Jim Ament's Reviews > Factotum

Factotum by Charles Bukowski
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Jan 29, 2011

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Factotum (1975), by Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) found at http://www.jamesrament.com/book-revie...

The novel was author Bukowski’s second, and it centers on the degenerate life of Hank Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter-ego. The story traces Hank as he consumes copious amounts of alcohol, interviews and changes jobs with regularity, either through quitting or being fired—I lost count of how many—and screws women, most of whom are alcoholic whores. A stark review might be: Having to work sucks but it finances the drinking; and women are necessary for sexual gratification.

This is not a pleasant book. It describes skid row life around World War II in places like Los Angeles, St. Louis, New Orleans, and Miami as failed writer Hank Chinaski moves from job to job and rented room to rented room, mostly drunk or with a hangover—with classical music in the background. What is pleasurable about the book isn’t the story; it’s Bukowski’s ability to develop the characters and his writing style. The fact that I didn’t like Chinaski—but wished he’d straighten out so I could like him—suggests that the author knew how to paint him. Examples:

“I got into bed, opened the bottle, worked the pillow into a hard knot behind my back, took a deep breath, and sat in the dark looking out the window. It was the first time I had been alone for five days. 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. The Darkness of the room was like sunlight to me. I took a drink of wine.”

“That was all a man needed: hope. It was the 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 whisky than he could ever write after eating a nickel candy bar. The myth of the starving artist is a hoax. Once you realized that everything was a hoax you got wise and began to bleed and burn your fellow man....”

“When I got back to Los angeles I found a cheap hotel...and I stayed in bed and drank. I drank for some time, three or four days. 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 a 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.”

A conversation with his live-in girlfriend:

Jan: “We sat here all day and evening yesterday. You told me about your parents. Your parents hated you. Right?”

Hank: “Right.”

Jan: “So now you’re a little crazy. No love. Everybody needs love. It’s warped you.”

Hank: “People don’t need love. What they need is success in one form or another. It can be love but it needn’t be.”

Jan: “The Bible says, ‘Love thy neighbor.’”

Hank: “That could mean to leave him alone....”

At a job:

“I wasn’t very good. My idea was to wander about doing nothing, always avoiding the boss, and avoiding the stoolies who might report to the boss. I wasn’t all that clever. It was more instinct than anything else. I always started a job with the feeling that I’d soon quit or be fired, and this gave me a relaxed manner that was mistaken for intelligence or some secret power.”

Later, at another job:

“...There were always men looking for jobs in America. There were always all these usable bodies. And I wanted to be 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.”

And my favorite line: “Every man is a poet.”

I liked this book for the reasons expressed, but I must admit I wouldn’t want a steady diet of Bukowski. I will read more of his work—in occasional sprinkles, over time.

For reference, a factotum is a handyman, a jack of all trades; assistant, man Friday, gal/girl Friday; gofer; or as Wikipedia says, “...a general servant or a person having many diverse activities or responsibilities. The word derives from the Latin command (imperative construction) fac totum (‘do/make everything’).”

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