“Smells Like Work”: Examining Employment in Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson

Henry Chinaski’s wife decides that they must both get jobs. “To prove to them that we are not after their money,” she says, referring to her rich family. “To prove that we are self-sufficient.”

“Baby, that’s grammar school,” Chinaski replies. “Any damn fool can beg up some kind of job. It takes a wise man to make it without working.”

Henry Chinaski is Charles Bukowski’s alter ego, and his whole notorious life as a “dirty old man” was spent trying to prove this proclamation true. For his decade as a clerk and mailman for the US Postal Services, Chinaski was perpetually drunk, he frequently called in sick, he got up for breaks as often as possible. He would have taken pride in a Worst Employee of the Year award.

The fiction of Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson has many such examples of terrible employees, from Chinaski in Post Office and the inept private detective Nicky Belane in Bukowski’s Pulp, to the hedonistic journalist Paul Kemp in Thompson’s The Rum Diary. These are men who very clearly reject our society’s common assumption that holding a job is necessarily difficult, or even some kind of respectable achievement.

As I see my hometown suddenly overridden with luxury workspaces like WeWork that are intended to change the way people think about work — that somehow the aggressive friendliness of beer and skateboards and dogs in an office negates or obscures the labor hours that we give to large companies — I feel a strange, old-fashioned nostalgia for the griminess and grumpiness of shitty work life. As a friend of mine put it, “I don’t want a bad job, but I want to be allowed to dislike my job.” These hip, shiny workspaces do make it, in an odd way, less acceptable to dislike a job or a boss; they are supposed to make us want to give our hours away.

In a world where productivity is still something we’re all supposed to aspire to, the terrible workers of Thompson’s and Bukowski’s stories provide a refreshing perspective. Mirroring their authors’ lives in many ways, they all seem to lack any sense of ambition or existential comfort about their jobs — all things we deem respectable in our society. There seems to be something worth quietly celebrating about the way they stumble through their days and into work, barely scraping by with their tasks, but also completely unfazed by their companies’ or their clients’ meaningless goals, and determined to live a life that they enjoy.

Bukowski’s and Thompson’s characters, Chinaski and Kemp and Belane, are blue collar workers (journalism was not a glamorous job — Kemp worked haphazardly for a cockfighting syndicate before moving to San Juan to write for an English daily, and one of his colleagues came to journalism from working on a freighter) with little interest in their jobs but with engaging personalities and intuitive knowledge of how to survive bad bosses, bad landlords, and bad jobs.

Acquiescing to his wife eventually, Chinaski goes around looking for work. “I went to two places and both of them hired me. The first place smelled like work, so I took the second,” he narrates. “So there I was with my gummed tape machine working in an art store. It was easy. There was only an hour or two of work a day.” He keeps busy building things out of plywood, and when he gets bored the truck drivers bringing in supplies find him sitting in a coffee shop down the alley, talking to the waitresses. Later, when he returns to the Postal Service, he stumbles around a church, hungover and looking for the mailbox to deliver letters; eventually he goes into a basement, drinks some holy wine, takes a shower in the church bathroom, dumps the letters in the basement, and leaves.

Their own incompetence doesn’t bother any of these men; they have no pride in their responsibilities to their clients, or their bosses, or their landlords. In a strange way, it’s this very incompetence that ensures that they actually own their jobs, rather than the other way around. In many of these stories, it’s often hard to tell which is worse, the employee or the job; and perhaps this is the point. Paul Kemp, a reporter for the Daily News in San Juan, frequently goes in to his office very late and only after having a several-hour long breakfast of meat and rum at the local watering hole, uninspired by his editor who has “lost sight of the line between business and conspiracy,” and is “making more money than he knew what to do with.” These characters are entertaining and ridiculous in their incompetence, but they’re also very useful fictional tools to depict the drudgery, and often cruelty, of work. Chinaski’s boss Mr. Johnstone sends the mail carriers on their routes late and expects them to finish on time by cutting into their lunch breaks; once, he shouts at Chinaski returning from getting a drink of water, “You’ve left your seat twice in thirty minutes! Suppose you worked at a machine? You couldn’t leave your machine twice in thirty minutes!” Chinaski’s irresponsibility on the job is probably more a reflection of his employer, rather than himself. A bad job makes a bad worker, not the other way around.

People can be irresponsible with their work. But work is also irresponsible towards people, in the sense that it doesn’t see people as people, but rather as their money’s worth, their output value. After too many impossible schedules and arbitrary pay cuts, Chinaski files a report against Johnstone. The man at the Postal Service waves the report in his face and screams at him, “Wise son of a bitch, you’re one of those sons of bitches with a vocabulary and you like to lay it around! Mr. Johnstone is a fine man! MR. JOHNSTONE HAS BEEN WITH THE POST OFFICE FOR THIRTY YEARS!”

“What does that have to do with it?” Chinaski asks, alarmed.

“I said, MR. JOHNSTONE IS A FINE MAN!” the man screams.

Neither his being a fine man or his years with the Postal Service, as Chinaski points out, reflect Johnstone’s responsibility or humanity as an employer. In this context, Chinaski’s terrible behavior, his drunkenness on the job, his excessive breaks, his alarming habit of showering and drinking in the church he delivers mail to — all of these things seem like tiny yet radical acts. (In specific anarchist circles, this is encouraged in a more intentional way; “monkeywrenching,” not overthrowing a system, but grinding it to a halt.)

Stuck on several cases and frustrated by a frightening landlord and several threatening clients, Pulp’s hack private investigator Nicky Belane gives up and says, “The office walls hold no answers,” and leaves for the racecourse to think, drink, and simply converse with people who are not trying to get something out of him. Decadence and desire and bad behavior can be antidotes to uninspiring workplaces and unsympathetic people.

Our corporate-minded society looks down on unproductivity and self-indulgence as “laziness,” but in a way this is what makes these unencumbered characters all the more charismatic and frustratingly appealing. We believe our jobs define us in some way, that they speak something of our dreams or our hearts; we’re used to immediately asking people we’ve just met, “What do you do?”

I wrote ad copy for newspapers and casinos, Paul Kemp muses grimly, I was an utterly corrupt restaurant critic, a yachting photographer, and a routine victim of police brutality. It was a greedy life and I was good at it. Here one might imagine Thompson himself reminding us: I lied about my age and pretended I had graduated college to get a job at a paper that fired me over a broken vending machine. I retyped entire books by Faulkner and Steinbeck to teach myself rhythm. I sold my blood to pay the bills while my pregnant wife worked as a motel maid.

The most obvious thing that Bukowski’s and Thompson’s sleazy male protagonists are known for, of course, is their love for drink and women. But the less boring similarity between them is that they aren’t, in fact, lazy or unambitious at all — they have dreams so big they don’t fit into the lives they yet know, or they’re unwilling to see their dreams as simply a next step of what they have now. These dreams can only be articulated clumsily and vaguely. “I wanted the whole world or nothing,” the mailman states, and after 11 years he finally brings himself to resign and write his novel. “Danger made my ears tingle and my butthole pucker,” the private detective says, so desperate for newness that he simply concocts leads, much like the way Thompson liked to “work against a crisis, and if he didn’t have one, he made one,” as Rolling Stone’s Jann Wenner recalls. I was always looking for the rich heiress or fat job at the far end of the next plane ticket, says the reporter, who has spent his days travelling Latin America, Europe, the Far East, jumping from English daily to English daily, restless, unencumbered, anxious.

Perhaps people are stagnant at work because work is stagnant. But the world is not stagnant; the world is overwhelming. Sometimes the world is beyond the reach of what our respectable employment can bring us. And sometimes it feels like the only way to conquer the world is to hunt down pleasure, rather than salary, hunt it down like our lives depend on it. It takes a charismatic kind of shamelessness, of fearlessness, to want the world without working for it. To smooth talk stupid clients into paying hefty advances for their cases, or to avoid getting beaten to death by your landlord’s stupid hit men by pointing water pistols at them. To avoid getting fired by simply being entertaining or likeable to your boss at a place that doesn’t “smell like work.” To smile strangely at your raging, threatening newspaper editor, and say, “A man never knows when he might have his head twisted.”

It’s hard to imagine the kind of world where one can get away with such wild, brazen disregard for cultural norms, this invisible point at which a job might become so bad, so meaningless, that it’s almost liberating; where it becomes impossible to bully labor out of someone, because money means nothing; where money means nothing because work means nothing.

Personal excess and self-indulgence are so much a part of American literature that it borders on cliché, but it would be unfortunate to allow this sense of cliché to take away from us the joy and the sparkle — and the defiance in the face of authority — that we might find from such literature. The mad, frightening, rum-soaked worlds of Bukowski and Thompson make me oddly envious, and somewhat nostalgic for younger selves of mine whom I’ve abandoned; lives where I stumbled into, and managed to keep, jobs where I could get away with almost anything, jobs I maintained entirely by accident, or by kindness, or poor competition, or my bosses’ failures (or their indifference to my failures), or by being more entertaining than the alternatives.

It’s difficult to ignore, in my own romantic longing for these hopeful worlds where desire reigns king, the many ways in which hedonism is collapsed with sexism when it comes to Bukowski’s and Thompson’s characters, who, as they’re known to, often reek of misogyny. Throughout my admiration bordering on envy, I have also felt angry at these sleazy men for hijacking the glamorous world of rebellion and filth. When I was a lost freelancer, sitting on Mumbai beaches at nine a.m., drunk on rum or port wine and contemplating whether to go into the office or not, these men were my only company when I needed reassurance that my less-than-stellar resume need not determine my whole life — I have no doubt I might have done with better company.

Still, it’s worthwhile to remember that the men they were writing about only represent a particular kind of man: poor or struggling or bitter or infinitely bullied men, and not exactly the privileged men that run our patience dry today. It’s also interesting to see how the women in these stories gleam even more brightly than their male counterparts, with defiance and with instant gratification: terrifyingly exciting women who refuse to work, who get served eviction notices because, “I have the money, I just don’t like to pay,” who live off of mysterious traveler’s checks and unemployment checks and weak or stupid bartenders; women who hustle in ways that their men will never understand, and who have some manic grip on these men — Chenault, Paul Kemp’s sort-of girlfriend who refuses to give up her favorite skinny dipping spot just so it will stop driving the local residents (and her boyfriends) crazy; the ridiculous and menacing Lady Death, who threatens Nicky Belane’s life but also protects him from his dangerous landlord; Betty, Henry Chinaski’s old friend and lover who dies of decadence, driving him wild with grief and causing him to run raging to the doctors, “Why do you just let them die? What’s the sin in being poor?”

We do indeed seem to have registered some ugly, subconscious idea that there is a sin in being poor, that poverty and irresponsibility and pleasure-seeking are somewhat interchangeable, and that misfortune is deserved. But this is all the more reason to remember, always, the political value of hedonism and unproductivity. Thompson and Bukowski specifically aside, shamelessness and desire and huge dreams are themselves very feminine traits. In this context, I wonder if my own grudgingness towards their personas is perhaps in part just my longing for this mad world, where people create meaning in their own lives entirely unencumbered by work, where they manage to pay rent late or not at all, where they simply point blindly on maps to pick the next place to live, and get free drinks from bar customers by engaging in friendly barfights, and spend money on fun faster than it comes in through wage labor, the way Bukowski did. Fun is worth more than wage labor, he knew; but as he starved himself to afford writing time and supplies, he clearly also knew that there is a lot else that is worth more than wage labor.

The most important thing about the characters in these stories is perhaps the fact that they are both bored senseless with their meaningless jobs, and thoroughly excitable. They don’t make this seem like a contradiction. Whether it is a violent childhood or the postwar boom, something always allows for the feeling that something important might well happen soon.

Maybe this is the feeling that drives Thompson, at 21, to commit to collecting rejection letters faster than Faulkner, and write, “Until the dark thumb of fate presses me to the dust and says, ‘You are nothing,’ I will be a writer.” Maybe this is the feeling that drives Bukowski to write poems in the margins of newspapers that make up the floor of his shack when he runs out of paper, or later lock himself up in rooms to write his 10 stories a week before his all-nighters at the post office. Despite the fact that the world is disappointing them, these characters, like the men who created them, remain filled with furious desire; they still drag themselves out of bed in the morning, hungover but with stars in their eyes.

In this way, perhaps we can all remember that what our gainfully employed work offers us does not limit what we may be able to snatch from the universe, if only we are obnoxious enough, or impulsive enough. If only we can, as Gay Talese recently remarked, “make something happen with your personality, with your goddamn style, your charm, your salesman huckster-ist licorice.” We can celebrate these strange, mad worlds that are both so depleted with alternatives for competent employees, and so enriched with promise of every other sort, that we just might, with some imagination and hustling, get away with late rent payments or only as much work as we are willing to do. The rest of our energies might be spent on dreams that cannot be articulated, on neon immediate desire, on wild, unscheduled stargazing.

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