Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) was an underground writer of poems stories, and novels who has exerted a fascination over me for many years. He is best known for his portrayals of the shabby, dingy side of Los Angeles. His reputation has grown subsequently to his death. Many of his works originally were published by a small publishing house, Black Sparrow Press which specialized in unusual writers, A few years ago, Black Sparrow was purchased by a HarperCollins which continues to maintain Bukowski's works in print and to publish posthumous works.
In 2006, an independently-produced film of "Factotum" was released starring Matt Dillion and Lili Taylor. The movie sparked substantial interest in Bukowski and in his novel. Earlier Bukowski movies include "Barfly" (1987) and the documentary "Bukowski: Born into This" (2004).
Bukowski's novels are autobiographical in character and feature an alter-ego named Henry Chinaski. Factotum (1975)was Bukowski's second novel and was written when he was already on the path to success as a writer. He had left the life he described in the book behind almost three decades earlier. As a result, the book gains a great deal by a measure of artistic distance.
The word 'factotum" means "A person having many diverse activities or responsibilities" or "a general servant". These definitions, particularly the second, capture much of the spirit of the novel. Chinaski is a young man, down and out, who has been rejected for the draft during WW II. In short, fast-moving chapters, the novel chronicles Chinaski's search for work crossing back and forth throughout the United States.
The novel is gritty, raw and tough. Chinaski is hardly a hero as he loses one dead-end job after another and throws away the few possible opportunities that come his way. Chinaski is solitary and anti-social. He drinks heavily and plays the horses. He takes up with women and generally drops them as quickly as he meets them. He leads the life of a drifter, loner, and outsider.
Without prelude or introduction, the book opens as Chinaski arrives "in New Orleans in the rain at 5"o'clock in the morning" and is quickly accosted by "a high yellow sitting on the porch steps swinging her legs". He goes through a series of jobs and shabby hotels before embarking on a journey that takes him to Texas, Los Angeles, his hometown, New York City, Philadelphia, St Louis and, finally back to Los Angeles. At the end, we see Chinaski, frustrated and angry fantasizing over a dancer in a burlesque house.
Chinaski loses a litany of jobs, including working as a janitor, window washer, shipping clerk, baker's helper, assistant in a dog buscuit factory, and similar ventures. He either quits, or, more often, is fired for absenteeism, attitude, fighting, and drinking. He has affairs with a variety of women, the most prominent of whom in this book is Jan, with whom he has an on again off again relationship punctuated by alcohol, horseracing, fighting, and Jan's affairs with other men.
Chinaski is an aspiring writer, when he is not drinking or otherwise occupied, and the book includes a scene in which a short story is accepted for publication. Writing and reflection are used, as is so often the case, as a way to understand and distance oneself from a shabby, difficult life. There are many lively, funny scenes in Factotum. Chinaski does not ask for sympathy and gives none. The story is toughly and unapologetically told. The book gives the impression of an individual deeply down on himself and on others who sees himself as fighting and carrying on simply to live his life for what it is.
Bukowski is a vulgar, raw author who will not appeal to everyone. But I continue to be taken with him and with Factotum. The book exerts a pull that I can't shake off.