Afternoon readers and happy Tuesday; after a wonderful evening playing monopoly and eating heaps of chicken tikka masala, mushroom pilau and peshwari naan I have another classic review for you today in the form of ‘Factotum by Charles Bukowski.’ As mentioned in yesterday’s Monday Musing, its suggested similarities to George Orwell’s book Down-and-out in Paris and London promoted me give this a go and I’m going to attempt to compare the two in this review because despite the similarities in context the styles are wildly different. However another overall fulfilling and intriguing read.
Henry Chinaski, an outcast, a lover and a drunk, drifts around America from one dead-end job to another, from one woman to another and from one bottle to the next. Uncompromising, gritty, hilarious and confessional in turn, his downward spiral is peppered with black humour.
As the blurb suggests the book follows the rather down-and-out Henry Chinaski as he bumbles between bouts of drinking, half-hearted attempts to keep down a job, a smattering of highly sexual relations with numerous women and a slight yearning to be recognised as a writer. The book, as like Orwell’s, takes on a documentary style ultimately detailing his succession of menial jobs, shortage of money and his day-to-day experiences of low life urban America.
So the basic framework is down, onto the good bits. Whilst Orwell’s book took a truly romanticised style of commentary Bukowski is brash, unaltered, and blunt. The words used are haggard and honest. In one scene near the beginning Henry has moved into a new apartment when he is introduced to the lady next door, a prostitute. The language and description of the brutal event that takes place next is both harrowing and appallingly described. Whilst Orwell romanced us as a reader, Bukowski is sharp and observant. The reason this works is because Henry as a character is so blasé. Both unmoved and offhand he drops women, apartments and jobs at the drop of a hat.
In this sense it allows the plot to move forward continually with little abandon, moving between cities and jobs with very little care. He works in many different establishments with many different titles including janitor, bookie and stock boy. He moves with reckless abandon and with little worry. The only constant is the relentless drinking and the inevitable circle of hangovers. Henry states, ’When you drank the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn’t have you by the throat.’ The description of their (Henry throughout the book is in an on-off relationship with a lady named Jan also dependant on liquor) is raw and honest and the author holds very little back. The descriptions of their booze filled evenings, with no food to make a meal but with enough wine to get the two blind-eyed drunk is explicitly written. The blazing rows, the infidelities and the sudden exposure of a sexual disease are described crudely. Almost purely documentary in style we meander along living the life of Henry through the words told to us.
My only real wobble with the book was the way Bukowski described the females in the tale. Throughout the book Henry is both often uninterested and cold however despite this most of the women described throw themselves at his feet desperate for his affection. It’s an odd mix and comes off incredibly misogynistic. The second is a little deeper; throughout Bukowski is incredibly honest. His characters and their events are told from a cold piercing eye looking upon the world. At times however it strays from being authentic and feels more of an imitation of reality, something a little contrived and seeking too much pity. For me it’s lacking something that Orwell managed to pack droves in and that was sympathy; I was rooting for the main character from the very beginning. Here, I didn’t, but, I was happy to sit back and read along.
Overall despite everything I did enjoy reading this tale; rough and ready, packed with dark humour, violence, sex and alcohol it tells a compelling tale of a male who finds sanity in the bottom of a bottle rather than in life itself. A wandering tale that has left me only wanting to read more from Bukowski.