A “factotum” (Latin for “do everything”) is a jack of all trades—a guy who can trim your hedges, tune-up your car, fix your leaky kitchen faucet, and build a tool shed in your backyard. As the title of Bukowski’s second novel, the term Factotum is used tongue-in-cheek. Although Hank Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego, describes some twenty jobs he had as a struggling young writer, he had no talent for doing anything other than writing, and he had no desire to work at anything but writing. He didn’t fit in as an employee anywhere and clearly never could—he sees the way the world works too clearly and can’t hide his contempt for his “superiors,” especially after selling a story to a top literary mag. But he had to pay the rent and buy booze. So, here he is, pushing the boulder up the mountain over and over again.
This is one of the funniest of Bukowski’s novels. Here’s Hank discussing his system for filling out job applications:
The clerk had my card in front of him, the one I had filled out when entering. I had elaborated on my work experience in a creative way. Pros do that: you leave out the previous low-grade jobs and describe the better ones fully, also leaving out any mention of those blank stretches when you were alcoholic for six months and shacked with some woman just released from a madhouse or a bad marriage. Of course, since all my previous jobs were low-grade I left out the lower low-grade.
On his attitude toward working itself:
I wasn’t very good. My idea was to wander about doing nothing, always avoiding the boss, and avoiding the stoolies who might report to the boss. I wasn’t all that clever. It was more instinct than anything else. 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.
Like Bukowski’s other novels, Factotum skips the kind of mainstream plot that drives the NY/Hollywood publishing/movie industry. Henry Chinaski drifts from one crappy job to the next until selling his story, then his increased impatience with doing anything other than writing drives him all the way to Skid Row. Chinaski moves from one city to the next in his quest for a sustainable artistic life—Los Angeles, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Miami, New York, St. Louis—as well as one woman to the next. All of his relationships are booze-based. He enjoys the company of women for sex, going to the horse races, and drinking. But he can’t tolerate close contact with anyone for long because it eats away at the solitude he requires to write.
I was a man who thrived on solitude: without it I was like another man without food or water. Each day without solitude weakened me. I took no pride in my solitude; but I was dependent on it.
This is a novel about how an artist from a working class background survives the hundred distasteful jobs necessary to make it from one day to the next. It’s also about rebellion and the joy of asserting one’s true nature in the midst of this grind. On the job—any job—Hank’s always looking for a smoke break the boss doesn’t know about, or a slug of whiskey, or a cat nap, or a quickie in some dark corner with one of the women who work there. And it’s these moments of pleasure, stolen from The Man, that keep him going.
But looming just past every pleasure is despair.
… I remembered my New Orleans days, living on two five-cent candy bars a day for weeks at a time in order to have leisure to write. But starvation, unfortunately, didn’t improve art. It only hindered it. A man’s soul was rooted in his stomach. A man could write much better after eating a porterhouse steak and drinking a pint of whiskey than he could ever write after eating a nickel candy bar. The myth of the starving artist was a hoax.
As always, Bukowski is both hilarious and tender. There’s a scene where a prostitute who lives in his building, who’s grossly overweight, with warts and moles on her face, shows up at his door with a bottle of wine. Not attracted to her at all, he invites her in, compliments her on her legs that he describes to us as “… very white, fat, flabby, with bulging purple veins.” Doing nothing to encourage her, he watches her dance and strip for him. When she gets aggressive and tries to kiss him, he gags, then watches in horror when she goes down on him. She is, in fact, raping him, and he simply allows it. “If I come, I thought desperately, I’ll never forgive myself.” But he does come, and as she’s leaving his apartment, happily singing “Goodnight Sweetheart,” he pays her and never voices an insult or complaint.
I read Bukowski because he takes you straight into the cauldron of hell, sees it for what it is, and writes it plainly.