Charles Bukowski’s final novel Pulp stands apart from the five that preceded it (Post Office, Factotum, Women, Ham on Rye and Hollywood) in several ways. For one, it is the only novel in the Bukowski oeuvre without Henry Chinaski, Charles Bukowski’s alter-ego, as protagonist.
Pulp is instead narrated by L.A. private detective Nick Belane. Belane bumbles his way into solving cases, and has a good bit in common with Chinaski. He plays the horses, he’s a self professed drunk, and he’s no stranger to bar fights. You can see Nick Belane and Henry Chinaski inhabiting the same world quite easily.
Then you realize, in fact, they do. They know one another, it seems, as Henry Chinaski does make an appearance, albeit in name only. A bartender tells Belane, “You’re lucky…you just missed that drunk Chinaski. He was in here bragging about his new Pelouze postage scale.”
Whereas the Henry Chinaski novels’ action center mostly around Chinaski trying to become a writer while also working shit jobs (and later trying to deal with being a somewhat famous writer), here the action is driven by Belane’s attempts to solve a number of strange cases.
He must find out if a man who looks like deceased French writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline is really Céline, for a beautiful woman named Lady Death; he must find The Red Sparrow, a seemingly supernatural bird; he has to get an alien woman to stop controlling a man she’s fallen for here on earth and even a standard cheating wife case gets complicated and otherworldly.
Pulp is written in the typical pulp detective novel style, and seems to be a send up and homage in one. It is “Dedicated to bad writing.”
It also seems to be, as most critics agree, a work through which Bukowski was trying to process his own impending death. Mortality and futility are the main themes of the novel.
Pulp was written over several years, beginning in 1991. Bukowski was diagnosed with leukemia in the spring of 1993, when he was 3/4 of the way finished with the book. It was published shortly before his death, in 1994.
Best Charles Bukowski Pulp Quotes
“Sometimes I felt that I didn’t even know who I was. All right, I’m Nicky Belane. But check this. Somebody could yell out, ‘Hey, Harry! Harry Martel!’ and I’d most likely answer, ‘Yeah, what is it?’ I mean, I could be anybody, what does it matter?”
“I got lost somehow, began staring up her legs. I was always a leg man. It was the first thing I saw when I was born. But then I was trying to get out. Ever since I have been working in the other direction and with pretty lousy luck.”
“I was gifted, am gifted. Sometimes I looked at my hands and realized that I could have been a great pianist or something. But what have my hands done? Scratched my balls, written checks, tied shoes, pushed toilet levers, etc. I have wasted my hands. And my mind.”
“Man was born to die. What did it mean? Hanging around and waiting. Waiting for the ‘A train.’ Waiting for a pair of big breasts on some August night in a Vegas hotel room. Waiting for the mouse to sing. Waiting for the snake to grow wings. Hanging around.”
“Hell was what you made it.”
“The whole thing was crazy. Lady Death was crazy. I was crazy. The pilots of airliners were crazy. Never look at the pilot. Just get on board and order drinks.”
“Sex was a trap, a snare. It was for animals.”
“What was wrong with me? Was this dame getting to me? She had intestines like everybody else. She had nostril hairs. She had wax in her ears. What was the big play?”
“Life wore a man out, wore a man thin.
Tomorrow would be a better day.”
“’In the old days,’ he said, ‘writers’ lives were more interesting than their writing. Now-a-days neither the lives nor the writing is interesting.’”
“I had to think. I tried to think. The fly was still crawling along the desk. I rolled up the Racing Form, took a swat at it and missed. It wasn’t my day. My week. My month. My year. My life.”
“Born to die. Born to live like a harried chipmunk. Where were the chorus girls? Why did I feel like I was attending my own funeral?”
“He reached into my cigar box, took one out, unpeeled it, bit off the end, took out a lighter, lit up, inhaled, then exhaled a gorgeous plume of smoke.
‘They sell those things, you know,’ I told him.
‘What don’t they sell?’
‘Air. But they will…’”
“You only live once, right? Well, except for Lazarus. Poor sucker, he had to die twice.”
“I killed four flies while waiting. Damn, death was everywhere. Man, bird, beast, reptile, rodent, insect, fish didn’t have a chance. The fix was in. I didn’t know what to do about it. I got depressed. You know, I see a box boy at the supermarket, he’s packing my groceries, then I see him sticking himself into his own grave along with the toilet paper, the beer and the chicken breasts.”
“’You won’t laugh at me like the police did?’
‘Nobody laughs like the police, Mr. Grovers.’”
“Now all that I can tell you is that there are billions of women on earth, right? Some look all right. Most look pretty good. But every now and then nature pulls a wild trick, she puts together a special woman, an unbelievable woman. I mean, you look and you can’t believe. Everything is perfect undulating movement, quicksilver, snake-like, you see an ankle, you see an elbow, you see a breast, you see a knee, it all melds into a giant, taunting totality, with such beautiful eyes smiling, the mouth turned down a bit, the lips held there as if they were about to burst into laughter over your helplessness. And they know how to dress and their long hair burns the air. Too god-damned much.”
“Passed the Turf Club. Looked in. Just a bunch of old guys. With money. How did they do it? And how much did you need? And what did it all mean? We all died broke and most of us lived that way. It was a debilitating game. Just to get your shoes on in the morning was a victory.”
“Something was always after a man. It never relented. No rest, ever.”
“Teeth. What god-damned things they were. We had to eat. And eat and eat again. We were all disgusting, doomed to our dirty little tasks. Eating and farting and scratching and smiling and celebrating holidays.”
“I decided to stay in bed until noon. Maybe by then half the world would be dead and it would only be half as hard to take.”
“I was alone with myself. And disgusting as I was it was better than being with somebody else, anybody else, all of them out there doing their pitiful little tricks and handsprings.”
“We waited and waited. All of us. Didn’t the shrink know that waiting was one of the things that drove people crazy? People waited all their lives. They waited to live, they waited to die. They waited in line to buy toilet paper. They waited in line for money. And if they didn’t have any money they waited in longer lines. You waited to go to sleep and then you waited to awaken. You waited to get married and you waited to get divorced. You waited for it to rain, you waited for it to stop. You waited to eat and then you waited to eat again. You waited in a shrink’s office with a bunch of psychos and you wondered if you were one.”
“Getting out of bed in the morning was the same as facing the blank wall of the Universe.”
“But trouble and pain were what kept a man alive. Or trying to avoid trouble and pain. It was a full time job. And sometimes even in sleep you couldn’t resist.”
“The best interpreter of the dream is the dreamer. Keep your money in your pocket. Or bet it on a good horse.”
“I wasn’t dead yet, just in a state of rapid decay. Who wasn’t? We were all in the same leaky boat, jollying ourselves up.”
“’You’re a lousy philosopher,’ said Lady Death.
‘For me,’ I told her, ‘I’m perfect.’
‘People live on their delusions,’ she said.
‘Why not?’ I suggested. ‘What else is there?’
‘The end of them,’ she said.”
“Existence was not only absurd, it was plain hard work.”
“I heard the siren then. It’s when you don’t hear it, it’s for you.”
“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 luck, though, so they quit.”
“There’s always somebody about to ruin your day, if not your life.”
“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.”
“‘You a pimp?’
‘Oh, no, sir.’
‘You sell drugs?’
‘Wish you did. I need some coke.’
‘I’m a bible salesman, sir.’
‘Just trying to spread the word.’
‘Well, don’t spread that shit around me.’”
“But what did it really matter who screwed who? It was finally all so drab. Fuck, fuck, fuck.”
“Well, people got attached. Once you cut the umbilical cord they attached to other things. Sight, sound, sex, money, mirages, mothers, masturbation, murder and Monday morning hangovers.”
“I should have been a great philosopher, I would have told them how foolish we were, standing around sucking air in and out of our lungs.”
“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.”
“Two women meant twice as much trouble as one woman.”
“Why couldn’t I be just some guy sitting watching a baseball game? Involved in the outcome. Why couldn’t I be a fry cook scrambling eggs and acting detached? Why couldn’t I be a fly on some person’s wrist, crawling along sublimely involved? Why couldn’t I be a rooster in a chicken pen pecking at seed? Why this?”
“‘We’ve thought it over, it’s just awful. We don’t want to colonize your earth.’
‘What’s too awful, Jeannie?’
‘The earth. Smog, murder, the poisoned air, the poisoned water, the poisoned food, the hatred, the hopelessness, everything. The only beautiful thing about the earth is the animals and now they are being killed off, soon they will be gone except for pet rats and race horses. It’s so sad, no wonder you drink so much.’
‘Yeah, Jeannie. And don’t forget our atomic stockpiles.’
‘Yes, you’ve dug yourself in too deep, it seems.’
‘Yes, we could be gone in two days or we might last another thousand years. We don’t know which and so it’s hard for most people to care about anything.’”
“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 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.”
“Often the best parts of life were when you weren’t doing anything at all, just mulling it over, chewing on it. I mean, say that you figure everything is senseless, then it can’t be quite senseless because you are aware that it’s senseless and your awareness of senselessness almost gives it sense.”
“Definition of a nice neighborhood: a place you couldn’t afford to live in.”
“Most men don’t live well at all, they just wear down.”
“‘But he said he was going to kill you, didn’t you hear him?’
‘He probably didn’t mean it.’
‘You don’t go on ‘probably’ when love and guns are in hand.’”
“I was back with my old friend, scotch and water. Scotch is a drink you don’t take to right off. But after you work with it a while it kind of works its magic on you. I find a special touch of warmth to it that whiskey doesn’t have.”
“I didn’t turn on the tv, I found that when you felt bad that son-of-a-bitch only made you feel worse. Just one vapid face after another, it was endless. An endless procession of idiots, some of them famous. The comedians weren’t funny and the drama was 4th grade.”
“My old man had told me, ‘Get into anything where they hand you the money first and then hope to get it back. That’s banking and insurance. Take the real thing and give them a piece of paper for it. Use their money, it will keep coming. Two things drive them: greed and fear. One thing drives you: opportunity.’ Seemed like good advice. Only my father died broke.”
“Hell, I’d even failed with women. Three wives. Nothing really wrong each time. It all got destroyed by petty bickering. Railing about nothing. Getting pissed-off over anything and everything. Day by day, year by year, grinding. Instead of helping each other you just sliced away, picking at this or that. Goading. Endless goading. It became a cheap contest. And once you got into it, it became habitual. You couldn’t seem to get out. You almost didn’t want to get out. And then you did get out. All the way.”
“I hung up. I stared at the phone. Deathly damned thing. But you needed it to call 911. You never knew.”
“Boring damned people. All over the earth. Propagating more boring damned people. What a horror show. The earth swarmed with them.”
“‘We could get to know each other,’ she said.
‘It wouldn’t pay off, it would only be stupid.’
‘What makes you say that?’