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In which Netty meets up with Hank again, and finds she likes him better the second time around …

April 24, 2011

Ah, hello, Hank Chinaski, so we meet again …

Andy and I first tackled Charles Bukowski – and his debut novel Post Office – in Andy and Netty’s Reading Challenge 2010 (see our March 2010 archive). After deciding to renew our acquaintance via ANRC11 (Revisited), I thought the logical place for me to pick up the thread was Bukowski’s second book, Factotum. (And the fact that it has also been sitting on my bookshelf for 12 months made the choice a no-brainer …)

So to briefly recap on this most cult of cult authors, Bukowski’s 30-odd-year career as a published writer spawned literally dozens of volumes of poetry and several anthologies of short stories and letters, but only a scant six novels, whereby he told his life story via his alter ego Henry (known as Hank, as was Bukowski himself) Chinaski.

Post Office finishes with Chinaski deciding to write a novel after surviving a massive drinking bender. Factotum, first published five years later, in 1975, winds the clock back to the early-mid 1940s, when Bukowski/Chinaski was in his early twenties. World War II is raging across Europe, but Chinaski has escaped doing service thanks to a 4-F classification that deemed him unfit (as did his real-life counterpart).

The novel opens with Chinaski arriving in New Orleans, fresh off a bus from Los Angeles, near-penniless, spending his last few dollars on a boarding-house room and booze, and seeking work. It thus sets the tone of the scant volume (like Post Office, it clocks in at around a mere 160 pages), which sees Chinaski criss-cross the United States in search of simple employment, which is little more than a means to support his drinking. He puts down temporary roots in New York City, Philadelphia, St Louis and Miami, but he is always inevitably drawn back to his hometown of LA – especially after he becomes involved with Jan, a fellow alcoholic (said to be based on Bukowski’s real-life girlfriend Jane Cooney Baker, who took on the guise of “Betty” in Post Office).

Chinaski drifts from job to job, rarely lasting a couple of weeks in any one position, inevitably seeing his employment terminated because of some misadventure with the bottle. From shipping clerk to newspaper compositor to factory worker to janitor, Bukowski paints vivid portraits of the drudgery and boredom associated with these low-paying, menial jobs. Chinaski enters each position knowing he’ll be lucky to stay there a week or two, good-naturedly accepting the demise of his employment with a mere shrug of the shoulders, collecting his severance cheque and heading to the nearest bar to piss it all up against a wall. Throughout it all he continues to describe himself as a writer, and somehow – between the long hours he spends working and drinking – manages to squeeze out a raft of hand-printed short stories, most of which he submits to a fictional New York City literary magazine called Frontfire (one is finally accepted for publication, but this strand is not followed up, throughout these pages at least).

The depiction of his relationship with Jan is both touching and torturous, with the pair eking out a dysfunctional co-dependency built around booze and sex, conducted for the most part against a backdrop of absolute filth and squalor (Bukowski rarely strays far from the scatological in these passages). Jan, who is never faithful (at one point Chinaski discovers, to his horror, that she has given him crabs, and his efforts to get rid of them is steeped in almost-slapstick comedy), eventually abandons him for an “old, fat” real estate agent.

There are other girls scattered throughout these pages, too – Martha, the older whore who administers a blowjob that is as painful to read about as it undoubtedly was to receive; Helen, the Philadelphia hooker who never makes good on her promise; Gertrude, the St Louis siren who is all doe-eyed tease, with no delivery; the LA triumvirate of Laura, Jerry and Grace, girlfriends of doomed millionaire Wilbur Oxnard – but none holds Chinaski’s heart captive like Jan, despite the fact that he beats her in a bar in one particularly fraught passage. But the relationship is never going to last, and Chinaski and Jan both know it. The novel ends with Chinaski, another job opportunity gone begging thanks to his inability to stay off the bottle even while waiting for an interview, finding himself in a strip joint, watching a stripper called Darlene go through the motions, much as Chinaski does himself.

Like Post Office, Bukowski successfully presents barely disguised chapters from his own life using Chinaski as his vessel. Like its predecessor, Factotum is darkly comic, tightly wound, the prose sparse, with nary a word wasted. Twelve months ago I pondered in my Post Office blog if Bukowski developed as a writer in subsequent novels – Factotum shows that he does, even without straying too far from the well. Rereading that blog, I’m a little surprised that I was so restrained in my praise, although I definitely enjoyed Factotum more. Well, I want to say “enjoy”, but I’m not sure that’s the right word – I don’t think you actually “enjoy” a Bukowski novel. You are more sucked in and then spat out at the book’s end; you are fascinated, repelled, mesmerised and compelled to keep turning its pages.

So, Hank, I am pleased to say that I’m intrigued as to what you serve up from here. I certainly won’t be waiting for a future Revisited Challenge before I move on to Chinaski novel No. 3, Women, and beyond that.

So if you haven’t dipped your toes in the dirty river of Bukowski yet, I can now thoroughly recommend that you do so. Just always remember to keep your towel handy – you will need it. It’s only OK to wallow in the muck if you know you can wash it off afterwards.

Postscript: Factotum was made into a 2005 movie of the same name, starring Matt Damon, Lili Taylor and Marisa Tomei. While I am oblivious to whether or not it is any good, one Bukowski-inspired film I can recommend is 1987’s Barfly, starring a pre-cosmetically disfigured Mickey O’Rourke. Oh, and Faye Dunaway. Bukowski himself penned the script, giving it added gravitas.

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