On the reading front, after spending a couple of weeks struggling through William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, I ripped through Charles Bukowski’s Factotum in one day. Faulkner may have been a Literary Artist of the Highest Order, but I’ll take Bukowski any day; he wrote to be read, directly and succintly and without pretense. He was a drunk, a lech, and just generally kind of an asshole, but was unflinching in his portrayal of these things. He was often accused of being a misogynist, and when you read him you can see why; but to be accurate he was more of a misanthrope, or a nihilist, and like many nihilists a damaged romantic at heart. He once said, “I have died nine-tenths, but keep the other one-tenth like a gun,” and he was getting at something there; even in his darkest portrayals of life at its most desperate, there is a hint of poetry and a glimmer of something like hope.
Anyway, as a public service I would like to present the following passage, which is Chapter 31 of Factotum. It neatly sums up Bukowski’s style and themes, and can save you a lot of time if you read it instead of his collected works (which were many). Enjoy.
Factotum, Chapter 31
by Charles Bukowski
When I got back to Los Angeles I found a cheap hotel just off Hoover Street and stayed in bed and drank. I drank for some time, three or four days. I couldn’t get myself to read the want ads. The thought of sitting in front of a man behind a desk and telling him that I wanted a job, that I was qualified for a job, was too much for me. Frankly, I was horrified by life, at what a man had to do simply in order to eat, sleep, and keep himself clothed. So I stayed in bed and drank. When you drank the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn’t have you by the throat.
I got out of bed one night, dressed and walked up town. I found myself on Alvarado Street. I walked along until I came to an inviting bar and went in. It was crowded. There was only one seat left at the bar. I sat in it. I ordered a scotch and water. To my right sat a rather dark blonde, gone a bit to fat, neck and cheeks now flabby, obviously a drunk; but there was a certain lingering beauty to her features, and her body still looked firm and young and well-shaped. In fact, her legs were long and lovely. When the lady finished her drink I asked her if she wanted another. She said yes. I bought her one.
“Buncha damn fools in here,” she said.
“Everywhere, but especially in here,” I said.
I paid for three or four more rounds. We didn’t speak. Then I told the lady, “That drink was it. I’m broke.”
“Are you serious?”
“Do you have a place to stay?”
“An apartment, two or three days left on the rent.”
“And you don’t have any money? Or anything to drink?”
“Come with me.”
I followed her out of the bar. I noticed that she had a very nice behind. I walked with her to the nearest liquor store. She told the clerk what she wanted: two fifths of Grandad, a sixpack of beer, two packs of cigarettes, some chips, some mixed nuts, some alka-seltzer, a good cigar. The clerk tabbed it up. “Charge it,” she said, “to Wilbur Oxnard.” “Wait,” he said, “I’ll have to phone.” The clerk dialed a number and spoke over the phone. Then he hung up. “It’s all right,” he said. I helped her with her bags and we walked out.
“Where are we going with this stuff?”
“To your place. Do you have a car?”
I took her to my car. I had bought one off a lot in Compton for thirty-five dollars. It had broken springs and a leaking radiator, but it ran.
We got to my place and I put the stuff in the refrigerator, poured two drinks, brought them out, sat down and lit my cigar. She sat on the couch across from me, her legs crossed. She had on green earrings. “Swell,” she said.
“You think you’re Swell, you think you’re Hot Shit!”
“Yes, you do. I can tell by the way you act. I still like you. I liked you right off.”
“Pull your dress a little higher.”
“You like legs?”
“Yeah. Pull your dress a little higher.”
She did. “Oh, Jesus, now higher, higher yet!”
“Listen, you’re not some kind of nut, are you? There’s one guy been bothering the girls, he picks them up, then takes them to his place, strips them down and cuts crossword puzzles into their bodies with a pen knife.”
“I’m not him.”
“Then there are guys who fuck you and then chop you up into little pieces. They find part of your asshole stuffed up a drainpipe in Playa del Rey and your left tit in a trashcan down at Oceanside…”
“I stopped doing that years ago. Lift your skirt higher.”
She liked her skirt higher. It was like the beginning of life and laughter, it was the real meaning of the sun. I walked over, sat on the couch next to her and kissed her. Then I got up, poured two more drinks and tuned the radio in to KFAC. We caught the beginning of something by Debussy.
“You like that kind of music?” she asked.
Some time during the night as we were talking I fell off the couch. I lay on the floor and looked up those beautiful legs. “Baby,” I said, “I’m a genius but nobody knows it but me.”
She looked down at me. “Get up off the floor you damn fool and get me a drink.”
I brought her a drink and curled up next to her. I did feel foolish. Later we got into bed. The lights were off and I got on top of her. I stroked her once or twice, stopped. “What’s your name, anyhow?”
“What the hell difference does it make?” she answered.