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Lady Death and Aliens From the Planet Zaros : An aging author and his aging detective keep a date with demise : PULP, By Charles Bukowski (Black Sparrow Press: $25, cloth; $13, paper; 202 pp.)

October 30, 1994|Dick Lochte | Dick Lochte's latest mystery novel, "Blue Bayou," is available in Ivy paperback

Private eye Nick Belane sits in his sleazy downtown L.A. office, alone and lonely. It's hot outside and his air conditioner is on the fritz. His rent is overdue. He looks at a fly crawling across the top of his desk. Ever since the prime of Raymond Chandler, and probably long before that, fictional private eyes have been sitting at their desks, sweating and studying flies. But "Pulp's" Belane is a little different. A woozily parodic creation of the swirling mind of the late writer-poet Charles Bukowski, he is both earthier and more fanciful than his predecessors. And his pursuits are certainly more literary.

For example, Chandler's Philip Marlowe (in the novel "The Little Sister") uses a swatter on his fly, then picks the insect up daintily by one wing and deposits it into a wastebasket. Belane smashes his with his bare hand and, barely pausing to wipe the result onto his pants leg, he fields a call from a client. It's Lady Death. Not some television horror movie hostess, but the genuine article. She hires Belane to find Louis-Ferdinand Celine, who has been seen at a used book store searching for Faulkner first editions. The problem is that the French novelist died back in the '60s. And if that isn't enough to make a shamus swill all the sake in his bottom desk drawer, Lady Death is just the first of a series of clients with odd requests.

There's John Barton, who hires him to get a line on the elusive Red Sparrow, whatever it may be. And entrepreneur Jack Bass, who asks him to follow Mrs. Bass, the former Miss Chili Cookoff of 1990, who he thinks may be deceiving him with another man. And, strangest of all, there 4-foot-8 Hal Grovers, who wants him to get rid of the woman who's making his life a living hell, Jeannie Nitro, who just happens to be one of six space aliens from the planet Zaros here to settle down on our browning earth.

In true detective novel tradition, the cases are related. And in his own blunt, heavy-handed manner, Belane works his way through to their solutions. This makes for a whimsical and oddly charming (a word not often used in describing Bukowski's work) spoof. The literary allusions are amusing. John Barton is a stand-in for John Martin, the owner of Black Sparrow Press, his publisher of record. Celine was a novelist whose world view and use of argot probably made him a Bukowski favorite. Two dim leg-breakers are named Dante and Fante, the former probably a reference to the poet of "Divine Comedy" fame, the latter to John Fante who pioneered fictional studies of Hollywood's demimonde a bit before Bukowski. The explanation of the author's reason for depicting them as thugs I leave to better informed students of his work, along with any subtext to the rest of the cast of characters, including bookstore owner Red Kowldowsky, McKelvy the landlord and the treacherous beauty Deja Fountain.

Bukowski obviously wasn't out to bury the private detective genre with this playful pastiche. But he was toying with its conventions, with the smart talk and tough guy attitude. Probably of deeper import is the realization that, with all the boozy goofiness and slapstick whimsy of Belane's caper, this is very much an autobiographical work, a portrait of the aging author as an aging private eye, always on the case whether he is following up serious lines of inquiry or tossing away all his loot at Hollywood Park or in some dim bar.

"Pulp" was printed only months after his death last March at the age of 73. Though a few decades younger, Belane's sense of his own mortality is acute. Everywhere he looks he sees people and places he knew leaving the scene. And after he delivers Celine to Lady Death and she reclaims him, Belane and his client have this conversation:

"You haven't seen the last of me," the Lady said.

"Look, baby, can't we cut a deal?"

"It's never been done, Belane."

"Well, O.K., but how about giving me a date, you know, a D.O.D.?"

"What's that?"

"Date of Demise."

"What good would that do?"

"Lady, I could prepare myself."

"Every human should anyhow, Belane."

"Lady, they don't, they forget it, they ignore it or they're just too stupid to think it."

Eventually, he arrives at his moment of truth. "This can't be happening, I thought. This isn't the way it's supposed to happen." But it does, at a time when Belane has solved all of his cases. One hopes that Bukowski solved all of his, too.

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