Review: Factotum by Charles Bukowski

So, after Claudia, it is my turn to return to blogging. And I would have really liked to have something nice to offer to you people (I know I couldn't have topped crocodiles, but a  book recommendation would have been nice). It wasn't meant to be: the thing that set me in motion was rage. So I will give you not a recommendation of something I loved, but a warning against something I had a hard time finishing. 

I rarely skim books, but skimming was the only thing that allowed me to finish Factotum, and I have no regrets. The book exceeded my expectations in boringness and awfulness. The secondary characters are indistinguishable (from each other or from cardboard props). The diverse and varied world of working class America that the cover promised is really just a collection of class and race stereotypes, serving as a background for the same actions again and again and again, never shaping the story, never being seen as deserving of some in-depth investigation by the narrator. In fact, the only thing the narrator has any interest in describing is his own navel. Which gets old pretty quickly, even as he tries to spice it up with describing his cock.

But even with a horrible narrator whose world view is extremely narrow, the book could have still worked if it had any structure. I understand having a callous disconnected main character, and I can think of some great narratives that could be built around that. But nothing ever happens in Factotum: Henry doesn't suffer any meaningful consequences for being a misogynistic prick, or for his casual racism, or for being late at work every day, or for stealing from his employer. He is never really confronted with his actions, and he seems to hold some mysterious power over secondary characters. Employers irrationally like him and put extra days on his check even though he's intentionally crappy at every job. Women stick around even after he cheats on them or beats them. Some of it is realistic description of privilege (he gets jobs by using his "educated white guy who is trying to be a writer but going through a tough time as writers do" narrative), but some of it is just plain bad writing, like the author couldn't be bothered to give any agency to any of the other characters. Halfway through the book, I had forsaken any hope that the revelation or meltdown or dramatic change that I still thought to be the point of it all will be brought about by other people's actions and would have been happy with the hero getting liver failure. But, nope, what we get is no conflict whatsoever.

Now, to be fair, after I gave up trying to read it as enlightening humane literature, or waiting for the plot to materialize, the oblivious narcissism became pretty amusing. The book is suffused in melodramatic wankery ("my erection or lack thereof is totally a metaphor for the existential turmoil of the world"), and that can be pretty funny.

The amusement didn't last long, however: the misogyny, the racism, the bland writing (short sentences do not poignancy make), all caught up with me and made me pretty miserable that this thing exists and is taken seriously. Then I remembered how cool these "white man is randomly mean" stories are considered and my mood went downhill from there. I only finished it (ok, browsed it idly to the end) in order to be able to write this.

The Bottom Line

I'm not going to give it stars, since we have a "no negative scoring" policy around here. But I'd like to leave you on a fun note rather than a ragey one, so here's a joke (adapted from here):

Q: How many tortured manly men narrators it takes to screw in a light-bulb?
A: One. He only needs to hold it in place, and the lamp with the room and the world will naturally start revolving around it.


  1. Replies
    1. Hi, Heather, thanks for stopping by! I'm glad you like the joke; the article I linked (and especially its comment section) is one of the funniest things I've read in ages.