Review: Factotum, by Charles Bukowski

In this novel, Bukowski forces us to follow his alter ego Henry Chinaski, an alcoholic drifter whose personality can be summarized by the following quote from the book: “How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?”

For half of the book or so, Henry travels from place to place hoping to land any job that would allow him to pursue his two goals: getting drunk and fucking women. Through the protagonist we meet curious people and we learn some intricacies, as much as he needed to know to survive there, of the jobs that Henry landed and that usually lasted him less than a week before he quit or got fired.

Henry daydreamed briefly about becoming an author, and even wrote a few pieces, but above that he hoped that some wealthy woman would take pity on him and become his sugar mommy. At some later point he also hoped to land a Japanese wife because he considered that they have the wisdom of the ages or some shit. Henry failed to luck out; the two women who made repeated appearances were 1) a barfly who, along with two female friends of hers, had a sugar daddy of their own, an aging millionaire who alternated between paying the women to receive some affection and berating them for cheating on him; 2) a woman named Jan, the female version of our debauched protagonist. She drank about as much as he did, but cheated even more. Their relationship was reduced to Henry bringing home, if they were lucky, enough money to buy food and alcohol, then fucking while drunk. Jan is present throughout most of the story, yet for Henry she barely seems to matter more than someone who is home when he returns from work.

I’m guessing that this novel is mostly autobiographical. We are presented with accounts of the protagonist’s attempts at finding a job that will last, or that at least won’t make him wander off in the middle of his shift to get drunk at the nearest bar. We go through twenty-five or so of such experiences. Even the most memorable people from those microworlds end up disappearing as if Henry had never met them, and that transience extends to his personal life. People come and go; he can only rely on the pleasure and oblivion that either a bottle or sticking his dick in someone else provide.

If Henry had cared about his future or his well-being throughout the events depicted, the story would have been a harrowing nightmare in which a broken, alienated man can’t relate to people on a human level, and can only tolerate his responsibilities for about three or four days at a time before he self-destructs. In any case, the guy is a piece of shit who can’t help himself: he steals from his jobs, he cheats, he sort of rapes, he drags other people’s wives out of bed in front of the husbands and French-kisses the wives (only happened once, but it bothered me), casually murders, and plenty of other dubious stuff I’ve already forgotten.

The most memorable moment for me was the following, otherwise minor one: Henry had gotten off a bus somewhere during the height of his drifter period. He rents a room at some inn owned by a couple. The woman tells him that her husband is on his last legs, and Henry can hear him wheezing as the man struggles to breathe in a nearby room. The next morning, an attractive female guest, who had been told that Henry was some sort of writer, approaches the protagonist, informs him that the sick owner had died, and asks him to give her some money for some gift or a memorial. Henry informs her that he isn’t actually a writer, that the dead owner is none of his business, and that the living are the ones who need to be pitied, starting with Henry himself, so what she should do is strip down and offer him some affection. The woman, disgusted, turns around and leaves. The author describes how she walks to the end of that hallway, enters her room, and disappears from Henry’s life forever. And in a way the whole story is like that: he gets pressured with some societal demand (including the basic ones of having to earn enough money to keep existing), he clashes with people in usually self-destructive ways, then those people are gone only to be replaced by the next group of people who will quickly be gone as well, including the few ones that Henry would have preferred to keep around.

Bukowski was an honest guy, someone who saw clearly despite his boozing, and who managed to keep going in style despite the hopelessness of it all.

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