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Tales of Ordinary Madness
Charles Bukowski
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Invisible Cities
Italo Calvino
Factotum - Charles Bukowski World War II, America and Henry Chinaski. This is Factotum. Charles Bukowski brings his alter ego, Henry Chinaski, back to life in this phenomenal work and with it, he puts himself and society on trial.
A lot, perhaps too much, has been said about Bukowski and his work. While I truly enjoy his short stories the most, Factotum, along with post Office, are among my favorite books written by American authors. Bukowski's writing is simple and straight-to-the-point, and Factotum is no exception. Filled with short, sometimes paragraph-like chapters, the writing flows smoothly, gently sneaking under your skin, and before you know it you start to care and you start to see the world through Chinaski's eyes. A world, which, for the most part, has not improved over the past sixty years. Perhaps his truths are universal. One thing hit me in particular: Chinaski goes to the American Cancer Society, only to be given an appointment three weeks later. He mentions that all his life he has been told to catch cancer early, but when it comes to it, he is told to wait three weeks. Last year I went through pretty much the same thing, only to have to wait for an appointment for over four months. Fortunately, it was not cancer, but if it was...what is the point.
Anyway, back to Factotum. Chinaski, being a "4-F" as he states, was exempt from the draft which left him behind, free to look for a job and settle down. Only the restless soul is incapable of settling down. A struggling writer, (writing several short stories by hand each week, which shows great inspiration and capability) he does not have much else to live for. Submerged in booze, smoking, and having sex, he kills time between odd jobs, while waiting to be discovered. However, this is not the point of the story. The story itself is the loose journal of a man struggling with himself and the changes our society was undergoing at that time. Chinaski was not a man who knew what he wanted. As long as his basic needs were met, (Booze, cigarettes, sex, and the occasional meal) he was happy -- relatively happy, or rather unconcerned with the world. He mentions the war in the terms of there being less people applying for the jobs, yet it does not make the jobs easier to get. He chooses jobs which require minimum effort, be it physical (when possible) or mental (always), because he cannot be bothered. Considering his arrest record, he knows he cannot get a "good" job, for they require a background check, so he settles for the other jobs -- shipping clerk, janitor, warehouseman, factotum.... He drinks during the day, he writes at night, he fights at bars, and he drinks more. When he has money, he buys a good whiskey; when he doesn't, he settles for a rotgut wine. He treats women the same way he treats his bottle -- as long as he can get it, it's good. His women, with the exception of a few random "quickies", are not much different than him, only less inspired. Chinaski lives this way because he chooses to, because he cannot be bothered. And why should he.
How many of us wasted years and perhaps decades chasing after something that seemed important to us, yet it really wasn't? How many of us do something we hate or dislike only for the sake of "appearances"? We are all guilty of that. As a society, we look down on the bum standing at a corner, holding a fifth wrapped in a paper bag; we look down on the men who move from place to place, unable to hold jobs, unable to start a family, the men who do inferior work. How many of us ever stopped to think see if they maybe chose to do that, if they have a reason. Chinaski had two years of college, yet he worked as a janitor. It was not from laziness, it was a conscious choice. He did not have faith in the system, he did not want to be part of the system; he simply wanted means of making some money to fulfill his needs. Factotum is a portrait of a broken society, of an era of broken dreams. Factotum is not the "great American novel", but it is a novel full of timeless truth, full of humanity. Chinaski may be dirty and drunk, but he does what he wants, he pursues his dream. He is not trying to change the world, and he does not want the world to change him. Where Kerouac goes on and on for pages about "beauty", Bukowski delivers a short sentence, but always hitting the nail straight on its head, keeping it simple, raw and gritty -- sometimes poetic, sometimes disgusting -- but that is what life is after all.