Charles Bukowski | Critical Review by George Stade

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Charles Bukowski.
This section contains 782 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by George Stade

SOURCE: "Death Comes for the Detective," in The New York Times Book Review, June 5, 1994, pp. 49-50.

In the following review, Stade provides a plot summary of Bukowski's last novel, Pulp.

Charles Bukowski, ur-beatnik and author of more than 40 volumes of countercultural prose and verse, finished Pulp shortly before he died of leukemia at the age of 73 in March. Pulp is a spoof of the hard-boiled detective novel, especially as perpetrated by Mickey Spillane. It does not, of course, take much to send up the hard-boiled detective novel—all you have to do is write one. The conventions by now seem to mock themselves, if you stand back a bit. But Pulp does more than stand back from itself.

Bukowski's hard-boiled dick is one Nick Belane, although he sometimes wonders, apropos of nothing, whether he isn't really Harry Martel, whoever he is. Business is slow, but Belane occupies himself by catching flies and drinking from the bottle he keeps in his desk, a bottle of sake. On the job he will make do with Scotch or vodka with beer chasers. ("Nice thing about being a drunk, though, you were never constipated.") He also keeps in his desk a gun, variously described as a Luger, a .45, a .32—something worth getting straight, you would think. On the wall of his office is a "fake Dali," the melting watch.

Belane rolls his own cigarettes when not smoking cigars, wears a derby, drives a Volkswagen bug, plays the horses, (disastrously), hums bits from Carmen, regularly humbles 300-pound tough guys and regards women with the usual mixture of misogyny and lust. ("I was always a leg man. It was the first thing I saw when I was born.") And he regards himself with the classic mixture of covert narcissism and self-pity: ("My eyes were blue and my shoes were old and nobody loved me.") Nick Belane is no intellectual, he has just failed the written part of the test for a driver's license. On the whole, the fee he charges his clients, $6 an hour, seems about right.

Apropos of nothing, business suddenly picks up. Lady Death arrives at Belane's office, a lady always "dressed to kill." She wants him to discover whether a certain Celine, who hangs around bookstores checking out the competition apparently, is the Celine, "France's greatest writer," who would now be a century old, way overdue for Lady Death. Then John Barton, who recommended Belane to Lady Death, calls. He hires Belane to find the Red Sparrow, not otherwise identified.

There's an insider's joke here, one of many. John Martin, longtime supporter and publisher of Bukowski's work, owns Black Sparrow Press, sometimes called the house a poet built, the poet being Bukowski. "You've got talent," says John Barton in the accents of John Martin, "It's a little raw but it's part of the charm." Much of the spoofing in Pulp is at the expense of Bukowski, another hard-drinking, tough-talking, horse-playing barroom brawler, and like other novelists, a species of private investigator.

A third new client, Jack Bass, hires Belane to find out whether his wife, Cindy, née Cindy Maybell, Miss Chili Cook-Off of 1980, is playing around. (She is, in a way—with Celine.)

Then there is Hal Grovers, a mortician, who is being pestered by "a hot number from outer space" named Jeannie Nitro, a body snatcher from Zoros as it turns out. Her powers are pretty much those of that other Jeannie, of television fame. Finally Celine hires Belane to prove or disprove that Lady Death is what she claims to be. (She is, as Celine finds out—the hard way.)

There's lots of fun and much ingenuity in the way each of these separate cases becomes a ratchet, a cam, a cog, a flywheel in the works of the others, one big melting watch. But about three-quarters of the way through, the fun thins out, the death-haunted atmosphere thickens and there is a sense of time running out. First Jeannie and her companions decide they will not, after all, stay to colonize Earth. "It's just too awful," she says. "Smog, murder, the poisoned air, the poisoned water, the poisoned food, the hatred, the hopelessness, everything."

Then Belane distances himself from that everything to move inexorably toward the Red Sparrow, in the way a man might move in fear and longing to embrace his own death. Belane gets "enveloped" by the Sparrow in the way a dead writer gets absorbed by his words—as printed, in this case, by Black Sparrow Press.

As parody, Pulp does not cut very deep. As a farewell to readers, as a gesture of rapprochement with death, as Bukowski's sendup and send-off of himself, this bio-parable cuts as deep as you would want.

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This section contains 782 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by George Stade
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