kenny hodgart

Henry Chinaski’s hangovers

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This article appeared on The South China Morning Post’s Rewind page

In committing to print any tribute to Henry Chinaski – the dissipated, rather-more-than-semi-autobiographical anti-hero of Post Office and several other novels by Charles Bukowski – one is faced with two options. The first is to leave the page blank and let the editor explain that the writer was indisposed due to a hangover. The second is to follow Chinaski’s example when he does turn up for work and slog it out, toiling and cursing, cheap liquor oozing from every pore.

So let’s not pay tribute to Chinaski. He has his hagiographers but Bukowski isn’t among them. His characterisation is marinaded in self-loathing; there’s too much hurt and cynicism in him for Chinaski to be in any way laudable. Deadbeats are romanticised in American life from Big Sur to The Big Lebowski, but with Bukowski it’s all too raw. A child of German immigrants to Los Angeles between the wars he was a misfit from a young age. He had chronic acne. His father was abusive. In his early teens he discovered drinking: “This [alcohol] is going to help me for a very long time,” he later recalled. Failing to make it as a writer as a young man, he grew disillusioned and became “a ten-year drunk”, which “lost years” later provided the inspiration for most of his books.

The irony, then, is that unlike Chinaski Bukowski made rather a success of things in the end, but you would have to say it was probably because of rather than despite his love of booze. Alcohol is his muse. It fuels his puckishly dyspeptic view of the world.

Much of Post Office is about the drudgery of work. It covers the period of Bukowski’s own life when he worked as a mail carrier and later a mail clerk, with an interregnum when he gambled on horses. In the novel the US Postal Service is populated entirely by jobsworths, petty bureaucrats and sadistic supervisors; the part of the American dream about bettering oneself through honest sweat gets a literary pulverising. And yet, tempting as it may be to see Bukowski as some kind of champion of the lumpen proletariat, that’s not quite it. Work truly is the curse of the drinking classes in his world. Chinaski drinks when he has a job and when he doesn’t. There is a new hangover roughly every four pages.

Along the way we meet the tragic Betty, a widowed alcoholic 11 years Chinaski’s senior who is based on the love of Bukowski’s life, Jane Cooney Baker, and Joyce, who stands in for Barbara Frye, his first wife, and who is portrayed as a nymphomaniac. Frye divorced him on grounds of “mental cruelty”, which is an apt description of what Chinaski subjects himself to on a daily basis. The problem is that despite being a bum and having next to no redeeming features, he is a uniquely captivating bum. It can rarely be said of man nor woman, but Bukowski’s drinking did the world a service.

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