Category Archives: Bukowski, Charles

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

Every route had its traps and only the regular carriers knew of them

Post Office, by Charles Bukowski

Most authors don’t write about what it’s like to have a job, possibly because all too many of them haven’t really had much by way of jobs. They’ll write about what it’s like to be a struggling author, there’s an ocean of novels covering that territory, but there’s not much about life as most people actually live it.

Well, that’s a hideous exaggeration of course, there’s the marvellous Something Happened by Joseph Heller; there’s What was Lost by Catherine O’Flynn; Microserfs by Douglas Coupland; Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe; arguably one could even say much of Revolutionary Road. Still, it’s not territory most authors are that comfortable in.

Charles Bukowski’s an exception. His (apparently largely autobiographical) 1971 debut novel Post Office has a lot to say about work, about the sheer grind of clocking in, day in and day out. It’s the story of his alter-ego, Henry Chinaski, and his twelve or so years working at the US post office, first as a substitute mail carrier (mailman in other words) and later as a sorting clerk. It includes absurd bureaucracy, idiot rules, petty and malevolent supervisors, banal inhumanity. It’s very well written, often extremely funny, and desperately sad.

Chinaski is drunk and a womaniser, he plays the horses (generally winning, for a while he makes a living at it), he cheats on his live in girlfriend (whom he refers to as his “shackjob”, because he shacks up with her) casually and without thought. He’s a man who on being presented for the first time with his new born baby assesses the nurse’s figure. He’s lazy, has an attitude problem and hates all his jobs, he keeps up with them just because the women he’s with expect him to make an honest living (rather than one at the tracks) and because he can’t generally be bothered to quit and do something else.

Bukowski clearly understands Chinaski’s world, given he lived it I guess he should. He’s tremendous at bringing to life the stupidity and sometimes downright insanity of the public, with their dogs and demands and random aggression. I’ve worked retail, as a student, and I still remember people asking me as I worked the pick’n’mix if they could both pick and mix, I remember the guy who held up two bottles of water, one in each hand, and asked me which one was colder. People individually in my experience are ok, the public though are insane. Bukowski knows this:

The voices of the people were the same, no matter where you carried the mail you heard the same things over and over again.
“You’re late, aren’t you?”
“Where’s the regular carrier?”
“Hello, Uncle Sam!”
“Mailman! Mailman! This doesn’t go here!”
The streets were full of insane and dull people. Most of them lived in nice houses and didn’t seem to work, and you wondered how they did it. There was one guy who wouldn’t let you put the mail in his box. He’d stand in the driveway and watch you coming for 2 or 3 blocks and he’d stand there and hold his hand out.

For the record, Catherine O’Flynn captures the experience of working in retail better than anyone else I’ve read, Chinaski of course is a public servant, if anything that’s even worse. It comes with additional feelings of entitlement on the part of the public.

Chinaski works for sadistic supervisors who take pleasure in making his life miserable, assigning him impossible routes in brutal conditions and denying him work when he answers back. Employees are expected to look up to old timers whose lives have plainly been ruined by the job, men of stunted horizons whose every interest and spark of life has been crushed under years of repetition. When these figures break, as they do, they are discarded like old machine parts, and never spoken of again.

As the novel continues, Chinaski moves from woman to woman, sometimes hitting it lucky, sometimes not so much. He leaves his job as a mail carrier, but later returns to the post office, now as a sorter. It’s an indoor job, better money but lacking the challenge of making difficult routes on time in bad weather. That said, it is secure:

After swearing us in, the guy told us:
“All right now, you’ve got a good job. Keep your nose clean and you’ve got security the rest of your life.”
Security? You could get security in jail. 3 squares and no rent to pay, no utilities, no income tax, no child support. No licence plate fees. No traffic tickets. No drunk driving raps. No losses at the race track. Free medical attention. Comradeship with those with similar interests. Church. Round-eye. Free burial.

Security here is the trap. The post office offers a good job, good conditions, decent pay, it’s hard to get fired (Chinaski routinely turns up drunk and takes time off without permission). There’s constant chivvying, tasks to be performed in times calculated by external consultants who’ve never done the job, penalties for going to the bathroom or getting a drink of water outside your allotted ten minute break, requirements as to how you sit on your stool while you sort, but if you can put up with all that you could spend decades with the post office. Those who do put on weight, sag and spread, but they’re secure. To Chinaski, it’s a form of death, a way of losing your own life.

Bukowski doesn’t just write about work, Chinaski is popular with women, despite being described by more than one character as looking like a wino. He’s obviously got some charisma, some charm, and although he generally treats women like convenient objects there’s a level at which he remains aware of their essential humanity. At times, there’s even a tenderness:

The blankets had fallen off and I stared down at her white back, the shoulder blades sticking out as if they wanted to grow into wings, poke through that skin. Little blades. She was helpless.

Chinaski just doesn’t connect that humanity, that vulnerability, with any implication that maybe he shouldn’t sleep with the next woman who’s available as soon as his current one is off to work.

Post Office is full of damaged people. Workmates who shout and boast of sexual conquests they’ve clearly never had. People who break down, crying in the locker room as they become too old to still sort post as fast as management requires. Chinaski’s world is a brutal one, supervisors care only about delivery targets, institutions are faceless and indifferent to those they employ, people are messy and drunk and needy but their society requires them to be none of those things. Chinaski inhabits the world of those who slip through the cracks, the people who stop coping, who maybe could never cope, the people who get old and never made enough to create a cushion that could make that bearable:

She got a job as a waitress, then lost that when they tore down the cafe to erect an office building. Now she lived in a small room in a loser’s hotel. She changed the sheets there and cleaned the bathrooms. She was on wine.

She went back to her room and put on her best dress, high heels, tried to fix up. But there was a terrible sadness about her.

This is a plotless novel. Stuff happens, but there isn’t really a story arc. Chinaski gets a job with the post office, leaves it and does some other stuff for a while, then returns to the post office. He has relationships, few friendships, he spends a lot of time drunk. That’s about it. What it is though is a portrait of what it’s like to be part of the itinerant underclass, the people in lousy jobs on poor wages, seen as unreliable by bosses who neither understand nor care about the chaos of their lives. These people start out with dreams, ambitions, desires like all of us. But along the way they get crushed, and Post Office in part shows us how:

I don’t know how it happens to people. I had child support, need for something to drink, rent, shoes, shirts, socks, all that stuff. LIke everyone else I needed an old car, something to eat, all the little intangibles.

It’s no surprise to me that Post Office had the impact it did. This is a great novel. It’s ugly, vulgar and crass. It contains a lot of block capitalised shouting. It’s characters are unpleasant, mad, pathetic, often cruel, sometimes downright repugnant (including Chinaski). But it’s true, and for me truth is the essence of good art. This is good art.

Post Office


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