Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Factotum - Charles Bukowski


I didn't know what the word 'factotum' meant so I googled it and lo and behold, it means 'a person who does all kinds of work'. You learn something new every day.
Factotum is also the title of Charles Bukowski's second novel, published in 1975 though set just at the end of World War Two. It chronicles him (or rather, his alter ego Henry Chinaski) going from one dead end job to another, maintaining a healthy drinking habit along with the inevitable hangovers. Going from one cheap boarding house and rented room to another, encountering and more often than not doing his best to avoid all the people in a similar situation to himself. It's a bleak, miserable and depressing story but for all that, it has its moments.

Chinaski's a writer and it's from his writing that he wants to make a living but that's easier said than done. His constant drunkenness thwarts him from holding down any job for very long but that's okay because there's always another equally rubbish job to move on to. Or at least there was in those days.
What's more troubling and far more depressing than the world as depicted in Factotum is that nowadays if anyone gets a rubbish job - and there are plenty out there that can suck the life, the blood and the soul from you and all for a basic minimum wage - then they cling to it like a drowning man to a raft in an ocean of circling sharks. It's a constant state of despair battered further by the imposition of austerity measures whilst the rich get richer. Is it any wonder that when there's a riot, alongside lobbing bricks at police, people make a grab for a few commodities out of smashed shop windows?

Chinaski's actually a very funny guy, talking to those he encounters with short, wry comments loaded with an awareness of the absurdity of the situation they're all in. There's also a cruel, mocking element to many of his comments as if to say 'At least I know this is all fucked up, which is more than you seem to'.
There's also, however, a respect for those ducking and diving in a bid to get by and for those who are genuinely witty without even having to try. Respect is also shown to those possessed of a similar awareness, even if they're drowning it in booze as he is doing: "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 of the high points of Chinaski's confessions is when he receives a letter from a New York-based magazine he admires by the name of Frontfire that he's been sending countless stories to in the hope of being published. Receiving rejection slips is the norm until one day he returns home from another day at another rubbish job to find an envelope addressed to him containing an acceptance slip for one of his stories (entitled My Beerdrunk Soul Is Sadder Than All The Dead Christmas Trees Of The World).
It's his very first acceptance slip and he can hardly believe it: "From the number one literary magazine in America. Never had the world looked so good, so full of promise." It's a very sweet moment but is countered later on in the book when he tries to get a job as a reporter with a Los Angeles newspaper. He fills out an application form and surprisingly gets a telephone call back from them:"Mr Chinaski?" "Yes?" "This is the Times Building." "Yes?" "We've reviewed your application and would like to employ you." "Reporter?" "No, maintenance man and janitor."
It's yet another depressing episode being added to the pile though coloured with a sense of humour to help swill the bitterness down.

Whilst employed at another rubbish job, he's called into the office one day by the boss of the company who is sat there with another man, both smoking expensive cigars.
"This is my friend, Carson Gentry," says the boss to Chinaski "Mr Gentry is a writer too. He is very interested in writing. I told him that you were a writer and he wanted to meet you. You don't mind, do you?"
"No I don't mind," Chinaski replies.
The two men both sit there looking at Chinaski as they smoke their cigars. Minutes pass. They inhale, exhale, and continue to look at him without saying a word.
"Do you mind if I leave?" Chinaski asks. "It's all right," says the boss.
Walking home later on, Chinaski ponders the difference between him and the two men smoking their cigars who have sat there looking at him in silence. "Were they that much more clever than I?" he wonders. He concludes the only difference is money, and the desire to accumulate it, along with the will to bleed and burn your fellow man and build an empire upon the broken bodies and lives of helpless men, women and children.

All that Chinaski wants is to be a writer, a problem being, however, that almost everybody thought they could be a writer too. Almost everybody used words and could write them down, meaning almost everybody could indeed be a writer if they chose to. Fortunately, Chinaski thinks to himself, most men aren't writers and some men - many men - unfortunately aren't anything at all.
His dream is realised in the end, of course, and Chinaski (Bukowski) over thirty years has thirty-two books of his poetry published, five books of his short stories, four novels, plus the screenplay to the film Barfly starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway. Factotum too has been made into a film starring Matt Dillon (which is up on YouTube, as is Barfly).

Factotum is bleak, miserable and depressing though within its pages are glimmers of hope and rays of light and that's much better and much more than a lot of other books I could mention.
John Serpico

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