M. Cornelis van der Weele IV's Reviews > Factotum

Factotum by Charles Bukowski
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Henry Chinaski is a bastard. No doubt about it. He wanders the decadent streets of grime, which worm their way through the seedier climes of Los Angeles, working odd jobs, drinking, screwing, and betting the horses. He assaults his parents and sends sheaves of untempered manuscript to the only magazine he considers worthy of his attentions. When things get close, he hops busses to far off corners of the country, looking for work, women, and his next drink..

Factotum is Bukowski's second book--for all intents and purposes a prequel to his prose breakout, Post Office, and being unleashed upon the public like a rabid dog only three years later. In other novels what might be described as "the rise" of a given character can best be laid out here as "the steady flatline" of Bukowski's alter-ego and literary avatar, the aforementioned Chinaski.

There is no doubt at all that Bukowski possesses a raw talent for words, and he takes the concept of writing what you know to new heights. Through Chinaski, Bukowski has created a new sort of anti-hero, and not surprisingly it is one that never seemed to really take off outside the early scribbles of his own literary handiwork. As opposed to the face of a dynamic outsider, a person who bucks society because society badly needs bucking, a vibrant seer approaching the edges of our subconscious with the seemingly divine actions of his alternate truth, Bukowski presents us with the outsider who remains as such because he simply has nothing else to do.

Chinaski is a rebel, certainly. This is a book taking place in the mid 1940's and he's already been ostracized by the armed forces. While his peers are off fighting and dying in World War II, he's been declared Four F, unfit for service. Thusly, in a strange turn of events he has been rejected, overall, from society as utterly useless. Through that uselessness he has a certain freedom to roam, but also a certain perpetual status as a perennial outcast. Given that, and given Bukowski's somewhat aggravated recognition of the fact, it seems unusual that he would have been so accepted some thirty years later as an ironic folk-hero.

The content of the book is a bit repetitive after a while, though a well-written and engaging sort of repetitive. Chinaski gets jobs, loses them; gets women, loses them; gets money, and loses it at the horse track. Things happen and then the book ends. It's a glimpse into the redevelopment of literature and the reanalysis of what made for an acceptable plot in the post-beat landscape. If Kerouac was the romantic nomad of the American highway, Bukowski was the broken schlep missing the cushion of ambitious motivation. Kerouac is an American in search of something. Bukowski doesn't think there's anything out there. But at least he has his sense of humor.

Bukowski makes no apologies and no justifications for the behavior of his protagonist. None we squares would be likely to understand at least. However, there is always a sort of lingering sense that this book was only written because Bukowski couldn't invent an independent life for Chinaski and, therefore, opted to merely chronicle his pre-Post Office existence. As a result, the book becomes an interesting touchstone in Bukowski's narrative career, but not necessarily a classic for the ages.
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