation thereof.” That combination made a strong impression on readers. “The effect is as though some legendary tough guy, a cross between Philip Marlowe and Paul Bunyan, were to take the barstool next to you, buy a round, and start telling his life story.”
The pulp comparison is on point — in fact, Bukowski’s final novel, Pulp (1994), draws on the conventions of hard-boiled detective fiction — but Kirsch also mentions Bukowski’s efforts to place himself in more reputable literary company. “He occasionally took pains to align himself with a coherent literary tradition, writing about his admiration for Dostoyevsky, Hamsun, Céline, and Camus — the classics of modern alienation, the biographers of the underground man,” Kirsch writes. “He was especially fond of Hamsun’s ‘Hunger,’ the story of a young writer demented by poverty and ambition.” While Bukowski’s literary ambitions were grandiose, he is, for Kirsch, essentially a genre writer: prolific, predictable, and popular.
Kirsch does not mention an equally coherent tradition to which Bukowski belongs, one that includes some of the most notable fiction and film produced in Los Angeles during his lifetime. This tradition is by no means at odds with the classics of modern alienation. In fact, Bukowski’s favorite author was L.A. novelist and screenwriter John Fante, who also admired Hamsun. After achieving his own success, Bukowski persuaded his publisher to reissue Fante’s novels, including Ask the Dust (1939). Demented by poverty and literary ambition during the Great Depression, Fante’s protagonist passes his days at a saloon in Downtown Los Angeles, where he drinks bad coffee and obsesses over a Latina waitress. Bukowski’s preface to the reprint recalls his own days as an impoverished writer in the city: “I was a young man, starving and drinking and trying to be a writer.” Scouring the L.A. Public Library for suitable reading, he was unmoved by modern fiction until he discovered Fante’s novel. “The beginning of that book was a wild and enormous miracle to me,” he writes: “Fante was my god and I knew that the gods should be left alone, one didn’t bang at their door.”
That homage suggests that Kirsch overlooked the most proximate influence on Bukowski, or at least on his fiction. In fact, Bukowski cannot be understood apart from his midcentury Los Angeles milieu. His vision of the city was an integral part of his output, and few writers have documented its squalor more meticulously. Nowhere is the city’s significance clearer than in Post Office, Bukowski’s first and most famous novel, and nowhere else does he tap the region’s deepest literary tradition more directly.
In the opening pages of his 1990 book City of Quartz, Mike Davis sketches that tradition and identifies Los Angeles’s unique place in the public imagination. For him, the “ultimate world-historical significance — and oddity — of Los Angeles is that it has come to play the double role of utopia and dystopia for advanced capitalism.” Davis attributes that double role to the interplay among the city’s boosters, its debunkers, and the noir tradition. In his overview of the boosters, Davis pairs the Arroyo Set, led by Charles Fletcher Lummis, with the Chamber of Commerce’s effort to present Los Angeles as “the promised land of a millenarian Anglo-Saxon racial odyssey.” The booster parlance was pithier, of course. The racist and anti-labor Los Angeles Times, for example, described the city as “the white spot.” Whether or not that phrase was an open expression of white supremacy, the Times certainly did not describe L.A. as the brown, black, or red spot. In fact, the newspaper’s coverage was mostly designed to burnish the region’s image and thereby support the Chandler family’s real estate investments and other ventures.
The Great Depression ushered in the debunkers, chief among them Louis Adamic and his recently radicalized friend, Carey McWilliams. In a 1930 magazine article, Adamic cast the city’s boosters as “grim, rather inhuman individuals with a terrifying singleness of intention” — namely, to turn huge profits by growing Los Angeles into the nation’s largest metropolis. The article also recounted the Great Water Caper — the creation of the Los Angeles Aqueduct — which permitted the city’s rapid expansion in the first decades of the 20th century. Adamic moved east to edit Common Ground magazine, but not before McWilliams, who was Fante’s best friend, published a short book about him in 1935.
After World War II, McWilliams retold the aqueduct story in Southern California Country: An Island on the Land (1946). Often regarded as the region’s finest interpretive history, that book was part of a remarkable streak. Between 1939 and 1950, McWilliams turned out almost one book per year on a wide range of topics, including California farm labor, the Japanese internment, systemic racism, antisemitism, Latinos in the Southwest, and the early stages of McCarthyism. His output directly inspired Robert Towne’s Oscar-winning screenplay for Chinatown (1974) and Luis Valdez’s Zoot Suit (1979). It was also cited in a Supreme Court dissenting opinion on the constitutionality of the Japanese internment. As a reward for his labors, McWilliams was red-baited relentlessly before and after he decamped for New York City to edit The Nation magazine. A decade after he died in 1980, however, Davis and others sang his praises. In City of Quartz, Davis described a fraction of McWilliams’s work as “one of the major achievements within the American regional tradition.” Likewise, historian Kevin Starr, in his 2002 book, Embattled Dreams: California in War and Peace, 1940–1950, cast McWilliams as the state’s “most astute political observer” and “the single finest nonfiction writer on California — ever.”
Adamic and McWilliams took obvious pleasure in challenging Los Angeles’s ersatz history and image, but they were not alone. During the 1930s, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Nathanael West also subverted the popular conception of Los Angeles as a sunny paradise. So did film noir, which flourished in the 1940s and ’50s and later influenced Chinatown and Blade Runner (1982). Yet even as the noir tradition propagated a sinister image of the city, it never stifled the region’s utopian impulse, whose most fantastical expression was Disneyland. Pitched to the Baby Boom generation, the iconic theme park earned its right-wing founder a reputation as an urban utopianist. In the meantime, other authors, filmmakers, and musicians were also packaging and selling idealized versions of SoCal youth culture. Frederick Kohner’s Gidget, The Little Girl with Big Ideas (1957) launched a series of novels about teenage surfers in Malibu that soon morphed into a popular film and television franchise. The Beach Boys scored their first hit in 1962 and eventually produced dozens of Top 40 singles about surfing, girls, and cars. The Beach Party movie franchise, which also featured teenage frolicking, began its run in 1963; in 1965 alone, a dozen such films appeared before the genre virtually collapsed in 1968. Taken together, these works presented Los Angeles as a city of youth, romance, and healthy fun.
Bukowski’s experience stood in stark contrast to that image. Born in 1920, beaten regularly and savagely by his father, his face and body ravaged by boils, Bukowski graduated from Los Angeles High School and attended Los Angeles City College for two years. He drank, wandered, lived in rooming houses, married, divorced, and was treated for a near-fatal bleeding ulcer in 1955. After leaving the hospital, he began writing poetry. For 15 years, he lived in sketchy East Hollywood, working first as a postal carrier and then as a letter-filing clerk. According to Howard Sounes’s 1998 biography, Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life, he told his literary friends that his work was “triple super hell, baby. […] The post office is nailing me to the cross.” Later, however, Bukowski said that the work helped him to master the terrain. “You get the stink of L.A. in your bones, you know?” he told one interviewer in an excerpt included in John Dullaghan’s 2003 documentary, Bukowski: Born into This. His contempt for Disneyland, which opened the same year he was released from the hospital, led one colleague (also cited in Born into This) to claim that Bukowski’s entire body of work was dedicated to the “de-Disneyfication of all of us.” Against the boosterist vision of Los Angeles as a place of youth and healthy fun, Bukowski offered a vision of the city that featured aging, scabrous, tortured alcoholics.
When John Martin created Black Sparrow Press in 1969, Bukowski was 49 years old and writing a column called “Notes of a Dirty Old Man” for the Los Angeles Free Press. He appreciated the rapid dissemination of his work in the underground weekly, but he had no sympathy for the counterculture’s music, drugs, or politics — or for political causes in general. Martin, who managed an office supply store, had a longstanding interest in modern writers, including Henry Miller and the Beats. After discovering Bukowski’s poetry in an underground magazine, he sold his first editions of D. H. Lawrence and used the proceeds to open his press in Los Angeles. Although the two men never had a contract, Martin promised to pay Bukowski $100 per month for life if he resigned from the post office. After his final shift, Bukowski stayed drunk for days. “After living in the cage, I had taken the opening and flown out — like a shot into the heavens,” Sounes quotes him as saying.
Martin encouraged Bukowski to write whatever he wanted, but he also indicated that a novel would be welcome. Three weeks after Bukowski resumed writing, he unexpectedly delivered the complete manuscript for Post Office. Its success, modest at first, convinced Martin that his press would survive. The novel sold especially well in Europe, and Martin used the revenue to publish Fante, Paul Bowles, Wanda Coleman, and other writers. Toward the end of Bukowski’s life, Martin was paying him $10,000 per month and adding any balance due at the end of each year. In 2002, he sold the rights to the work of Bukowski, Fante, and Bowles to HarperCollins. Martin did not regard Black Sparrow as a publisher of pulp poetry; he described his operation, rather, as “one of the only self-supporting, highly successful, widely distributed, purely literary presses.”
More The Day of the Locust than How to Stuff a Wild Bikini, Bukowski’s first novel falls naturally into the dystopian strain of L.A. literature. Its protagonist, Henry Chinaski, is a middle-aged alcoholic trying to survive in 1960s Los Angeles. His job as a substitute letter carrier is a brutal exercise in alienation: the work is exhausting and degrading, his supervisor is a sadist, and his colleagues are browbeaten. “The subs themselves made Jonstone possible by obeying his impossible orders,” Chinaski says. “I couldn’t see how a man of such obvious cruelty could be allowed to have his position.” Only Chinaski addresses their “soup” (i.e., superior) by his nickname, “The Stone.” His customers are lunatics, their dogs are a menace, and the postal service itself is a faceless, spirit-crushing bureaucracy. Even the weather, Los Angeles’s saving grace, is a perpetual threat. On the job, Chinaski is either soaked by ferocious rainstorms or sweating out last night’s booze under a boiling sun. “I was hungover again, another heat spell was on — a week of 100 degree days,” he reports. “The drinking went on each night, and in the early mornings and days there was The Stone and the impossibility of everything.” Along the way, he objectifies and occasionally brutalizes women — in one episode, he angrily enacts a female character’s rape fantasy — yet he also expresses sympathy for their suffering. At the end of the novel, Chinaski resigns from the post office and launches an epic bender.
For all its bleakness, Post Office is a comic novel, and readers have many chances to relish Chinaski’s sardonic outlook. A less obvious but central motif is the novel’s surreptitious utopianism. As much as any character in American literature, Chinaski seeks the good life, even if his jaded outlook and squalid surroundings belie that quest. The opening passage sets the bar comically low for human happiness. “It began as a mistake,” Chinaski says.
It was Christmas season and I learned from the drunk up the hill, who did the trick every Christmas, that they would hire damned near anybody, and so I went and the next thing I knew I had this leather sack on my back and was hiking around at my leisure. What a job, I thought. Soft!
A married woman who is “big in all the right places” emerges from her home and accompanies him on his appointed round. They arrange a tryst, and after a short affair, Chinaski reflects on his good fortune. “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.”
Chinaski’s delight turns to misery as the job tightens its grip on him. He describes his travails — and the post office’s daily operations — in its distinctive argot. The accumulation of detail strengthens the novel’s realism and underscores the petty cruelties that kill by slow torture. Chinaski occasionally witnesses real suffering, and the bureaucratic indifference to it, but even the quotidian observations are meaningful. For example, he notes that the regular postal carriers call in sick after holidays, or when the mail loads are especially heavy, or when the weather is intolerable. As their substitute, Chinaski must bear those burdens without the perquisites his colleagues enjoy, chalking up that inequity to human nature. At no point does he imagine work that is dignified or properly rewarded; even to entertain that notion is to misunderstand the full horror of his situation.
Despite his tribulations, Chinaski occasionally finds time to enjoy the good things in life. When his girlfriend Betty returns to work, he takes a leave of absence from the post office:
I got up around 10:30 a.m., had a leisurely cup of coffee and a couple of eggs, played with the dog, flirted with the young wife of a mechanic who lived in the back, got friendly with a stripteaser who lived in the front. I’d be at the track by one p.m., then back with my profit, and with the dog at the bus stop to wait for Betty to come home. It was a good life.
That leisure, however, is impossible to sustain. After Betty drifts off, Chinaski marries Joyce, who comes from a wealthy family. Nevertheless, she insists that they live on their wages. “Baby, that’s grammar school,” Chinaski protests. “Any damn fool can beg up some kind of job; it takes a wise man to make it without working.” He returns to the post office but eventually floats a proposition:
After dinner or lunch or whatever it was — with my crazy 12 hour night I was no longer sure what was what — I said, “Look, baby, I’m sorry, but don’t you realize that this job is driving me crazy? Look, let’s give it up. Let’s just lay around and make love and take walks and talk a little. Let’s go to the zoo. Let’s look at the animals. Let’s drive down and look at the ocean. It’s only 45 minutes. Let’s play games in the arcades. Let’s go to the races, the Art Museum, the boxing matches. Let’s have friends. Let’s laugh. This kind of life is like everyone else’s kind of life: it’s killing us.”
Joyce is unmoved by his humane vision. “No, Hank, we’ve got to show them, we’ve got to show them…” Attributing that urge to Joyce’s upbringing, Chinaski gives up. There is hope, but not for them.
At one point, Joyce acquires two parakeets, whose chattering bothers Chinaski. When he complains, she suggests that he put the birds in the backyard. He does, but he also opens their cage. “Both birds looked at that cage door. They couldn’t understand it and they could. I could feel their tiny minds trying to function. They had their food and water right there, but what was that open space?” One bird leaps down from his rung, stands in front of the open door, and tries to decide his next move. Then something clicks in his tiny brain. “He didn’t fly,” Chinaski says. “He shot straight up into the sky.” The second bird is more reluctant: “He walked around in the bottom of the cage nervously. It was a hell of a decision. Humans, birds, everything has to make these decisions. It was a hard game.” Finally, the second bird also flies the coop. The parable of the parakeets seems straightforward enough, but Chinaski later banishes all ambiguity by comparing his decision to leave the post office to their existential drama.
Before his final departure from the job, Chinaski has other brushes with the good life, especially at the racetrack. Having parsed the Daily Racing Form, he showcases his mastery of the idiom by analyzing one race:
The 6 horse had lost by a neck to the favorite in a mile race last time out. The 6 had been overtaken by the favorite after a 2 length lead at the head of the stretch. […] Both were coming back in the same class. The favorite was adding two pounds, 116 to 118. The 6 still carried 116 but they had switched to a less popular jock, and also the distance was a mile and a 16th. The crowd figures that since the favorite had caught the 6 at a mile, then surely it would catch the 6 with the extra 16th of a mile to run.
The crowd’s logic, however, is faulty. “Trainers enter their horses in what seems unfavorable conditions in order to keep the public money off the horse,” Chinaski explains. “The distance switch, plus the switch to a less popular jock all pointed to a gallop at a good price.” When he tells Vi, his female companion, that he is betting on the 6 horse, she calls it a quitter. Nevertheless, he places a $10 bet to win and collects at eight to one. “She put that leg and breast up against me,” Chinaski says, “I took a nip of scotch and opened the Form.” After another shrewd bet pays off, the couple move to the bar, where “Vi really laid her body against me.” His winnings cover their hefty tab, after which they repair to her apartment for a sodden attempt at intercourse.
If his sexual performance is subpar, Chinaski has shown that he can make it without working. The wins boost his confidence, and he starts to envision life beyond the post office.
Then I developed a new system at the racetrack. I pulled in $3,000 in a month and a half while only going to the track two or three times a week. I began to dream. I saw a little house down by the sea. I saw myself in fine clothing, calm, getting up mornings, getting into my imported car, make the slow easy drive to the track. I saw leisurely steak dinners, preceded and followed by good chilled drinks in colored glasses. The big tip. The cigar. And women as you wanted them.
By this time, readers can feel the pull of Chinaski’s vision. It is not a dream of upward mobility based on freedom and opportunity, even less a belief in hard work and its rewards. To the contrary, the track represents the possibility of wealth without labor or “soups.” At the same time, it is not a place of leisure or social exchange. While Chinaski recognizes many regulars there, and his accounts suggest a certain bonhomie, his vision is not a social one. He is there to make money, and others are there to lose theirs. For him, success at the track is salutary as well as solitary. Betting tests his acumen, but it does not destroy his mind, body, or spirit. If the post office represents suffering without redemption, the racetrack offers the prospect of full humanity, Bukowski style.
Feeling confident, Chinaski requests a 90-day leave of absence. “So I stood in the tour superintendent’s office,” he says. “There he was behind his desk. I had a cigar in my mouth and whiskey on my breath. I felt like money. I looked like money.” The post office has treated him well, he says, but he has “outside business interests that simply must be taken care of.” The tone is comical, but Chinaski clearly relishes the shift from aggrieved worker to successful investor. He begins to visit the track down the coast. “It was a good life, and I started winning. After the last race each night I would have one or two easy drinks at the bar, tipping the bartender well. It looked like a new life. I could do no wrong.” Even the drive home is pleasant:
Every night was about the same. I’d drive along the coast looking for a place to have dinner. I wanted an expensive place that wasn’t too crowded. I developed a nose for those places. I could tell by looking at them from outside. You couldn’t always get a table directly overlooking the ocean unless you wanted to wait. But you could still see the ocean and the moon, and let yourself get romantic. Let yourself enjoy life. I always asked for a small salad and a big steak. The waitresses smiled deliciously and stood very close to you.
Savoring his success, Chinaski reflects on his humble origins. “I had come a long way from a guy who had worked in slaughterhouses, who had crossed the country with a railroad track gang, who had worked in a dog biscuit factory, who had slept on park benches, who had worked the nickel and dime jobs in a dozen cities across the nation.” He has led, he concludes, “a magic life. And I did not tire of it.”
The enchantment ends abruptly when a new girlfriend and her male companion try to rob him in a motel room. Chinaski sees his attacker’s reflection in a mirror, drops him with a beer bottle to the mouth, kicks his stiletto away, and slaps around the treacherous girlfriend. “Is that how you make it, cunt? Killing men for a couple hundred?” She declares her love for him, but he grabs her dress and rips it to the waist. “She didn’t wear a brassiere. The bitch didn’t need one.” This is Bukowski at his pulpiest, but the incident also signals the end of Chinaski’s winning streak. “Somehow the money slipped away after that and soon I left the track and sat around in my apartment waiting for the 90 days’ leave to run out.” He was back on the cross.
The racetrack recedes into the novel’s background, but Bukowski later (in comments excerpted in Dullaghan’s 2003 documentary) explained its significance. For him, the track was not only a setting for his fiction, but also a part of his literary process. “When I don’t go to the track,” he said, “I can’t write.” When asked what the racetrack meant to him, he described the faces he saw there and the inner lives behind them: “They all have dreams, they want to win. It’s a big arena, and you can see what they want and what they don’t get.” If the post office is a dystopian bureaucracy, the racetrack is a site for unbridled but ultimately thwarted desire. It stirs hopes of wealth that cannot be possessed, and of ease that vanishes as quickly as it appears. It is Eden, but after the fall. Once his girlfriend betrays him, Chinaski must live by the sweat of his brow.
After a series of personal setbacks, however, Chinaski can no longer tolerate the old routine. He quits the post office for good and debases himself even more energetically than usual. When his fellow revelers drop him off at his squalid apartment, he resumes drinking before collapsing on his bed. He says: “In the morning it was morning and I was still alive. Maybe I’ll write a novel, I thought. And then I did.” Nothing prepares the reader for these final lines, which hold out the faint promise that Chinaski’s novel will improve his miserable condition. After rubbing the reader’s nose in the stink of Los Angeles, Post Office concludes by alluding to the redemptive power of art, the most romantic notion of all.
Yet the ending also maintains the delicate balance between dystopian text and utopian subtext. To endorse Chinaski’s hope in any way — to imagine, for example, that his novel will sell millions of copies in a dozen languages — would undermine Post Office’s hard-earned realism. If Chinaski became an underground hero, the subject of a documentary film with appearances by Sean Penn and Bono and Tom Waits, the novel would no longer belong in the realm of modern alienation. If Chinaski ended up living in a large house near the ocean, earning $10,000 per month, sleeping with groupies, and driving a BMW, his life would become a louche version of a Horatio Alger story. If he were profiled in The New Yorker, well, no one would believe it.
Post Office is not a rags-to-riches story, but it illustrates Mike Davis’s point about Los Angeles’s double role as dystopia and utopia for advanced capitalism. The city never transcends its essential shabbiness, but it gradually admits another possibility — a world of easy living for aging lushes who understand the crowd and its desires. When that possibility is dashed, Chinaski resorts to wishing upon a star — not at the track but in the fickle realm of fiction. Ironically, Bukowski’s success would outstrip Chinaski’s unspoken wish, adding another layer of oddity to the city’s reputation. Well before any of that came to pass, however, Bukowski’s stealthy utopianism had more in common with Walt Disney’s vision than he probably cared to acknowledge.
Peter Richardson teaches humanities and American Studies at San Francisco State University. He has written critically acclaimed books about Hunter S. Thompson, the Grateful Dead, Ramparts magazine, and Carey McWilliams. He received the National Entertainment Journalism Award for Online Criticism in 2013.