I waited until that night, drove over, parked outside. Nice neighborhood. Definition of a nice neighborhood: a place you couldn’t afford to live in.
Charles Bukowski wrote his final novel, Pulp, as he was dying of leukemia, and passed away before the book was published. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise then that the overarching theme of the book is death – facing it, fleeing from it, and wondering what there is to life other than speeding towards it.
The protagonist of Pulp, Nick Belane, is a private detective who is simultaneously lucky (his cases have a habit of solving themselves) and down on his luck (he’s somewhat broke and usually heading to the bottom of a bottle) when he receives a visit from a new client, who calls herself Lady Death, and most likely is the Grim Reaper in more attractive form than we’re using to seeing. She wants Belane (which I presume rhymes with “Spillane”) to track down a man she believes to be the French author Celine, who should be dead by about thirty years but is apparently running around Los Angeles. Nick picks up a few more clients, including a man who believes his controlling new girlfriend is a space alien, another man who believes his wife is cheating on him, and a friend who hires him to find the elusive Red Sparrow but doesn’t actually know what it is. (The Red Sparrow is most likely a reference to Black Sparrow Press, a small publisher whose financial support allowed Bukowski to become a full-time writer at age 45.)
On its surface, Pulp is a hard-boiled detective novel reminiscent of the clipped tones of Hammett and tight yet rich prose of Chandler, although Belane’s toughness is more superficial than that of the Continental Op or Philip Marlowe. Belane bemoans his inability to catch a break in between catching breaks, dropping into deep depressions that last until the next barstool, where he typically orders a few drinks, starts a fight, and leaves more or less victorious. Clients find him, as do clues, yet he still manages to encounter no end of trouble, much of it because of his own bad decisions.
In between drinks and fights, Belane muses on the nature of life and often doesn’t like what he sees, looking at the indignities of this mortal coil from bodily functions to the need for money to questioning his own sanity. One of the book’s most memorable scenes puts Belane in the waiting room for a psychiatrist he wants to question; the waiting room is full of apparently crazy people, but when Belane’s name is called and he’s ushered in, the apparent psychiatrist claims he’s just a lawyer and Belane is yet another crazy person who’s entered the wrong office. Is Belane crazy? Did he black out? Did reality change on him, as it has a habit of doing to him throughout the book?
As much as Belane looks at life and cringes at what he sees, he’s not running headlong into death, even though Lady Death tells him a few times that he’ll be seeing her again soon. But it’s his inner monologue that really makes Pulp memorable and often very funny in a wry sort of way; it’s an accumulation of decades of wisdom, much of it not all that useful, wrapped up in a fast-paced detective story where the ultimate case is solving the mystery of life. I won’t spoil the ending, although you can probably figure out where the book is heading, and even so the plot is hardly the thing there. Bukowski managed to pay homage to my favorite genre through a black-comic look at the end of life. It’s quite an achievement.
Next up: Richard Stark’s heist novel The Score, available as a free eBook for the Kindle (or Kindle iPad app) through that link. Stark was one of Donald Westlake’s pen names, and I reviewed the first novel in this series two years ago.