1000 Books In 10 Years; Vol. 15, Pulp by Charles Bukowski


Dedicated to bad writing.

So opens the last novel Charles Bukowski published before he passed away of leukemia in 1994, and the narrative that follows is anything but. A contemporary detective novel that harkens back to Raymond Chandler and expresses a love for story telling, Bukowski’s work is one that dares the reader to do anything other than enjoy the story. Does it mock the cliché? Does it scorn unoriginal prose? Sure. But at the same time it is also standing up for it, and challenging academia to try and fit its ideas of literature onto a narrative that defies such classifications and yet still tells an addictive narrative that even the most learned of readers could scarce put down for more than a moment. It is writing for the working class and destitute. For the drunkards and whores, the bastards and brutes and marks, and starlets, and dreamers, and romantics, and it places them all under the thumb of capitalist greed, which makes their existence tragic, but nonetheless beautiful.

The narrative is a simple one. An aged LA detective finds several jobs dropped on his desk over the course of a little over 200 pages, and in that duration the reader sees a narrative that follow the mythically long life of controversial French Louis-Ferdinand Celine (controversial due to his anti-Semitic tracts published in the late 30’s), who, despite Wikipedia’s assertion that he passed away in 1961, has some how managed to elude lady death until 1993, making him a spry 100 years young escapist. Lady Death hires Nick Belaine, easily the worst detective in the history of literature, who also receives a case asking him to track down the Red Sparrow, another asking him to get evidence on a cheating trophy wife who has tired of her aged husband, and also has been contacted, as the novel gets further out of the depths of reality, to dissuade a alienness to leave a young mortician alone. The novel is a first person narrative and is extremely effective in projecting the limited perceptions of a self-loathing misanthropist who is unhappy with life and the world. He does literally nothing to solve any of the cases he is handed, outside of the cheating wife, whom he is horned up over and on whom he barges in on whilst she is copulating with the very husband who has hired Belaine to trail her. Every lead he gets falls into his lap. People show up, give him tips, he follows them with the wit of a dullard (though he is not an unintelligent person) and ends up solving each one.

The tale is not so much about the narrative, but about the limited voice of the working class and destitute. So often there are people who can feel themselves in a repressive situation, but have no way to articulate it. They do not have the words the access their thoughts, and feelings, and in turn lack the ability to work things out. There are thugs who laugh at crass comments, waitresses and bartenders who are beligerent and confrontational, and none has the ability to communicate with and understand others, and in turn none can truly connect with the world around them. Their perceptions are limited and have made their lives intolerable. Their understanding of the world is tragically limited, yet striving for understanding. In one passage Bukowski’s protagonist notes that his “fake Dali fell to the floor. The one with the melted watch”. The protagonist clearly has a desire to understand, and an innate appreciation for art, but fails to realize that describing a Dali as being the one with the ‘melted watch’ is like trying to explain which tree you have in your back yard by saying it is one that has leaves on it. With such limited perceptions in mind, Bukowski indulges in the Miltonic when he states: “Hell was what you made it”, recalling the famous Miltonic line that “The mind is its own place and in itself can make a heaven of hell and a hell of heaven”. And so has the perceptions of these destitute characters made their lives.

Bukowski speaks to potential unrealized, quite articulately when his narrator writes: “I looked at my hands and realized that I could have been a great pianist… But what have my hands done? Scratched my balls, written checks, tied shoes, pushed toilet levers, ect. I have wasted my hands, and my mind.” the despair in this passage is overwhelming. It is at once crass and sympathetic and speaks to the potential that lays with in each of us, the potential that is often untapped, not because of desire or personal limitations, but because of the limitations placed on us by the social structure we live in.

The vulgarity in the novel is every present though not excessive, off handed comments like “I swear by my mother’s pubic hair” are strewn throughout the book, most failing in their attempt to be clever, at perhaps sink to their lowest, yet at the same time most intuitive in a passage where the protagonist says: “I recalled standing there two or three decades ago with 3 prostitutes, I took them all to my place and one of them masturbated my dog. They thought it was funny.” The fact the women found it funny speaks to the base humour of those with limited cognition, (many such characters people the book and are often used for their physical gifts and are deterred from using their brains, such is the case with many of the novel’s countless body guards who are all compared to gorillas and apes). But it speaks to more than that, it speaks to how their lives, their direction are dictated by economics. The prostitutes took the path they did because of the economic relationship with Belaine, not because they wanted to, but because they needed the money. The body guards are much the same, asked to carry out tasks that would be counterintuitive to their natural instincts, but do so because of their economic situation. And so Belaine finds his own personal narrative concluded, after he is swindled into taking on a loan he cannot pay, he is made an example of, even though the money he owes is paltry, he is to be made an example of so that debtors who are in for more money will be scared into making good on their own personal debts. So Belaine is shot in the stomach four times over $600. When he questions the assailants, the answer they offer is blunt: “We’re running a business. Business has never been concerned with anything but profit.” And it is with this precise observation that Bukowski questions American values. He was once quoted as saying he had a choice: “Stay at the post office and go crazy… or… play at writer and starve”. He chose to starve, and in so doing was named by Time magazine to be the poet laureate of American lowlife, a title he proudly fulfills with this work.

If you like this, try:

The Big Sleep and The Hard Goodbye, both by Raymond Chandler: Its hard to go wrong with any of Chandler’s novels, most especially those featuring the famous Phillip Marlowe, perhaps the most recognizable private dick I the history of literature, but both The Big Sleep and The Hard Goodbye stand head and shoulders above the rest. In reading Chandler’s work it is easy to see where Bukowski was drawing his inspiration from. Both of these novels (as many of chandler’s other works) serve well as detective narratives and have more twists and turns and double-crossings than even the best author could put together and still have a sensible narrative, but Chandler makes it look easy. Both these works also have some interesting social commentary on the working class, and ruling class, and the hypocrisies that exist within American society in regards to what are often held up as American values. And check out Humphrey Bogart in his turn as Phillip Marlowe, or his classic performance in The Maltese Falcon.


A Dame To Kill For and The Big Fat Kill, by Frank Miller: Highly stylisitic, dark and entertaining, these two yarns from Miller’s Sin City series focus around a private dick who gets into a lot of trouble for doing the one thing Phillip Marlowe made it a point to never do: let his dick do the thinking.



Chinatown, directed by Roman Polanski: I’m not a Polanski fan, and honestly, I’m not even that big fan of this movie, but the climactic scene in which Faye Dunaway reveals her secret to Jack Nicholson’s character is among the best in the history of cinema, and almost makes up for the rest of the film. I suggest this more because most people I know who enjoy detective novels enjoy this film as well.

The Book With No Name, by Anonymous: Like Pulp, this novel revels in the joy of story telling and doesn’t mind indulging in the supernatural to enhance a good detective story. It pays homage to several genre, and the author, who has remained anonymous, clearly has a love of film, story telling and detective novels.

The Song Is You, by Megan Abbott: Jean Spangler was an aspiring actress whose disappearance made headlines for a couple of weeks and was then forgotten. Megan Abbott (the only author who I’ve recommended who also happens to be on my friend list- though I’ve never actually met her lol) picks up the story from there and employs the talents she developed whilst writing novels like Queenpin, to create an addictively sweet fictionalization of the story that illustrates Abbott’s love for story telling and of the classic detective novel. Her female characters are what sets Abbott apart from those to whom she pays homage to, as her work seems to always include a wider array of femininity that is often included in the detective novel genre.

Words I thought I’d look up:

None. The novel’s narrator doesn’t have a vocabulary that outreaches my own, and he is a great story teller because of it.

Up next: The Myth of Sisyphus, by Albert Camus

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Speak Your Mind