Packing was always a good time.

Factotum, by Charles Bukowski

Some authors just resonate. Not for everyone. But for their readers. It turns out that I’m one of Bukowski’s readers.

Back in December 2009 I read Bukowski’s first novel, Post Office. I wrote about it here and I ended that review by saying that Post Office was good art. Looking back I’m comfortable with that. It is.

Factotum came four years later and there’s a sense in which it’s more of the same. Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter-ego, wanders through a series of jobs and women not doing any too well with either. He’s mostly broke, mostly drunk and for a smart guy he’s none too smart.

Here’s the opening of the book. If this grabs you the rest will. If it doesn’t then it may be he just doesn’t resonate for you.

I arrived in New Orleans in the rain at 5 o’clock in the morning. I sat around in the bus station for a while but the people depressed me so I took my suitcase and went out in the rain and began walking. I didn’t know where the rooming houses were, where the poor section was.
I had a cardboard suitcase that was falling apart. It had once been black but the black coating had peeled off and yellow cardboard was exposed. I had tried to solve that by putting black shoepolish over the exposed cardboard. As I walked along in the rain the shoepolish on the suitcase ran and unwittingly I rubbed black streaks on both legs of my pants as I switched the suitcase from hand to hand.
Well, it was a new town. Maybe I’d get lucky.

Is it a spoiler to say he doesn’t get all that lucky?

Chinaski isn’t just smart, he’s educated too. He has two years of college behind him (which in one bakery job means he’s instantly promoted to being the guy who shovels coconut flakes into a machine that then sprinkles them over the cakes coming down the line).

For Chinaski though work is just something you do to make some money. If one job doesn’t work out you just do another (you can tell it’s written in a time of full employment). As far as Chinaski can see all those people around him working hard are just making money for some other guy up the chain. In one sense he’s right. In another sense not so much. They go home after all to something better than no dinner and wine so cheap you have to hold your nose to get it down.

The problem is the price paid. As Chinaski observes, “… it wasn’t enough to just do your job, you had to have an interest in it, even a passion for it.” That still holds true. Chinaski’s willing to trade his time for money. What he’s not so willing to do is trade who he is for it.

Like Post Office before it Factotum doesn’t have much of a plot. Chinaski gets a job, lazes around or turns up drunk and gets fired. He hooks up with women, but he doesn’t treat them too well and they don’t treat him much better. One, Jan, recurs through the book and is the closest he has to a serious relationship. Neither is faithful.

What makes all this more than just depressing is the writing and the honesty. Bukowski can write. Here’s two examples. In the first he’s ill and just been brought some soup to feed him back up:

I took the salt and pepper, seasoned the broth, broke the crackers into it, and spooned it into my illness.

In this second he describes a woman in a bar.

She was desperate and she was choosey at the same time and, in a way, beautiful, but she didn’t have quite enough going for her to become what she imagined herself to be.

What struck me about that first quote was its economy, coupled with that lovely and slightly poetic final image. The prose starts matter of fact, transparent and flat. Each action is clearly described and then there’s a burst of movement as broth flows down into an illness-fuelled appetite.

The second quote caught my attention for its pity and unsparing understanding. It’s desperately sad. There’s a certain compassion there, but more there’s a recognition of fact. A lack of sentiment.

Lack of sentiment is critical to Bukowski. I grew up, as I’ve probably mentioned before, on a council estate in London with my immediate parents (mother and step-father) unemployed. Bukowski writes about things I recognise from those days. He and Jan make what they call “pancakes” which are just flour and water mixed together and heated up. When I was a kid they were heated on the back of a frying pan. They’re cheap. Better if you have any butter left at all.

Chinaski and Jan use newspapers as lavatory paper, something else I remember from childhood. It saves money and you can collect them free as people throw them out. One of their big treats is a stew they make when they have a little bit of spare cash. They get vegetables, a bit of meat, and make up a huge pot of broth which lasts them for days. We did those. I looked forward to them hugely as you’d eat well for a good two or three days and the whole house would be filled with the rich smell.

The point here isn’t merely to describe what it’s like to be poor (more precisely what it’s like to be what was once called the undeserving poor, and is now called different things though the concept remains very much with us). The point is looking straight at what is and writing it down.

Bukowski’s gaze isn’t objective. No gaze can be. It is though honest and it’s as much so when examining Bukowski himself (Chinaski I should say, but the line is a thin one) as it is when it looks at anything else.

This doesn’t have the raw power of Post Office. It doesn’t have quite that intensity and insanity. If you were to read one before the other it should be Post Office. That said if Post Office had never been written this would still have got Bukowski recognised. It’s good. As I said of Post Office, it’s true.

On a final note, among the many things I read as a teenager were the Beats. Kerouac, Ginsberg, and of course Burroughs. Bukowski didn’t regard himself as a beat writer and I wouldn’t argue that he was wrong in his self-assessment. There are clear links though. A continuation of a conversation perhaps.

There’s a sense in modern mythology in which guys like Bukowski are heroes. He refused to compromise, on paper anyway (I have no idea if he did in life, though my impression is not a huge amount). His novels are highly autobiographical and the contempt Chinaski shows for his jobs and bosses is born of that refusal to settle for what he’s supposed to do and think. In the end Bukowski became an author, poet, screenwriter. That gives his life a narrative. It’s that which makes him seem heroic.

The truth is though that there are many, many Bukowskis. Many Chinaskis. Many people of both genders who go through life not compromising and accepting poverty and failure as the price of that. The difference is Bukowksi had talent, and of course a degree of luck. Chinaski is partly him, but he’s also all the Bukowskis who didn’t make it but who lived the same life anyway.


Filed under Bukowski, Charles, California, Social Realism, Vernacular

21 responses to “Packing was always a good time.

  1. After your review of Post Office, I bought the book, read it, loved it and reviewed it. Then I went out and bought more Bukowski–whose books–I should add–were not at all what I’d expected. I need to read this one too (it’s one the shelf).

  2. I’ve heard that Women, the one I just bought, is his best and that this, Post Office and Women are the good ones.

    I hope that’s not true though because it would mean the one called Pulp wasn’t so good, and I’m hoping with that title that it will be.

    Looking forward to your thoughts when you do read it.

  3. I meant to get to him before this, but one thing leads to another. I bought a DVD of The Martian Chronicles, btw. I was happy to find it in print.

  4. Excellent timing for me with this review. I read Post Office at about the same time you did and had ordered Ham On Rye at the same time. While I have picked it up a few times since, I’ve always put it back on the shelf — it looked to me that most of the Henry novels are pretty much the same. I pulled it off again just last week, figuring it was time to either read it or send it off to the basement shelves for a few years. Your review of this book (which I don’t have) tends to confirm my impression that Henry is the same in most of the Chinaski novels. However, your excellent discussion of Bukowski’s language suggests that if I pay more attention to that (I’ll admit that I often don’t pay as much as I should) I will find it a more satisfying read. Stay tuned.

  5. As I indicated above we’re certainly in similar territory. Of course many novelists explore the same terrain repeatedly yet still to good effect. How rewarding that is for the reader is in part dependent on how interesting that terrain is to them.

    I think his language is worth consideration. He is of course a poet-novelist, which can be very much a mixed blessing but often drives a focus on the particular phrase or incident rather than the wider novel. His prose is deceptively simple, but it is key. It’s not after all as if there’s much of a plot to keep one entertained and if you’re the sort of reader who wants sympathetic characters (which I know you’re not) this will be thin gruel.

    Looking above I see I used the words “a sense in which it’s more of the same”. That isn’t necessarily of course a reason not to read more. I definitely plan to. It may though be a reason to space them out a little as I did and as you have. Ham On Rye is one of the most famous isn’t it? Marvellous title. I hope the book lives up to it.

  6. I’m under the impression that Ham on Rye and Women are supposed to be his best, although I am not sure where that comes from.

  7. I heard the same about Women. It bodes ill for Pulp however much I may like the title.

  8. leroyhunter

    Great review.

    Like you and Guy, my reaction to reading Post Office was to buy more Bukowski: this one specifically. From my point of view, “more of the same” is a welcome recommendation.

    I’m interested that you make such a clear distinction between “objective” and “honest”….

  9. Great review. I liked Post Office too. For me Bukowski is something between Fante and Serge Gainsbourg. Fante for the rather plotless novels with the writer’s alter-ego. Gainsbourg for the provocative behavior vs the poetry of the texts.
    Love the quotes about the soup and about the woman, using simple words in short sentences but put in an original way.

  10. Thank you both.

    Leroy, I don’t think objectivity is possible (though we can strive for it). A good example for me is my response to this. It is inherently and unavoidably subjective. It is however also honest. Everything I write above is true in that it honestly describes my reactions and thoughts, but whether it represents objective truths about the novel is a much harder call.

    With Bukowski the book feels honest in terms of its examination of Chinaski and his life, but is it objective? To him, to Bukowski, many of the people leading straight lives are mugs, but their perspective would likely be very different. They go home to comfort, food, partners and children. Chinaski goes home to cheap drink and casual pickups. From their perspective the question of who the mug is may be answered very differently.

    Bukowski I think is perfectly well aware of this. So, he is honest but he is also subjective. He doesn’t give us that alternative perspective. As a reader we must to a degree supply it ourselves.

    Emma, I’m not terribly familiar with Gainsbourg actually beyond that song he’s famous for. Fante though was I think heavily influenced by Bukowski (or I may be thinking of Dan Fante there and getting my chronologies wrong) and certainly there are links.

    Yes, those two quotes stood out when I went back to write this. I was glad I’d noted them.

  11. John Fante is before Bukowski. Like Bukowski, Gainsbourg was very provocative and put a lot of poetry in his work.

  12. I watched the Gainsbourg film a few weeks ago and enjoyed it very much. Emma: there’s another literary tour. Charlotte Gainsbourg maintains her father’s home.

  13. I’m getting my Fantes mixed up. It’s Dan Fante, John’s son, who’s the Bukowski fan.

  14. Funnily enough, I’ve just been going through the Amazon list of Bukowskis to work out which one to try – he’s new to me. I am always on the lookout for a distinctive voice who stands out from the crowd and I like the sort of epigrammatic quotes you include above.

  15. Tom,

    I’d recommend Post Office to start with. That’s where I started and I’m pleased that I did.

  16. I haven’t read Bukowski … But your quotes/excerpts suggest that I’d like him. It looks like it has the sort of prose-with-a-punch that gets me in. Can’t imagine when I’ll be able to fit him in but I will not be sorry if an opportunity comes my way!

  17. Sam

    I’ve read most of Bukowski. Women is my favourite. Post Office would be second.

  18. Thanks Sam. Women is the one I have next, so that’s reassuring. Any you’d suggest skipping?

  19. Sam

    All the novels are good and I liked the poetry collections too. There was one book of short stories, I think it was called Tales of Ordinary Madness, that I would skip. For me it crossed boundaries where I would rather not follow.

    Bukowski narrates one of his poems, The Man With the Beautiful Eyes, on this beautifully animated video

  20. John McLeod

    Receiving so much paper with out newspaper on a a daily basis, mainly adverts and junk, reminded me of the time of WW2 (and before) when our lavatory (we didn’t have a “toilet”), in which the daily newspaper, carefully cut, was used for you-know-what. In view of the waste of so much. I can therefor identify with Chinaski and Jan, who “use newspapers as lavatory paper, something else I remember from childhood. It saves money and you can collect them free as people throw them out”.
    I think I might go back to the “good old days” – or at least what Winston Churchill declared to have been “our finest hour”.

  21. From what I recall of that particular experience John, I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re seriously short of money. It’s not among the highlights of my childhood memories…

    If you’re going down the WW2 route John will you be researching spam recipes? There’s a Channel 4 documentary series here somewhere I’m sure.

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