[This review initially posted on 8 Feb 2013.]
Pulp is the only one of Charles Bukowski’s novels that’s not written from the perspective of Bukowski’s alter ego, Henry Chinaski. After all the agonized and hilarious autobiographical accounts of pain, frustration, poor health and madness of his earlier novels, the great man had at last come to a subject too enormous and painful to deal with directly.
Pulp was Bukowski’s last novel, published in 1994, the same year he died of leukemia at the age of 73. As he was writing this book, he knew his days were numbered.
Bukowski’s final novel is written as an allegory. It’s a parody of the hard-boiled detective genre, with Bukowski’s hero/narrator named “Nicky Belane.” Belane spends most of the book looking for a mysterious “Red Sparrow,” a thinly-veiled reference to Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon, but also a shout-out to his publisher, Black Sparrow Press, which saved him from his hated job at the Post Office and first financed his writing full-time. Belane’s first client, Lady Death, hires him to find the long-deceased novelist Celine, one of Bukowski’s role models as a writer.
Despite the death theme, many of the scenes in Pulp are laugh-out-loud funny, especially when they include the absurd Alice-in-Wonderland dialogue Belane engages in with just about every character he encounters. But Belane’s innermost thoughts, recurring throughout the novel, are focused on Bukowski’s feelings about his own imminent death, and his struggle to make sense of the inevitable:
… I was feeling odd. Like nothing mattered, you know. Lady Death. Death. Or Celine. The game had worn me down. I’d lost my kick. Existence was not only absurd, it was plain hard work.
For Bukowski, the hard work of survival was surpassed only by the harder work of dying.
… Most of the world was mad. And the part that wasn’t mad was angry. And the part that wasn’t mad or angry was just stupid. I had no chance. I had no choice. Just hang on and wait for the end. It was hard work. It was the hardest work imaginable.
And even at this late date, when the struggle was about to end, he couldn’t accept the fact that life was about nothing but surviving from one day to the next. He wanted to make something more of his demise.
… Everybody was screwed. There were no winners. There were only apparent winners. We were all chasing after a lot of nothing. Day after day. Survival seemed the only necessity. That didn’t seem enough. Not with Lady Death waiting. It drove me crazy when I thought about it.
Yet Pulp manages to be more upbeat than any of Bukowski’s other novels. The playfulness in the writing overall is exhilarating. He expresses a feeling of satisfaction with his life not found in his other works. By this point in his life, Bukowski had achieved legend status among poetry aficionados and had already won international acclaim as one of America’s most important literary figures. He had fame. He had money. He had the admiration of thousands of fans who all but worshiped him. He even had flocks of poetry groupies. Though he’d lived much of his life in desperation, he was not in despair on his deathbed.
… It was time for tabulation, a tabulation of myself. All in all, I had pretty much done what I had set out to do in life. I had made some good moves. I wasn’t sleeping on the streets at night. Of course, there were a lot of good people sleeping on the streets. They weren’t fools, they just didn’t fit into the needed machinery of the moment. And those needs kept altering. It was a grim set-up and if you found yourself sleeping in your own bed at night, that alone was a precious victory over the forces … all in all it was a fairly horrible world and I felt sad, often, for most of the people in it.
He even attempted to explain how he had finally achieved success:
I got to thinking about solutions in life. People who solved things usually had lots of persistence and some good luck. If you persisted long enough, the good luck usually came. Most people couldn’t wait on the luck, though, so they quit. Not Belane. No candyass, he. Top flight. Game. A bit lazy, perhaps. But crafty.
I pulled open the top right hand drawer, found the vodka and allowed myself a hit. A drink to victory. The winner writes the history books, is surrounded by lovely virgins …
For anyone who’s read Bukowski’s other novels, and who loves the man for describing so vividly his feelings of sadness, isolation, and despair, Pulp is one of the most uplifting books you’ll ever read. Though Bukowski’s worldview hasn’t changed one iota, his personal sense of achievement, of having made something of himself that he is proud of, is downright heartwarming.
Pulp is Bukowski’s farewell to the readers and friends who’d stuck with him through his decades of pain and despair. He’s finally saying it’s okay, he made it. He’s telling jokes and playing the fool.
Don’t give up, he says; if you persist, you too can live and die as yourself.
You May Also Enjoy
Charles Bukowski’s Women – Love in the Face of Death is a ribald comedy about sex and connection in the face of the ultimate loneliness.
Above the Saints and Angels is my own short story about the people we use up in our own drive to survive.
And I’m publishing a series of short novels here at Write-aholic called Smut4Nerds. I’m returning to the smut I wrote for Greenleaf Classics (discussed here) at the beginning of my career, but this time on my own terms.