A master of everything

The title of Bukowski’s second novel is actually stolen property, pilfered by the English, like so much else, from Latin. The implications are worth noting for a factotum is a “master of everything” and in the case of Henry Chinaski this means not just repairing bicycles and factory work, it means gambling, drinking and womanising. Just as Karl Marx viewed production as a sensuous human activity, as much a part of our species-being as it is our alienation, Bukowski seems to take a more literal line – he is production.

Henry Chinaski makes his way across the States often penniless and drunk. He works any job he can find and hangs his hat wherever he can. We follow Hank as he sleeps on park benches and rides the rails from place to place. The only thing going for him, in the world of work, is the time he can afford to sell and the sweat he can shed for meagre wage-packets. Inevitably Chinaski is propelled forward by crises. He never seems to hold onto anything for too long, whether it’s jobs or a place to stay. In a society where everyone is supposed to be middle-class, or working to be, Bukowski writes about the gutter and for the gutter.

All in all, I found Factotum (1975) was a much more focused piece of work than Post Office (1971). What do I mean by this? It doesn’t wander too far from its themes. Perhaps because the latter was the first completed book it was inevitably going to encompass a lot. Both read as aimless, staggering odysseys through American society. But it’s Factotum which takes aim at work.

To the reader Bukowski levels his anti-work ethos and prods and pokes the assumptions we hold about work and its demands on us. At one point Bukowski writes: “How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?” It’s a good question.

In one chapter Henry loses his job and pushes the boss to make sure that he gets his welfare payments. He speaks as ‘the working-man’ here, not the poet of skid-row. The moment fits well. After all Bukowski stands out from the petty-bourgeois universalism of American society, – pretentions to meritocracy, individual liberty, and even democracy – it’s all up for grabs in this world. Chinaski is in one way an exemplar of the Protestant work ethic. He proves his father wrong by being able to go from job to job. But the story is hardly an advertisement for the ‘American Dream’.

Of course, the narcissism of the dirty old man is on show in the work. He’s both proud of his life as a working-class Joe, but he’s also imbued with self-love over his knowledge of just how worthless it all is. He feels he has profound insights to offer. And even as Hank leads a meaningless life, as we all surely do, his prose makes it meaningful. This is the heart of the heartless world.

Originally written for Living in Philistia in October 2014.

About Joshua White

a writer and journalist living in the UK where he works as Africa editor and researcher for the World Weekly. White is a philosophy graduate, specialising in political thought, and maintained a blog for several years. His main focus is national and international politics having written on subjects as seemingly far apart as US elections, Russian nationalism and the state of modern Britain.
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