Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Pulp by Charles Bukowski Review

Nicky Belane is the best private dick in LA and that makes him a busy boy. He must find the acclaimed, long-presumed dead French novelist Celine for Lady Death, the ultimate femme fatale, help a mortician escape a body-snatching alien called Jeannie Nitro and find the Red Sparrow, whatever that is! But has Belane bitten off more than he can chew this time? 

Charles Bukowski’s last book, Pulp, is a helluva way to go out and an odd one too given that his best known works - Post Office, Factotum, Women and Ham on Rye - were thinly veiled autobiography while Pulp is pure fiction. But it’s a fantastic novel full of Bukowski’s signature wit and world weariness wrapped up in a swiftly-moving plot and fast-talking characters - re-reading it well over a decade after my first time, it remains outstanding. 

That said, if you’ve never read Buk before I wouldn’t recommend Pulp as the best place to start mostly because it feels like a summary of his career. The references abound: his literary alter-ego Henry Chinaski makes a brief cameo, a hitman called Fante appears while Belane’s looking for Celine (John Fante and Celine were Bukowski’s biggest literary influences - notice the nod to pulp writer Mickey Spillane with the main character’s name Nicky Belane too), and the Red Sparrow could be a reference to Black Sparrow Press, Bukowski’s long-time publisher. 

Belane is a lot like Chinaski in that he spends a lot of time in bars having verbal fights with its barflies before starting physical ones. He’s a misanthropic old bastard but Buk’s snappy dialogue makes him very entertaining company while also maintaining the noir feel of the narrative. It’s often very funny too with Belane claiming to be expensive (“Six bucks an hour”) and trying to catch a cheating spouse on camera by clownishly chasing them yelling the repeated refrain “I’m gonna nail your ass!!”

Buk came from the Hemingway school of spare writing so descriptions are minimal with a heavy emphasis on dialogue but at this point in his life he was so accomplished the reader is easily able to discern the characters from their speech alone (though it’s fair to say they all come off as noir caricatures). Still, Buk was far more playful than Hemingway which is why I like him so much better than tedious old pseudo-macho Papa. He even toys with different genres mixing in some Vonnegut-esque sci-fi to spice things up - and it works! 

More often than not writers lose their edge as they get older and their later work usually doesn’t stand up to their earlier, more famous novels - Bukowski was the exception and Pulp shows an old pro as sharp as he ever was, at the height of his powers. But, like she did for many of the characters in this book, Lady Death came for Buk too, mere months after he completed this. 

Pulp is representative of Bukowski’s best work in being raw, clever, original, funny, accessible and superbly written. The dedication says “To bad writing” which, like the title, is a nod to pulp fiction, the irony being that many of those writers are today looked upon as masters - Bukowski included. This book’s also an excellent addition to the noir genre, sliding easily amongst books by greats like Raymond Chandler and Horace McCoy. 

Those familiar with Bukowski’s work will appreciate Pulp more but if you’re a fan of noir fiction there’s no harm in jumping straight in with this novel. This remains one of my favourite books by one of my favourite writers - Pulp is a sparkling coda for a fine writer.

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