A lot of people going to see Matt Dillon in Factotum
will watch his antics with detached amusement and a wry smile, marvelling at his complete refusal to pull himself together: the low-paid jobs, the constant boozing, the stream of women as feckless as himself. But I guarantee that some people will have a tiny shiver of recognition and might be reminded of a certain time and place or a certain period in their lives. For me, it brought back those lost years that come between the end of college and before the onset of maturity, i.e. when you start thinking about the future beyond next weekend. These are the difficult, in-between years when a lot of people feel like the grown-up world is a bad fit and, like Henry Chinaski, want to raise two fingers to getting a proper job, going to bed early and staying out of pubs during the day. I have lost count of the number of friends who, during their early twenties, went through a phase of “Am I an alcoholic?”. And for a while there were a few who seemed to have answered yes to this question and then just kept on drinking. Like them, Chinaski is the archetypal alcoholic; he drinks to escape the world, to close it out, to envelop himself in the warm fug of drink. Even during his interludes of writing, chugging down booze is the touchstone for his creativity, and he’s not the only writer to have tried that.
But here’s the difference. Most of us stop drinking in the afternoon; we stop smoking, get jobs, get ambition. We stop living our lives as a story of boom and bust, blowouts followed by deep troughs of scraping together pennies. But Hank still wants to collect his pay cheque and get drunk. As he explains to an anonymous man in a suit that he’s trying to talk into giving him money, that may not be a very noble thing but, at least for him, it’s the truth.
I read Bukowski’s books when I was a kid for the same reason I read Kerouac and Burroughs; at a time in my life when I had to abide by so many rules and was straight-jacketed by age and lack of money, I needed to read about people who let lose and did what ever they wanted to do. For any teenager who wanted the writer’s life these were the kinds of books that made it seem easy and within reach. All you needed was attitude and the inspiration would come naturally. Attitude, experience and a bottle of booze, then get it all down on paper. Bukowski demystified the writer; here was an ordinary person, a less than exemplary human being, writing stories about the ugly basics of human existence like getting drunk, getting laid and avoiding work at all costs. As a teenager I would scrape together my pocket money to buy the ridiculously expensive but quite beautiful City Lights
and Black Sparrow
editions that were brought in from the States. When Virgin Books published some of his work it was a little easier on my pocket but there was something unsatisfying about their cheap paperback versions, compared to the exquisitely bound imports with their endpapers in deep burgundy and blue. Reading his stories now, they seem less revolutionary, and only shocking in the same way that 12 year-old boys are: talking about asses, bodily functions and screwing. But they were shocking enough for my mother to confiscate one of my precious books (The Most Beautiful Woman in Town and Other Stories
, if I remember correctly) after only flicking through the contents page. When I mention this to her now she claims to have no memory of the incident. I think maybe she realises that I was a very timid thirteen year-old whose rebellion was, at least for the time being, only expressed through books.
Guest Blogger: Catherine