Factotum

Charles Bukowski

Published 1975

Fiction

What is it about?

A struggling young writer moves from one soul destroying job to another while attempting to get his work published.

How long is it?

200 pages.

Is it easy to read?

Yes, the chapters are short and choppy.

Is it any good? 

Yes, although it is dark and bleak in parts. It is essentially more of a gritty portrayal of what struggling to achieve a goal looks like.

How will it inspire me?

The book is about doing what you have to in order to be able to do what you want to. The most memorable parts of the story deal with the unrelenting tediousness of unskilled labour, the crushing difficulties of being poor and how hard it is to maintain hope and belief in yourself whilst living in such conditions.   

The book follows Henry Chinaski (Charles Bukowksi’s semi-autobiographical alter ego) during the 1940’s in America. Chinaski busses around from city to city looking for work with no marketable skills, whilst trying to become a writer. He lives very much at the bottom rung of society and much of the book deals with his encounters with the people who inhabit that world: hobos, drunks, the landladies of cheap rooming houses, broken women, spiteful bosses, embittered work colleagues, cheats, hustlers and a whole cast of characters that Bukowski paints in an unflattering light. The book offers no Dickensian romanticism about poverty; Bukowski depicts it all in grim and hellish vividness. The only glimmer of hope in the book comes in the form of replies from the publishing houses that he submits his work to.

Although the world that the character exists in is bleak, Chinaski is himself deeply flawed. The quiet nobility of say Santiago from The Old Man and the Sea is replaced with a character that is essentially at war with himself. Most of the characters we look at tend to be determined characters with mastery over themselves who are battling the external world. However Chinaski’s lust for women, his loneliness and his alcoholism are all things that he can’t seem to control. The only area of his life that he has mastery over is his discipline when it comes to writing and submitting stories each week. Consequently there is a perverse sort of admiration that develops for the character.  

There is a lot to the character that I take issue with and I gave a lot of thought to whether I should include this book here but decided I should for the following reason:

Bukowksi’s work would have been very personal to me when I was younger as I felt I was coming from a similar situation. When you’re born into an area with little opportunity and constrained resources, poor isn’t just a lack of money, you develop a poor attitude towards everything. You come to be distrustful of people as they will try and trick you and cheat you. You then begin to assume the worst of everyone as you often have to fight for what you can get and have to become smart very quickly. This is compounded if you have a difficult relationship with your family (which Chinaski also has in this), you’re exposed to the worst things people are capable of and so you come to see the world as a cold and hostile place. You have to become guarded and careful of whom you reveal yourself to. (See Bukowski’s poem Bluebird) The feeling of insignificance and insecurity that develops in a person is also very real, as you assume that you are being looked down on by the rest of society. All of these things are difficult to overcome. It’s easy to think everything is hopeless and become jaded and bitter and surrender any belief you have of improving things.

The character is by no means perfect but he battles all of this for the most part with a quiet dignity and doesn’t let any of it knock him off his path, which is why I felt it worthy of inclusion here.     

Choice lines:

-[At a job packing boxes]

“All right,” one of the women said, “we know you think you’re too good for this job.”

“Too good?”

“Yes, your attitude. You think we didn’t notice it?”

That’s when I first learned that it wasn’t enough to just do your job, you had to have an interest in it, even a passion for it.

-After losing several typewriters to pawnbrokers I simply gave up the idea of owning one. I printed out my stories by hand and sent them out that way. I hand printed them with a pen. I got to be a very fast hand printer. It got so that I could hand-print four short stories a week. I kept things in the mail. I imagined the editors of The Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s saying: “Hey, here’s another one of those things by that nut…”

-That scene in the office stayed with me. Those cigars, the fine clothes. I thought of good steaks, long rides up winding driveways that led to beautiful homes. Ease. Trips to Europe. Fine women. Were they that much more clever than I? The only difference was money, and the desire to accumulate it.

                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.

                That was all a man needed: hope. It was lack of hope that discouraged a man. 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. The myth of the starving artist was a hoax.

-If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery–isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.

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