PULP Reviews: “Pulp” by Charles Bukowski

30 Jan

This column is written by our new PULPable reviewer Jacob Z. Clinton. Expect more reviews of PULPable material coming soon from JZC.

‘Dear Mr. Bukowski:
Again, this is a conglomeration of extremely good stuff and other stuff so full of idolized prostitutes, morning-after vomiting scenes, misanthropy, praise for suicide etc. that it is not quite for a magazine of any circulation at all. This is, however, pretty much a saga of a certain type of person and in it I think you’ve done an honest job. Possibly we will print you sometime, but I don’t know exactly when. That depends on you.

Sincerely yours,

Whit Burnett’ – “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip”, Charles Bukowski

This book is a conglomeration of misanthropy… etc., this is a saga of a certain type of person: Nicky Belane. It’s wonderful that an excerpt from Bukowski’s first published work can so succinctly sum up his last novel. P.I. Nicky Belane lives in a hyper-accelerated Pulp world, other parts of genres bleed into his existence, such as science fiction and the ever present race-track that takes up a large part of Bukowski’s writing. This is a saga, a short one, wherein a man does what he needs to do and prepares to die.

Man getting ready to die: what a grand subject to digest, to pulp into a boozy mass of violence and spit out on an audience used to being dragged through Bukowski’s alcoholic gambling tracts. Bukowski died aged 73 shortly after completing this novel and it would be remiss not to draw parallels between Belane’s last set of cases and Bukowski’s own personal mind-set as he set about preparing for his own demise. (His gravestone reads: Don’t Try)

To somebody who has never read Bukowski before, the experience feels like a Tarantino movie; out of sequence. I have no idea who Henry Chianski is despite him being Bukowski’s recurring protagonist figure. If the back cover blurb on the book had not told me that he made an appearance in the story, I would never have pegged him for one of the victims of Belane’s violent existence.

Does it make sense? Not, to me, on any surface reading does it fully answer a lot of the questions it raises. Does it have to? Not to me. As a ‘pastiche’ of the detective genre Pulp inherits the twisting and slippery Chandleresque plotting. People are not who they seem, things are not as simple as they appear, and when this template is applied to a work involving space aliens straight out of an Ed Wood movie plot and Death personified then things become tricky.

Belane is hired by a femme fatale, perhaps literally, called Lady Death to track down a man who could be French classical novelist Celine and discover if, indeed, he is who he appears to be. Along the way he receives more cases including tracking down the Red Sparrow, whatever that may be, catching an adulterous wife in the act and aiding a mortician rid himself of the attentions of a space alien. Cases slip and slide over one another and reveal clues to the others like any good P.I. plot. Belane drinks and fights and obsesses over women like any good, fictional, P.I. should but in Pulp’s case the action comes fast and furious, more drunk than the average detective, leering over full-figured women like some demented Robert Crumb, drinking and fighting like Oliver Reed’s last night on earth.

I was not aware of Bukowski’s work before for Black Sparrow Press* until I looked it up, and that certainly explains the naming of the text’s metaphysical MacGuffin the Red Sparrow. When Herr Le Ray first said I could scrawl some of my mind across his lovely new blog-space I was taken in by his concept of Pulp. In it I saw a movement, something that Lottery Council funding clerks could jack off over. To me the above example from Bukowski’s Pulp demonstrates something I would expect to find circling works that fall into the Le Ray-defined ‘Pulpable’; annotations swarming like flies round a pig’s head staked onto a book cover.

To me a Pulpable work is something that, as well as being a distillation of high and low-brow like some alchemist turning his turds into gold1, is pleasing on a surface reading, yet when you peel away the top layer is full of in-jokes, references and the like. It’s like the joy of getting a school textbook and finding it covered in furious pencil notes of children from the past (and drawings of cocks.) I was also not aware that Celine was an actual French classical author, again it did not hamper my reading of the text and instead became a pleasant discovery when I was researching this piece.2

To some extent Pulp fails because a surface reading is simply satisfactory, and the ending may seem a little off. Sure, things get wrapped up to a certain degree but it left me wanting more of something I couldn’t have. I appreciate that sometimes in these pulp noir novels some characters just slink off to die and are never heard from again, but Pulp is hampered by being so much more. Lady Death, Celine, the Red Sparrow break out of their pastiche conventions and I want to hold them accountable, get answers from them. Why does Belane’s path run the way it does?

As noted I have never read Bukowski before but I highly enjoyed Pulp. I felt a little dissatisfied by the ending but the writing was sharp and the chapters galloped along. If this was a horse running against some of Bukowski’s other novels I would put money on it. Even though it isn’t a favourite, I would still back it as an each-way bet.

I thought I’d finish up these reviews by taking a drink drunk in the text, some venomous cocktail, and find the recipe, sample it and tack it onto the end of the piece. I did make my published debuts formulating paint-stripping cocktails for the University of Hertfordshire fish and chip rag after all…

So here we go with the Vodka 7 which, I was upset to find out despite the moniker making it sound like an ironically named 3 piece garage band, is simply a fancier version of a vodka, lemonade and lime.

Vodka 7:

1. Take a collins glass (or just any tall glass, a highball if need be).

2. Add a few ice cubes

3. Pour juice from 1/2 a lime and vodka (you decide how strong; online recipes suggest 2 parts or 2 oz.)

4. Add a lime

5. Top up with lemon and lime soda, such as 7Up (or its Coke produced nemesis Sprite)

Happy Drinking!

*     *    *

Author’s notes:

1.Yes, I watched Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain last night.
2. The Boston Review still has a nice analysis of the Celine thing: http://bostonreview.net/BR19.3/fiction.html

* Editor’s note: Black Sparrow is alas no more, though its catalogue was sold to the small independent publisher I worked for in Boston, MA – David R. Godine (reportedly for $1—Sparrow’s owner John Martin just wanted them to have a good home). I believe Bukowski’s work was excluded from the deal, but Godine still prints Black Sparrow’s old works. – DLR

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