Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Beats Working

Strangely enough I'd never got round to reading Charles Bukowski's prose (I've a collection of his poetry somewhere, that I always quite liked). I never had enough interest to buy the books. I picked up "Post Office", ironically enough, in the Heart Foundation charity shop in Stafford earlier in the week, and having just finished one book, thought I'd give it a go. The story of Bukowski's 12 years working as a postal worker in California during the late 50s and 60s, its quite hard to understand its cult appeal. Perhaps this kind of demotic, beat prose, spoken straight to camera has become a de facto standard since it was published in the early 70s. It does read like a book that was pulled together from different scraps of life. There's a great sense of claustrophobia here. Bukowski's lead character, Henry Chinaski is another in that great line of American literary Henrys, an everyman - in this case a hard drinking, hard womanising everyman. He takes no shit from his supervisors, yet ends up staying in the job longer than anyone else, an immovable object. It's as if the beat dream of packing your bags and travelling finds its immediate endgame in Bukowski, a dead end job, a dead end life, because at the end of the day, if all you want is another bar, all bars are essentially the same. There's no glamour in Chinaski, even in his womanising, and you realise the writer was over 50 when the book came out, old enough to have fought in the war (he wasn't deemed fit for service), and two generations out from the hippies who were probably going to be his first readers. I think it's the "out of time" sense of the novel that gives it a lasting power, for there's no sense of optimism here - this is the harsh real hangover of an alcoholic's life. Reading about Bukowski, a bit like Carver, you warm to him, as a writer to his bones, who had enough talent to rise through against the obstacles. At the end of the book, despite its episodic nature, and its narrow parameters, its Bukowski's literary style, an extended anecdote like the funniest guy in the bar, and the warmth of his little-man-against-the-world schtick that gives it resonance. We've seen Chinaski since of course, he's the Dude in the Big Lebowski, he's every Micky Rourke character (and not just when he played Chinaski in "Barfly.")

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Great review and apt references, except the Dude wouldn't hurt a fly. Henry was one violent bag of tricks in comparison.

Bournemouth Runner said...

Yes, true. The Dude was a peacenik!

Jim Murdoch said...

I'm the same. In fact the only reason I've read any of his poetry was due to Canongate Books who sent me a thick collection to review plus a biography. When I was writing my reviews I watched at least three films of his books and a filmed biography and so I'm not sure what I'd get from his prose now but I would do the same as you if I came upon a cheap copy in a charity shop. just to see.