Bells & whistles, and Charles Bukowski
“Pinball Wizard,” by Michael D. Meloan (IF SF Publishing, 132 pp, $15)
by Bondo Wyszpolski
Michael Meloan’s short novel doesn’t have anything to do with either Elton John or The Who’s “Tommy,” but early on the protagonist, Ralph Hargraves, is asked this question: Are you the Pinball Wizard or the pinball? The book sort of revolves around that question, which we’ll get back to later on.
In that it takes place largely in and around the South Bay, but with some name changes, “Pinball Wizard” reminds me a little of Thomas Pyncheon’s “Inherent Vice,” also set in this neighborhood, so to speak, but there’s a bit of the hard-edged writing that James Elroy is known for, as well as a terse prose style that, unsurprisingly, brings to mind Charles Bukowski. Unsurprising because Bukowski and his wife, Linda, feature prominently in these pages.
I’m not sure what year the story takes place. There are several references to 1960s recording artists, for instance, and Hargraves’ girlfriend, Chrissie, works at Linda’s Elysian Fields health food restaurant and performs during open mic nights at Sweetwater. Those two establishments (Elysian Fields was, in actuality, the Dew Drop Inn) are long since gone, but from other references it’s possible the novel is set during the early 1980s. At the very least, no one’s chatting on a cell phone or posting on social media.
Hargraves resides in Redondo Beach, in “an aging singles complex with a lap pool, two Jacuzzis, and a large cedar sauna. The elevators were lethargic and the hallways smelled of mold.” He’s employed as a computer programmer, or software engineer, for a high-security firm in El Segundo called The HighFrontier Consortium.
One of Hargraves’ colleagues is named Charlie Phillips, a man who dreams of one day going off the grid. He’s politically active, and “He also bragged that he didn’t own a credit card.” Phillips is clearly some kind of influence on Hargraves, and much later in the book, when Phillips has been let go from HighFrontier, he moves out near Palm Springs where he lives in a trailer. Hargraves will go out and visit, and the two will spend a day up in the hills.I guess that’s one of many subplots, and the reader can take from it what he will. But the central part of the story (and we’re not forgetting about Bukowski yet) occurs when Hargraves heads off to England, where he ends up 80 miles outside of London on a military base, punching in some code that’s all part of a top secret project called Pinball Wizard.
Chrissie, whom Hargraves reluctantly brings to England, is somewhat of a loose cannon, perhaps one’s idea of a stereotypical 1960s hippie chick, into sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. He meets her at a costume party in Hermosa Beach, and before you can say Jack Flash they’re in bed together. But, working with Linda at Elysian Fields, Chrissie’s met Charlies Bukowski, and before long Hargraves has met the fabled writer as well.
Meloan’s depiction of a growling, often intoxicated Bukowski is impressive, and presumably derived from his own personal encounters with the man. He describes parties at the house in San Pedro where Bukowski and Linda lived, and Linda still does, and it’s a place I myself have been to on occasion so I was able to envision the various rooms, including Bukowski’s writing nook upstairs with a view of the harbor.At any rate, after an angry Bukowski shows up at Elysian Fields complaining that he’s lost five poems on his computer, Hargraves heads over to San Pedro and manages to retrieve four of the five works. Before the evening is out Bukowski and Linda get into a heated argument and Bukowski tells Linda to get out. Then he goes up and starts typing.
That’s somewhat of a harbinger of what’s to come. In the meantime there’s another subplot swirling around, this one concerning Hargraves’ parents who have separated after many years of marriage. His mother has taken up with an old family friend and seems happier than she’s been in years. There’s a glimmer of life here but, without giving anything away, it suddenly fades away.
There’s a final gathering at Bukowski’s and Linda’s home, this one on New Years Eve, and it ends pretty badly, especially for the invited guests who are unceremoniously kicked out. I mentioned that Chrissie is somewhat of a loose cannon and perhaps the same could be said of Bukowski, at least as he’s depicted here.
In other words, a lot of unpredictable people and events, which leads us back to the question, is Hargraves a Pinball Wizard or the pinball? As a computer whiz Hargraves is, indeed, a Pinball Wizard, at least of sorts, but he’s also a pinball in a pinball machine, the way most of us are in fact, subject to chance and fate and which way the wind happens to be blowing.
“Pinball Wizard” is a quick read with straight, forward prose, no fancy or flowery stuff. Meloan, who came of age in the South Bay (we were classmates at Palos Verdes High School a long time ago), injects fact and fiction into his writing and seems to have relished mixing it around. I’d like to see what he comes up with next. Available by way of ifsfpublishing.com/Pinball-Wizard. ER