Book Review — Pulp by Charles Bukowski

Rating — 2.5/5

Pulp by Charles Bukowski tells the story of Nicky Belane, a vicious alcoholic private investigator who ends up juggling multiple absurd investigations at once. He is tracking down a French writer who has been dead for years, investigating a body-snatching alien, and hunting something called ‘the red sparrow’. This novel is a parody of cheap pulp fiction, and its main message is ‘death is always around the corner’. It’s weird, violent and convoluted and I hated it…but also kind of liked it, for what it was.

If you haven’t read any Bukowski before then you’re in for a shock. He died not long after writing this novel, and it is most definitely his last jab in the ribs to the literary world. All of Bukowski’s work is cynical, grimy and painfully honest. He published over sixty books in his lifetime, and mostly wrote about the lives of ordinary Americans with soul-crushing jobs, alcoholism, and sexual depravity.

I haven’t read a lot of his work, only a few poems, which I liked, and ‘Post Office’, which I thought was a bit boring and very sexist. This book is also very sexist. There’s no getting around that. The women are either sex on legs, manipulative ex-wives, femme fatales, or ugly aliens.

But the men aren’t depicted nicely either, they are all desperate, angry, scheming, and depraved. Things that Bukowski loved to write about.

There also didn’t seem much point to the novel. Things happen for no reason, cases are solved abruptly with little help from the protagonist, and everything seems very pointless. You can argue that this is the point of the story. Maybe Charles Bukowski is just saying,

‘look… in life, weird shit is going to happen to you. It will happen all at once, then stop suddenly, then more weird shit will happen. You’ll get angry, you’ll get depressed, more weird shit will happen, nothing will make sense, and then you’ll die’ — The Bukowski that lives in my brain.

That isn’t a bad thing. Plenty of literature explores the idea of mutability and death. Weird shit happens in every thriller novel. But this idea isn’t that obvious. I only really came to that conclusion after reading up on some analysis.

Is it really a good book if you can’t pick up on the message with the book alone?

Charles Bukowski knew he was dying while writing this, and the book does have a reflective, existential edge. I did like how he mixed the grim reaper with the femme fatale archetype, and not just some mysterious guy in a cloak.

I just wish he had more time to work in this, add another hundred pages or so, and not focus so much on making the writing look like sloppy pulp fiction. Although I don’t think that Bukowski was writing for anyone but himself at this point. I felt that this was him making peace with his life and death. If that’s the case, so be it.

Charles Bukowski isn’t for everyone. I’m still not sure that he is for me. His writing is like a repulsive crime scene, and I can’t help but look.



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