Flashes of the Past: Bukowski and his Closeted Intellectual

Charles Bukowski’s Post Office (1971) chronicles Hank Chinaski’s misadventures as a postal worker and the poverty, alcoholism, and bureaucracy that fray his middle years. Sure, it’s a book about a hard-luck drunk written in spartan chapters, a book revered by hipsters. But from the closet of Bukowski’s hardboiled antihero peeks Chinaski’s alter ego: an intellectual, compassionate, and self-aware voice. Bukowski outs Chinaski (and perhaps himself as well) in concise prose, hefting social commentary and metaphors.

The whiskey and beer ran out of me, fountained from the armpits, and I drove along with this load on my back like a cross, pulling out magazines, delivering thousands of letters, staggering, welded to the side of the sun.

The alter ego seizes opportunities, hiding in plain sight wherever possible, including landscapes. It reveals Chinaski’s sentimentality and penchant for romanticizing, shrouding life’s decay in the subtext of the setting.

It was one of those five-day storms where the rain comes down in one continuous wall of water and the whole city gives up, everything gives up, the sewers can’t swallow the water fast enough, the water comes up over the curbings, and in some sections, up on the lawn and into the houses.

Reading Post Office and saying, “What a party!” or, “Oh, what a sad drunk,” misses the bones of the book. Focusing on the debauchery misses the nuances of everyday life—the mediocrity, the pain—woven throughout the text. Post Office proves Bukowski feels the forces of human life pushing him and others. His narrator shows these feelings with repressed tenderness.

Yellow spittle had caked at the left corner of her mouth. I took a cloth and washed it away. I cleaned her face, hands and throat. I took another cloth and squeezed a bit of water on her tongue. Then a little more. I wet her lips. I straightened her hair. I heard the women laughing through the sheets that separated us.

The drunken antics in Bukowski’s work parry attention away from passages like these, and often shape his writer’s persona. Maybe that’s how some people survive—by entombing their tenderness.

Brian Lance
Social Media Editor