'Factotum' by Charles Bukowski (1975)

Factotum - Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski, Factotum (London: Virgin Books, 2009), 163pp


"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." (pp99-100).

Less focused than either Post Office or Ham on Rye, Factotum is nevertheless the one novel where Charles Bukowski most clearly sets out his philosophy on working life - the reasons why Chinaski behaves the way he does. A 'factotum' is a somewhat archaic term meaning someone who does any sort of work - a jack-of-all-trades, just trying to make ends meet. In chronicling some of his various encounters as a factotum - Henry Chinaski being a transparent pseudonym for Bukowski himself - he illustrates just why he has a problem with the routine of life. In my view, he sees it as a sort of spiritual slavery (though Bukowski is never that mushy) where a job becomes all-consuming, detracting from the more important things in life. As he says on page 97, "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?"

There is a persistent theme of human beings not being in sync with one another and this is reflected in the somewhat disconnected, non-linear narrative; the book is essentially a series of vignettes involving characters (rich characters, even though they are brief) struggling to establish relationships with one another, whether working relationships, friendships or even just mechanical sexual relationships. Chinaski alludes to this lack of synchronicity in an admittedly rather sketchy car-based metaphor on page 91: "The sun was tired, and some of the cars went east and some of the cars went west, and it dawned on me that if everybody would only drive in the same direction everything would be solved."

But Factotum is no spiritual treatise; Bukowski doesn't have (nor does he claim to have) the answers. "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." (pg. 46). Rather, Bukowski is an appalled observer, a reluctant but diligent chronicler of the darker side of human society. Alcohol and casual sex are his defence mechanisms rather than his solutions. This outlook might be a problem for some readers, but Chinaski's excesses in both whiskey and women are not oppressive. He skirts with apathy but does not embrace it, and the book is peppered with humour. Most importantly, there are suggestions of hope, of a spiritual resolve and a desire for a better future, throughout the book (the car metaphor noted above, for example) and indeed in Bukowski's other writings (particularly his later poetry). It is precisely this dichotomy between a dirty life and a clean(-ish) mind which makes Bukowski's work so interesting to read, though unfortunately there seem to be many people out there who fail to recognise these qualities. While Bukowski is certainly not a blueprint for how to live your life, there is a certain quality about his outlook which one can adapt to your own life. Take, for example, the following passage about the routine at a bicycle warehouse:

"Bums and indolents, all of us working there realized our days were numbered. So we relaxed and waited for them to find out how inept we were. Meanwhile, we lived with the system, gave them a few honest hours, and drank together at night." (pp64-5).

Leaving aside the alcoholism and the attitude towards work, this is quite a remarkable passage if one looks at it as a microcosm of life. We are all flawed people (bums and indolents), destined to work and then to die (our days were numbered). So why not relax and wait... accept the system, give as good as you get (a few honest hours) and celebrate and enjoy yourself when you can (drank together at night). Looked at this way (call 'bullshit' if you want), Factotum becomes a much more exhilarating piece of prose.