Charles Bukowski’s Factotum: Jack o’ No Trades

factotumA “factotum” (Latin for “do everything”) is a jack of all trades—a guy who can trim your hedges, tune-up your car, fix your leaky kitchen faucet, and build a tool shed in your backyard. As the title of Bukowski’s second novel, the term Factotum is used tongue-in-cheek. Although Hank Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego, describes some twenty jobs he had as a struggling young writer, he had no talent for doing anything other than writing, and he had no desire to work at anything but writing. He didn’t fit in as an employee anywhere and clearly never could—he sees the way the world works too clearly and can’t hide his contempt for his “superiors,” especially after selling a story to a top literary mag. But he had to pay the rent and buy booze. So, here he is, pushing the boulder up the mountain over and over again.

This is one of the funniest of Bukowski’s novels. Here’s Hank discussing his system for filling out job applications:

The clerk had my card in front of him, the one I had filled out when entering. I had elaborated on my work experience in a creative way. Pros do that: you leave out the previous low-grade jobs and describe the better ones fully, also leaving out any mention of those blank stretches when you were alcoholic for six months and shacked with some woman just released from a madhouse or a bad marriage. Of course, since all my previous jobs were low-grade I left out the lower low-grade.

On his attitude toward working itself:

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.

Like Bukowski’s other novels, Factotum skips the kind of mainstream plot that drives the NY/Hollywood publishing/movie industry. Henry Chinaski drifts from one crappy job to the next until selling his story, then his increased impatience with doing anything other than writing drives him all the way to Skid Row. Chinaski moves from one city to the next in his quest for a sustainable artistic life—Los Angeles, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Miami, New York, St. Louis—as well as one woman to the next. All of his relationships are booze-based. He enjoys the company of women for sex, going to the horse races, and drinking. But he can’t tolerate close contact with anyone for long because it eats away at the solitude he requires to write.

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.

This is a novel about how an artist from a working class background survives the hundred distasteful jobs necessary to make it from one day to the next. It’s also about rebellion and the joy of asserting one’s true nature in the midst of this grind. On the job—any job—Hank’s always looking for a smoke break the boss doesn’t know about, or a slug of whiskey, or a cat nap, or a quickie in some dark corner with one of the women who work there. And it’s these moments of pleasure, stolen from The Man, that keep him going.

But looming just past every pleasure is despair.

… 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.

As always, Bukowski is both hilarious and tender. There’s a scene where a prostitute who lives in his building, who’s grossly overweight, with warts and moles on her face, shows up at his door with a bottle of wine. Not attracted to her at all, he invites her in, compliments her on her legs that he describes to us as “… very white, fat, flabby, with bulging purple veins.” Doing nothing to encourage her, he watches her dance and strip for him. When she gets aggressive and tries to kiss him, he gags, then watches in horror when she goes down on him. She is, in fact, raping him, and he simply allows it. “If I come, I thought desperately, I’ll never forgive myself.” But he does come, and as she’s leaving his apartment, happily singing “Goodnight Sweetheart,” he pays her and never voices an insult or complaint.

I read Bukowski because he takes you straight into the cauldron of hell, sees it for what it is, and writes it plainly.

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One thought on “Charles Bukowski’s Factotum: Jack o’ No Trades”

  1. Dear Mr. Snyder,

    Things that come to mind after reading your review above: I went to many countries long ago and in the US it seems the 2nd or 3rd question someone asks sopmeone else is “What do you do”?, but I dont’recall that so much elsewhere; Honest work counts for everything to me so if you’re a manual laboror, in my book (Which will be very long) that’s much better than being a Corporate Lawyer or Financial Heister on Wall Street; I wish I hadn’t seen WW11 in another review as you already probably know,.big money was bankrolling Adolphm and people. such as Precott Bush made fortunes becasue of him. Chase, JP Moprgan, Rockerfeller selling fuel to the Luftwaffte through Standard Oil and the killer for me: Sullivan and Cromwell representing IG Farben, proud makers of the Zylon gas being pumped in. I now, and this is a good thing, understand the unuique pain of Betrayel. My brother, My cousin (And his father, as partners at SullCrom, and now my daughter (Strangely, born in Munich on 9/11/75). You must have read Caros ‘Threshold of Misery’. Brillliant, really. I’ve been back and forth (Past Tense). Billable Hours is the true and only God. See Uzi Nissans site or what’s left after Nissan Motors went fafter him for 10 Million in damages(?) They lost of course, but won, since it consumed 10 years of his life while going bankrupt, and the lawyers probably were paid more than that by Nissan. My working theory is that since each giant corporation has about six giant legal firms to cover the law, and if oneof of them says you have to sue XYZ for no reason whatsoever, no one on the Board of Diectors or whoever, is going to get up and say that doesn’t make sense. Why? It takes some conjones at least, and gee whiz, what if it turns out the guy is wrong. He’s next on line for a Coporate Lawsui. As far as I can makle out, Moses actually had 11 commandments in that when he got back with the stone and chisel. The 11th was that everyopne, giant or small, rich or poor, has to pay the same Retainers and big time legal fees in the Ciorporate world, which isthe least himane that Ihave seen, only missing the fuin at night court. I made up for that by banging heads with Crack Dealers, Pimps and Hookers though. Even the DEA, thugs that they are. I’ve learned a lot more about the screwed up world, and am much better off knowing what truth I can percieve about people around me, more or less. I watch, I wait. I have a strange way, but I will, once again, come out on top. I am positive and if I to go through, under, around, or above the obstruction, I will get it right. I would not be alive otherwise. So when someone says “What do you do” to me, I am trying to come up with something better than, “So how is your sex life?”

    How about that McAFEE? He’s a walking story, fictional and real, simultaneously. Speaking of such concepts, it seems that everything is Subjective and very little is Objective. I have a song by William Burroughs “Star Me Kitten” from a cd of artists related to the X-files TV show. Now I really have to ask: Where is Lenny? I had an old red record of Lenny Bruce that I couldn’t find, so I went to Amazon and got the stuff. I was really fortunate to see the videos, where Steve Allen has him doing tv, at his earliest age. My impression was confirmed by Elaine May and Micke Nichols, almost to the word. Sensitive was my first very strong impression. “Sweet” I think Elaine used, as well “beyond genuis”. He really has blown my mind a few times. Describing, in detail, not just bigjotry and his own bigotry, but when he gets to “How can they say that parts of a womans body are obscene?” it hits deep. Inside it’s something known,one would think, be he really delivers hard on that one. Of course, he is all over religion. I’ve only heard one or two so far but funny. You know, Jesus and Moses actually show up one day….but what about the Puerto Ricans? I can’t think of who came before him that might be worth mentioning, but it seems to me any StandUp comic owes it to himself and Lenny to check it out. Nat Hentoff, who has written some great stuff recently, was interviewing hm later in his career, and Bruce clearly older and burtnoutmore, turns to Hentoff and says “But I really like you” with a smile, and it isreal to the degree that it hit me, anyway, reminding me of the hopeful 150lb guy, I swear looks like Pee Wee Herman on TV, who hasn’t gone though the ringer yet. Even the dated expressions don’t sound dated. I also bought a video where Dustin Hoffman plays him and I shut it off immediately. It’s not him, and thats a big difference.

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