I don't know what Charles Bukowski intended this book to be. An homage to hard-boiled detective fiction? A parody? A tribute? A critique?
He called it Pulp, and it was the last completed work in a long, long career of innovative writing. But not only did he chose to write this book in the vein of hard-boiled P.I. fiction; he also chose to dedicate it to bad writing.
Seriously. The dedication page says: Dedicated to bad writing.
So what was he trying to say? That pulp fiction, P.I. stories in particular, are all examples of bad writing? I don't know. What I do know is that this book is a very good example of bad writing.
Nick Belane is your typical down-on-his-luck Hollywood P.I. Marinating in a stew of vodka, debt, and self-loathing, he has few friends, few enemies and even fewer clients. Then, she walks in on heels so high they looked like little stilts. Her name: Lady Death. Her case: confirm the identity of a guy who's been lingering in a used bookstore. Belane's price: six dollars per hour.
He takes the case, goes to work, and soon after that three more cases come along. Seems like Belane is about to reap a windfall. The only problem, it turns out, is that the only thing this P.I. is good at detecting is the nearest bar. As Belane staggers around, trying to work the cases he's been handed, he can't seem to stay away from bar's, booze, and trouble.
Promisingly enough, he's a tough guy, with no sense of shame or fear, and a remarkable set of wits.
Unfortunately, Belane manages to close down his cases, one by one, not through his powers of detection, but by dumb luck and coincidence.
Well, that may be a bit harsh and it's not all bad. Lady Death's case does culminate in a remarkable scene where Belane runs a confidence game of startling cunning. the problem is that this scene -- arguably the dramatic highlight of the entire book -- takes place only half way through the story, leaving another one hundred pages of minimalist prose and plotlines thinner than Belane's grasp on sobriety.
How bad is the writing? The first person narration is weak, the ridiculouse cases (involving, among other things, the angel of death, space aliens, and hallucinatory animals) flirt, but don't go anywhere, with magic realism, and Belane's penchant for the drink is simply tiresome. And we've all heard Nick's tired, jaded, cynical philosophy before:
I wasn't sleeping on the streets at night. Of course, there were a lot of good people sleeping in 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. I'd been lucky but some of the moves I'd made had not been entirely without thought. But all in all it was a fairly horrible world and I felt sad, often, for most of the people in it
Well, to hell with it. I pulled out the vodka and had a hit.
There are a few polished ingots amidst the dross though -- sly humor and tough-guy violence -- that does contribute to a sense of hard-boiled authenticity. Sometimes, we're lucky and they happen at the same time:
there stood McKelvey. He had a huge chest and looked like he was wearing shoulder pads.
Your lease is up punk! he spit out. I want your dead ass out of here!
Then I noticed his belly. It was like a soft mound of dead shit and I slammed my fist deep into it. His face doubled over into my upcoming knee. He fell, then rolled off to one side. Ghastly sight. I walked over, slipped out his wallet.
Alas, these sporadic episodes are too little and too late -- they aren't enough to pull the story out of its booze-soaked misery.
I don't know what Bukowski intended, but I do know that most fans of hard-boiled detective fiction will be disappointed. Fans of Bukowski may find literary merit -- or at least satisfaction -- within its pages, but will probably come away with their own jaded, prejudiced opinion of hard-boiled detective fiction. That's why neither should bother reading this book.