BOOK REVIEW- CHARLES BUKOWSKI- FACTOTUM. A Star Book, London, 1982, 205 pages (originally published 1975).
This is Bukowski’s second novel and was written when he was fifty-two years old with the generous & shrewd backing of Black Sparrow Press founder John Martin. The novel traces the life of Henry Chinaski, an itinerant worker, who is struggling to become an established writer in America during the 1940s and 1950s. Although many of the events described are based on Bukowki’s own experiences before he became a famous writer, the writing is at its heart fictional. In a 1998 biography Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life the author Howard Sounes says that Bukowski claimed that about 93% of his writing was 'an honest representation of himself and his experiences at the bottom of American society' with the remaining 7% 'improved upon'.
Factotum consists of eighty-seven micro chapters which describe the anti-hero Chinaski moving from one shitty job, boarding house and girlfriend to the next. Most of his jobs are as a shipping clerk where he can sneak out for a drink, fall asleep on the job or bonk one of the clerical ladies. The prose is characteristically clear, concise and often spoken directly to the reader to create a greater sense of immediacy. The novel is not strictly set out chronologically but is more of a collection of jumbled anecdotes held together, by the ever present down & out, but ultimately, aspirational voice of Bukowski.
At the beginning of the novel he arrives in New Orleans to escape his restrictive hometown of Los Angeles and his conservative father, ‘Well, it was a new town. Maybe I’d get lucky.’ He lives in a dodgy boarding house and tries to write. He realises that the myth of the starving artist is a hoax, ‘I remembered my New Orleans days, living on two five-cent candy bars a day for weeks at a time in order to have leisure to write. But starvation, unfortunately, didn’t improve art. It only hindered it. A man’s soul was rooted in his stomach. A man could write much better after eating a porterhouse steak and drinking a pint of whiskey than he could ever write after eating a nickel candy bar.’
Chinaski is a classic outsider who hates people and enjoys being alone, ‘I was a man who thrived on solitude; without it I was like another man without food or water. Each day without solitude weakened me. I took no pride in my solitude; but I was dependent on it.’ It offers him the sense of detachment necessary to forge his independence as a writer. Although ‘temporarily down’ on his inspirations, Chinaski wants to write a novel called ‘The Leaky Faucet of My Doom’.
After fleeing to Miami after writing a short story about killing a punter at the race track, he explains to the landlady, I’m ‘not very good really but I’m developing.’ At Training Class for the Yellow Cab Company he expresses his desire to be a writer, but realises it is a highly competitive industry, ‘And I wanted to be a writer. Almost everybody was a writer. Not everybody thought they could be a dentist or an automobile mechanic but everybody knew they could be a writer... but most men, fortunately, aren’t writers, or even cab drivers, and some men- many men- unfortunately aren’t anything.’
In his quest to become a successful writer Chinaski wavers between an overwhelming despair and hope for his career as a professional writer. Returning to LA from New York City after his first major short story acceptance he stays in bed for three or four days drinking, conscious of his inability to belong to what society offers, ‘I couldn’t get myself to read the want ads. The thought of sitting in front of a man behind a desk and telling him that I wanted a job, that I was qualified for the job, was too much for me. Frankly I was horrified by life, at what a man had to do simply in order to eat, sleep, and keep himself clothed. So I stayed in bed and drank. When you drank the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn’t have you by the throat.’
One aspect Chinaski particularly hates about his father is his inability to talk about anything but his job and the perceived need ‘to make it in the world’. Chinaski is repulsed by middle class notions of success, of the American Dream. After he leaves home once again, he walks through the streets of New York and commuters emerge from Times Square subway like mindless insects, ‘The people swarmed up out of the subways. Like insects, faceless, mad, they rushed upon me, into and around me, with much intensity. They spun and pushed each other; they made horrible sounds.’ Later while sitting on his bed The El train ran level to his window. The flash of faces to him was ‘like a vision of hell repeated again and again’. He drinks more wine to curb his thoughts that he ‘was being visited by hundreds of devils that the Devil Himself couldn’t tolerate’.
While in a Miami employment office he further expresses his disdain for the routine of working for somebody, ‘It was true that I didn’t have much ambition, but there ought to be a place for people without ambition, I mean a better place than the one usually reserved. How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?’
While training as a taxi driver for the Yellow Cab Company, Chinaski is taken to L.A. River and he mentions that hundreds of homeless men live there under the bridges and overpasses. As a hater of mindless manual work he appreciates the many benefits of their independent lifestyles, ‘They were tan and relaxed and most of them looked a hell of a lot healthier than the average Los Angeles business man. Those guys down there had no problems with women, income tax, landlords, burial expenses, dentists, time payments, car repairs, or with climbing into a voting booth and pulling the curtain closed.’
Inversely, while working as a shipping clerk in a ladies’ dresswear store in St. Louis, he compares himself to his rich, cigar smoking bosses with their fine clothes and women, beautiful homes and trips to Europe. His assessment of their values is scathingly satirical, ‘I’d do it too! I’d save my pennies. I’d get an idea, I’d spring a loan. I’d hire and fire. I’d keep whiskey in my desk drawer. I’d have a wife with size 40 breasts and an ass that would make the paperboy on the corner come in his pants when he saw it wobble. I’d cheat on her and she’d know it and keep silent in order to live in my house with my wealth. I’d fire men just to see the look of dismay on their faces. I’d fire women who didn’t deserve to be fired.’
He sees the system as a hoax. It is not founded on altruism but rather on exploitation and greed. Ironically, he seethes, ‘Once you realized that everything was a hoax you got wise and began to bleed and burn your fellow man. I’d build an empire upon the broken bodies and lives of helpless men, women and children- I’d shove it to them all the way. I’d show them!’
Much of the novel shows how Chinaski ‘lived with the system, gave them a few honest hours’ and how he tries to escape it through booze and sex. Like the rest of us he needs to work to financially survive. He finds short-term, dead-end jobs with low pay and little responsibility to obtain suitable subject matter for his working poor writing. The jobs are deadening, but usually, there is a stoical acceptance when he is inevitably fired or laid off.
Bukowski’s descriptions of the workplace are minimal but in sufficient detail to establish the credibility of his settings. The main focus is always on Chinaski and the fascinating but highly fallible array of characters he meets. Bukowski, like his hero Fante before him, uses his years on skid row America to largely shape the subject matter and direction of his stories. The anecdotes he tells are quirky and hilarious. Ironically, it is the uncontrollable sessions of drinking, fucking and gambling which help to structure Bukowski's stories and which place the food on his posthumous table.
Chinaski wavers between considering himself a genius to realising he is a failure. After falling off a couch in the middle of the night he looks up Laura’s legs and says mesmorised, “Baby, I’m a genesis but nobody knows it but me.’ Later in the novel he applies for a job as a reporter for the Times. His crotch is infested with pubic crabs and in a rare moment of self effacement he says in an humorous epiphany, ‘I walked along scratching. I couldn’t be a reporter. I couldn’t be a writer. I couldn’t find a good woman, all I could do was walk along and scratch like a monkey.’
Factotum represents a triumph of Chinaski’s determination as an artist to succeed against all odds against a conservative literary establishment during the Cold War. Chapter 51 describes the racing meet at Los Alamitos where Chinaski believes he has killed a punter by pushing him through the boards of the grandstand. This chapter is written in italics and perhaps represents a representative example of Chinaski’s imaginative writing.
Apart from an extended fling with Jan ( based on Bukowski’s first wife Linda King) he forms no close relationships in the novel). Talking to Gertrude, a fellow rooming house boarder at a bar, he says to her, ‘Love is for real people.’ After waking from a blackout he tells Jan, ‘People don’t need love. What they need is success in one form or another. It can be love but it needed be.’
Sex is seen as a temporary reprieve from the hardships of life. While working on the assembly line of the Honeybeam Company Chinaski perves on the young Mexican girls with beautiful skin and dark eyes, ‘They wore tight bluejeans and tight sweaters and gaudy earrings. They were so young and healthy and efficient and relaxed. They were good workers, and now and then one would look up and say something and then there would be explosions of laughter and glances as I watched them laugh in their tight bluejeans and their tight sweaters and thought, if one of them was in bed with me tonight I could take all this shit a whole lot better.’
Bukowski’s view of woman as sex objects rears its ugly head in the novel frequently. A neighbour knocks at Chinaski’s door for flowers following the death of a fellow tenant. ‘I was sitting up, in my shorts, holding the blanket in front of me. Chinaki the great lover. If I was any kind of man, I thought, I would rape her, set her panties on fire, force her to follow me all over the world, make tears come to her eyes with my love letters written on light red tissue paper.’ Of Jan, he matter-of-factly states, ‘Her face was sagging, she was getting jowls, she was ten years older than I. It was only when she was made up and was dressed in a tight shirt and wearing high heels that she looked good. Her ass was still shapely as were her legs and she had a seductive wiggle when she walked.’
Chinaski’s inability to feel love or empathy is furthered in his cold description of making love to Jan, ‘There was enough meaness and hostility in her to make me feel that with each thrust I was paying her back for her ill-temper.’ There is rare moment of humour and sentiment when she fits a little paper hat over his dick and ties a yellow ribbon around the brim but this is shortly followed by an argument and Jan is viciously slapped across the face, ‘I tried to make a woman out of you but you’ll never be anything but a god damned whore!’
In the last chapter of Factotum, Jan has left Henry for a fat real estate agent. Fittingly, Chinaski spends his last dollar alone in a strippers’ club. Voyerishly, he describes the girl, ‘But Darlene was fine. Skinny, but with breasts. A body like a willow. At the end of that slim back, that slim body, was an enormous behind. It was like a miracle- enough to drive a man crazy.’
As her striptease culminates Darlene fingers her naked breasts and the four man band crackles and bangs. The author, for once, can't raise it, ‘Darlene spun around. She tore away the beads. I looked, they looked. We could see her cunt hairs through the flesh-coloured gauze. The band really spanked her ass. And I couldn’t get it up.’
Overall, this is a simple, but rebellious tale from the point of view of a literary icon. Bukowski has shown extraordinary courage and resilience in his survival as a writer and in his continued posthumous success after decades of struggle with the establishment. Thirty-five years after its first release Factotum is still highly readable and has lost none of its relevance or kick in the balls effect, particularly for Buk’s latest generation of young & disenfranchised readers.