Category Archives: Social Realism

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

The Lord sends me every misery He can think of just to try my soul.

Tobacco Road, written by Erskine Caldwell in 1932, is a landmark work of American fiction. Often compared to Hemingway, Caldwell was most famous for his 1933 novel God’s Little Acre, but Tobacco Road had no small share of success in its own right. Saul Bellow apparently believed that Caldwell should have received the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Tobacco Road is a novel that speaks of the Great Depression of the 1930s, a subject of interest to me, and it has a clarity and apparent simplicity of style that requires considerable skill on Caldwell’s part. It is, unquestionably in my mind, a very well written book.

So all that said, it’s a bit of a shame I didn’t like it.

Tobacco Road follows a poor farmer, Jeeter Lester, who lives on a ramshackle farm on land his family once owned but which is now held by an absentee landlord. Jeeter would farm the land with cotton, if he could borrow a mule and then get credit for seed cotton and guano with which to fertilise it. In the meantime he dreams of repairing his utterly broken down car and selling blackjack wood as firewood in the nearby town of Augusta. The only impediment to this is the fact that his car is a heap of unfixable junk, and blackjack wood doesn’t burn worth a damn.

Jeeter is married to Ada Lester, whose only goal is to get a fashionable dress to die in. He lives with his mother, Grandma Lester (who wears rags, and horse collars cut into squares as shoes), and his two remaining children who have not yet left home (the other fifteen are long gone), Dude Lester and Ellie May Lester. Dude is an ungrateful son, much like his father in many ways, lazy, aggressive, unhelpful and with a peculiar obsession with car horns. Ellie May is disfigured by a harelip that her father has always been too lazy to bother having fixed.

Other characters include Lov, a man who married Jeeter’s twelve year old daughter but can’t get her to sleep with him, and Bessie, an itinerant (and apparently wholly unqualified) female preacher who takes a shine to Dude.

It is not therefore a novel with a cast of thousands, rather it is a highly focussed work which examines a few incidents in Jeeter’s life and through those incidents and his relationships with these other characters sheds light on the lives of the rural poor of the 1930s American South.

We first encounter Jeeter as Lov arrives at the Lester home with a bag of turnips he has purchased with half a day’s pay. He is there to ask Jeeter’s advice on getting his new wife, twelve year old Pearl, to sleep with him. Jeeter and the other Lesters are intent on stealing turnips, as food is distinctly hard to come by. Lov is distracted by Ellie May, who pursues him so hard she traps him on the floor pulling him on top of her and shucking her dress up for him, all this in front of her entire family in the front yard.

Lov opened the sack, selected a large turnip, wiping it clean with his hands, and took three big bites out of it one after the other The Lester women stood in the yard and on the porch looking at Lov eat. Ellie May came from behind the chinaberry tree and sat down not far from Lov on a pine stump. Ada and the old grandmother were on the porch watching the turnip in Lov’s hand become smaller and smaller with each bite.

Later in that same section:

Ellie May was edging closer and closer to Lov. She was moving across the yard by raising her weight on her hands and feet and sliding herself over the hard white sand. She was smiling at Lov, and trying to make him take more notice of her, so she was going to him. Her harelip was spread open across her upper teeth, making her mouth appear as if she had no upper lip at all. Men usually would have nothing to do with Ellie May; but she was eighteen now, and she was beginning to discover that it should be possible for her to get a man despite her appearance.
‘Ellie May’s acting like your old hound used to when he got the itch,’ Dude said to Jeeter. ‘Look at her scrape her bottom on the sand. That old hound used to make the same kind of sound Ellie May’s making, too. It sounds just like a little pig squealing, don’t it?’

Later, Sister Bessie arrives, she preaches but becomes enamoured of Dude and the two end up frottaging (frotteuring if you prefer) right there in front of the house. The Lester front yard is something of a hotbed of passion it seems.

Bessie marries the much younger Dude, tempting him to the union by buying a new car and offering to let him drive it. They take Jeeter to town to try and sell blackjack wood, with effects that would be comic if it were not for the sheer venality and stupidity of the characters and the unrelenting grimness of what befalls them. Indeed, in several places the novel veers close to comedy, quite intentionally I think, only to pull short of it by the sheer unpleasantness of its incident.

The characters are not intended to be sympathetic, Jeeter steals food from his friend, hides it from his family, and beats his ailing grandmother whenever she asks for some. He does this not in the manner of a thug or brute, but more in the manner of a mindless animal from a species lacking any sense of pack or herd instincts. The Lesters generally are like insects in human form, utterly devoid of empathy, fellow feeling, love or any hint of a sense of humour. They hunger, they lust, they fear, they act without any concept of consequence, they reminded me at times rather strongly of zombies in a Romero movie but without the pathos. Their conversation is highly repetitive, and generally (and again, clearly intentionally) is solipsistic, with characters sometimes engaging in essentially overlapping monologues in which each simply says what is concerning them while showing no evidence that they have heard what the other is saying.

Jeeter’s main desire is to be a farmer again, to sow crops and watch them grow. As dreams go, it is not a large one, but it is quite impossible to achieve. He has no mule with which to plow, he has no seed cotton to plant, he has no guano to fertilise with. All are essential. He cannot obtain credit, too many men are seeking it and he has no collateral, and the only lenders who will lend to a man such as him take so much in interest that he would end up making a loss:

The loan companies were the sharpest people he had ever had anything to do with. Once he had secured a two-hundred-dollar loan from one of them, but he swore it was the last time he would ever bind himself to such an agreement. To begin with, they came out to see him two or three times a week; some of them from the company’s office would come out to the farm and try to tell him how to plant the cotton and how much guano to put in to the acre. Then on the first day of every month they came back to collect interest on him. He could never pay it, and they added the interest to the principal, and charged him interest on that, too.
By the time he sold his cotton in the fall, there was only seven dollars coming to him. The interest on the loan amounted to three per cent a month to start with, and at the end of ten months he had been charged thirty per cent, and on top of that another thirty per cent on the unpaid interest. Then to make sure that the loan was fully protected, Jeeter had to pay the sum of fifty dollars. He could never understand why he had to pay that, and the company did not undertake to explain it to him. When he had asked what the fifty dollars was meant to cover, he was told that it was merely the fee for making the loan.
When the final settlement was made, Jeeter found that he had paid out more than three hundred dollars, and was receiving seven dollars for his share. Seven dollars for a year’s labour did not seem to him a fair portion of the proceeds from the cotton, especially as he had done all the work, and he had furnished the land and mule, too. He was even then still in debt, because he owed ten dollars for the hire of the mule he had used to raise the cotton. With Lov and Ada’s help, he discovered that he had actually lost three dollars. The man who had rented him the mule insisted on being paid, and Jeeter had given him the seven dollars, and he was still trying to get the other three to pay the balance.

The scene where Bessie buys a car is not dissimilar. There is a strong implication that she is overcharged, the car is not topped up with sufficient oil and Bessie is in no way equipped herself to understand that this might be a problem.

In part then, the novel is a work of social realism depicting the seemingly impersonal forces that brought ruin to poor farmers and by which the proceeds of the land went not to benefit those who worked it but instead rich men living in the towns and cities. The characters are routinely exploited, their opportunities limited, their ignorance used against them. Bessie’s experiences with the car are a microcosm of the larger struggle of Jeeter in his desire to be a farmer.

Jeeter’s problems are not wholly external, however. He is a man so lazy that he has a habit of going to sleep in the field when carrying out chores. He procrastinates to an extraordinary extent. He is unwilling to work in the cotton mills where he could make a decent wage, as that kind of work is alien to his self image. He is utterly improvident, devoid of any ability to consider the future other than in terms of empty dreams of borrowing a mule so that he can sow crops, if he can get credit for seed cotton and guano. Jeeter is not unusual in this, the characters in this novel are uniformly portrayed as essentially imbeciles, completely lacking in even the meagrest common sense. It was a portrait that I found ultimately unconvincing, for while I wholly believe that absolute poverty can strip people both of dignity and hope, I do not believe the poor are necessarily also stupid. At times, Caldwell is subtler, in his portrait for example of how local traditions can lead to farmers continuing practices which actually damage their livelihoods, and in that he persuades, it was in the total lack of any intelligence on the part of the named characters that he left me behind. Caldwell might well respond that he wrote as he found, the following is a quote from a reporter who toured with Caldwell’s Presbyterian minister father:

‘We were met by dull, stolid, stupid people, seemingly unaware of all their ills save hunger. Their clothes were rags in many cases. They seemed to possess no jot of pride of appearance. From babies to adults, nearly all were unkept and dirty.’

The difficulty is that what this describes is the loss of dignity that flows from poverty and hunger. The stupidity of the characters in this novel goes beyond that. The copy of the book I read has a cover photograph on it by the remarkable Walker Evans, and the great difference between Evans and Caldwell is that in his portraits Evans retained the truth that those he photographed were, ultimately, the same as we are.

As noted above, the Lesters are not merely stupid, they are also lacking in any recognisable form of human empathy. Jeeter can watch his daughter pull a man onto her in front of him and then later see her lie naked from the waist down in the dirt and think nothing of it. When his mother is run over, he leaves her lying in the dirt without a thought, later prodding her to see if she still lives and without noticing she has crawled several yards to the house begins to dig her grave when it is far from clear she’s actually dead. Poverty can cause people to do terrible things to each other, but the lack of emotion here did not convince me. Jeeter’s lack of sentiment became literally inhuman, not a convincing portrayal of the brutality of those reduced to their basest instincts but rather a description of sociopaths lacking the wit to pretend normality.

Other elements are more successful. Race is a theme in the book, with the Lesters and their associates regarding the black families who live near them with a mixture of fear, loathing and incomprehension. When Bessie and Duke first take the new car out for a drive, they become distracted when they see an unusually large turpentine still at the side of the road, and drive into the back of a two-horse wagon, damaging their car and killing the other driver. He is black, so they leave his body lying mangled in a ditch and later complain to Jeeter that the accident was the black driver’s fault. His life is of literally no consequence to them, and their indifference to it is both powerful and shocking (though this is diminished slightly as the book progresses and one realises that they are equally indifferent to the deaths of family members).

Equally, Caldwell excels at depicting the squalor of genuine poverty, the terrible conditions the characters are living in and the constant misery of hunger and in the scenes with Lov or between the grandmother and the family how it can overwhelm all normal human restraint. In an interview in 1985, Caldwell spoke of his experience in the South of this time as follows:

‘I got a good look at these conditions firsthand after I took a job as a driver for a country doctor,’ … ‘I saw people eating clay to fill their stomachs, and I entered tiny shacks with dirt floors that had as many as 15 people living inside.’

In part then, the book is fictionalised reportage, and this is why Caldwell portrays not only the external forces that prey upon these rural poor but also their own failings that contribute to their lot.

As the novel continues, the futility of Jeeter’s half-hearted attempts to improve his particular lot becomes increasingly apparent. The only real option available to him is the one he will not take, to go work in the cotton mills, and indeed Jeeter’s devotion to the land is his only real redeeming quality – his only genuinely human trait. The core tragedy of the novel is how little money he needs to achieve his dreams, and how far he is even from achieving that pittance. When Bessie and Duke take Jeeter to town, they cram the back of the car with wood (tearing the seats in the process), but none of it can be sold. Bessie rather randomly becomes a prostitute for the night, as best I can tell without pay, and they return home with the car increasingly battered and even its spare tire sold to pay for their food and lodgings. On the way back, Jeeter decides that if he cannot sell the blackjack wood he will at least prevent anyone using it for free, and so decides to burn it himself:

They waited for the blackjack to burn so they could leave for home. The leaves had burned to charred ashes, and the flame had gone out. The scrub oak would not catch on fire.
Jeeter scraped up a larger pile of leaves, set it on fire, and began tossing the sticks on it. The fire burned briskly for several minutes, and then went out under the weight of the green wood.
Jeeter stood looking at it, sadly. He did not know how to make it burn. Then Dude drew some gasoline from the tank and poured it on the pile. A great blaze sprang up ten or twelve feet into the air. Before long that too died down, leaving a pile of blackened sticks in the ditch.
‘Well, I reckon that’s all I can do to that damn-blasted blackjack,’ Jeeter said, getting into the car. ‘It looks like there ain’t no way to get rid of the durn wood. It won’t sell and it won’t burn. I reckon the devil got into it.’
They drove off in a swirl of yellow dust, and were soon nearing the tobacco road. Dude drove slowly through the deep white sand, blowing the horn all the way home.

Inevitably, and unsurprisingly, the book moves toward tragedy. Jeeter and Ada try to contact some of their children for help with money, but not one child who has left home has ever returned or even written, and the one they manage to contact tells them to go to hell. Jeeter cannot of course get a mule, or seed cotton, or guano, and he will not work in the mills. The car, with depressing predictability, is almost a wreck within a week of purchase. There is no light of hope at all. I will not detail the ending, but it is in keeping with the rest of the work. The difficulty with it, however, is that in order to get a suitably bleak ending Caldwell rather forces events in a way I found personally very unconvincing:

Jeeter and Ada normally got up with the sun, and it was that time now. Neither of them came to the windows now, however, nor did either of them open the door. They were both asleep.

Tragedy ensues due to their obliviousness. Tragedy which in my view Caldwell hasn’t earned, as he admits himself they do not normally oversleep, he merely decrees that on this occasion they do and this is of course the only occasion when it matters. To me, it was a crude device, in which the tragedy flowed not from the improvidence or misfortune of the characters but from an intrusive act of authorial fiat required in order to bring the novel to a suitable close. Caldwell’s generally naturalistic style failed him here in my view, and rather than evoking sympathy I felt simply that I was watching a writer manipulating the rather unconvincing characters he had created.

Worse yet, we get a speech by Lov in which the dialogue is essentially identical to that used by Jeeter, so much so that were you to excerpt Lov’s monologue and place it next to any of Jeeter’s several monologues the only way you would be able to tell that these are supposedly different people speaking is that Lov refers to Jeeter in the third person. Interchangeability of character is sometimes intentional, it is made very clear in the novel that Dude is really just a younger version of Jeeter (a fact made ironic by Dude’s contempt for Jeeter as a father and human being). I wasn’t persuaded though that the sudden interchangeability of Jeeter and Lov was intentional in that way, in any event if it was it didn’t work for me, reminding me rather that these characters were merely vehicles for an authorial argument.

And that takes me to my essential problem with this work. I disliked the pat ending which only occurs because the author suddenly declares the characters depart from their normal behaviour, I disliked Lov suddenly becoming some kind of were-Jeeter the moment he got a monologue to himself, but more than any of that by some way I disliked the sheer lack of persuasive humanity on the part of the characters. I have recently read two other novels featuring the abjectly poor, Animal’s People and Q & A. The first I liked, the second I didn’t, but both portrayed the poor as still essentially human, flawed yes but also gifted with humour and intelligence and feeling for those close to them. Caldwell’s characters have none of this, and the fact that nobody evidences even the intelligence one would expect from a developmentally challenged chicken, that they have no more empathy or concern for each other than would stick insects, this ultimately makes them unpersuasive as human beings and if these terrible things are happening to beings that don’t persuade as human ultimately why should we care?

Poverty is degrading, and can rob people of their humanity, but here there is no particular evidence of any humanity to be robbed. Steinbeck, in his novels of the Great Depression, sometimes erred in making his poor too virtuous, too put upon. Caldwell commits the opposite error, his poor are objects of pathos, ciphers in a desolate landscape, Steinbeck’s characters are sometimes too human and Caldwell’s not human enough.

The poor have little enough, to rob them of their humanity seems to me a step too far. For that reason, although this is in my view a very well written novel, it is not one I am likely to return to.

Since writing that final line above, I checked online for countervailing views, and found this excellent account on a local history site: The quotes above from Caldwell and from the reporter accompanying his father are both from this site, and I recommend it as a differing view to my own.


Filed under Caldwell, Erskine, Reportage, Social Realism

I’m me and nobody else; and whatever people think I am or say I am, that’s what I’m not, because they don’t know a bloody thing about me.

Originally posted 4 July 2008.

A couple of days ago I finished the first novel of Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. Originally published in in 1958 and later made famous by the 1960 film of the same name starring Albert Finney (and if you haven’t seen the film, you should, it’s a classic of 1960s British cinema, a period when we made stuff other than period dramas, romcoms and gangster movies).

The novel explores the life of Arthur Seaton, a lathe operator in his early 20s who lives and works in Nottingham. It’s a conscious attempt to portray working class life in Nottingham as it was lived, to give a literary voice to people usually overlooked by literature. To tell a story otherwise all too often ignored. It succeeds in my view in all these goals.

Arthur works the week manning a lathe in a factory, he makes £14 a week doing piecework and this is good money – good enough he has to keep quiet about how much he makes so as to avoid his piece rate being reduced (particularly productive workers have their wages per item reduced so as to keep their overall salary in line with less productive workers). He enjoys his job, he’s good at it and it’s familiarity makes it automatic so allowing him to spend the whole day thinking and daydreaming. On Friday and Saturday nights he goes down the pub, spends his wages and has a good time. Sundays he does a bit of fishing and takes it easy, in preparation for Monday coming round and work starting again.

Arthur is a hedonist, in the very first chapter we learn he is having an affair (and plainly not his first) with a married woman, he outdrinks a braggart, vomits over a couple who’re sitting in the pub as he tries to leave it and generally he has what he considers to be a great evening. The novel is unapologetic, Arthur is generally happy, he likes his life, he likes his job, he likes sleeping with other men’s wives and he likes getting drunk.

The novel is in some senses plotless, not a lot actually happens. Arthur sleeps with some married women, gets beaten up by friends of one of their husbands (something he sees coming long in advance and makes no real attempt to avoid), has run ins with his neighbours, does his 15 days of national service, goes fishing, spends time with family, works on the lathe and so on. The novel captures a bit over a year of his life, it covers what happens in his life in that period and his move from a life of carefree hedonism to a only marginally less carefree life with a settled girlfriend. There are no great moral revelations, no “I was never the same again after that Summer”. No repentances, the novel is in many ways close to reportage.

Arthur himself is a fascinating (if not pleasant) character, chunks of the novel are streams of his consciousness, in which we see he is intelligent and charismatic but without any real drive to change his world (perhaps unsurprisingly, given he quite likes it). He’s a revolutionary, but waiting for someone else to start the revolution, he dreams of machine gunning bosses and the officer classes but has no particular hostility to them in the meantime other than a generalised distrust. He sees the world as out to get him, society as set up to take advantage, and himself as a perpetual rebel who refuses to be done down by it. He looks down on the men he cuckolds, but sees their situation as a failing on their part rather than any fault on his. Overall, he’s a wholly credible character, a portrait drawn from life, it’s a superb portrait of a man and the context in which he lives.

Arthur’s family and associates are also well drawn, persuasive, I recognised much of the depiction of working class family life from my own family, details varied but the essentials both of care for each other and of generosity and the style of the dialogue rang true. That said, it’s not romanticised, other than Arthur his family are largely poorly educated and with little by way of interest in the world, they are deeply insular people and Arthur is the only one apparently aware of a larger world beyond Nottingham. There are some marvellous comic sequences, including one where Arthur convinces a man that nuclear war is to be feared by pointing out that nuclear bombs contaminate the soil and so would destroy the man’s allotment based vegetable business. Arthur frequently thinks about nuclear war, about the possibility of imminent annihilation, seemingly seeing it as one more reason to live now while you can and hang the consequences.

Equally, the women in the novel are seen largely from the perspective of men, but Sillitoe is skilled enough to give the impression that they have a real inner life, just one that Arthur seems frequently unaware of. Again, they persuade as depictions of real women, albeit real women as seen through the eyes of the men they live, work and sleep with.

The novel also speaks about race, the people in Arthur’s world are routinely racist in language, but when an African soldier called Sam comes to stay with the family (he’s a friend of one of the family currently in uniform) everyone makes every effort to make him feel at home, feel welcome, to treat him as a guest. Casually racist remarks are made in his presence, comments about assegais and tom-tom drums, but when one person makes such a remark another pulls them up on it (as being rude, not as being racist per se) and great effort is taken to ensure Sam enjoys his stay – which he does. It’s a subtle depiction of the intersection of class and race, the Seaton’s are in some senses plainly prejudiced, they have stereotypical views of Africans and no great interest in revising them, but in others they are not at all – Sam’s status as a guest trumps all other attributes he may have and there is no sense of any dislike or fear of him. He is other, but a guest and so a welcome other and his differences are more a matter of curiosity and humour than they are of fear or suspicion. It struck me as a deeply credible depiction again, Sam being black is a point of interest for the Seatons and is something beyond their experience and worldview, but ultimately to them he remains a person who they assume to be not too different to themselves and they accept him as one of their own. They see no tension between having racist views of the world, yet treating an individual of another race well, and at the risk of getting too autobiographical here that’s again something I recognise from my own family and childhood.

It’s this in part which persuades that the book does have something to say beyond simply an account of a life. The book comments on relationships of class, of race, and of gender. It is in some senses deeply political yet without being polemical. It has much to say on the role and treatment of women and on the relationship between workers and the worked-for, but it says it all lightly and without feeling the need to lecture. Because it is truthful in the experiences it depicts, it can afford to let the truth speak directly to the reader, and it’s that truth which I think helped propel it to the status of classic which it now enjoys.

The prose in the book is simple and clear, but without being merely workmanlike. There’s the occasional jarring phrase, but mostly the prose delivers the lives of Arthur and those he knows cleanly and without stylistic intrusions. Arthur’s internal dialogue feels real, and persuades as a convincing inner voice. Much is written in dialect, words being spelt as said, so there are references to wok (instead of work), to boogers (buggers), making tea is called making a mash, there’s nothing though that isn’t easy to work out from context and it isn’t taken to anything like the level of a Welsh or a Kelman. There’s an exuberance at times, capturing Arthur’s irrepressible nature (actually, he has quite a lot in common with Monkey come to think of it) and this helps avoid the novel being hard work. The novel reads quickly (well, it reads quickly when you’re not doped up on antibiotics and painkillers anyway), it has something interesting to say and it says it well. It was well worth the time I put into it.

On a final note from me, the novel is not (despite its being set in a very particular time and place) at all dated. I suspect if you were to go to Nottingham on a Saturday night now you’d see the grandsons of Arthur Seaton out there still, getting drunk and picking up girls and enjoying the weekend because Monday comes soon enough. Feeling like the world is not on their side, and not caring because they’re young and have money in their pockets and beer in their stomachs. Novels are the nearest thing in the real world that we have to telepathy, a way to experience another person’s life and point of view. Next time they show on the news a group of drunken lads out smashing up a town centre on a Saturday night and you wonder why they do it, you can pick up this novel and it will give you the answer. It might not be an answer you’d like, Arthur Seaton is in many ways not a likeable man, but it does give an answer which rings true.

I’ll give the last word for now to Arthur, with a few small excerpts of his thoughts:

“I’ll never let anybody grind me down because I’m worth as much as any other man in the world, though when it comes to the lousy vote they give me I often feel like telling ’em where to shove it, for all the good using it’ll do me.”

“Ay by God, it’s a hard life if you don’t weaken, if you don’t stop that bastard government from grinding your face in the muck, though there ain’t much you can do about it unless you start making dynamite to blow their four-eyed clock to bits.”

“I’m a bloody billy-goat trying to screw the world, and no wonder I am, because it’s trying to do the same to me.”


Filed under Sillitoe, Alan, Social Realism