(Reviewed by JD Jung)
“The universe shrank daily around me, the bookstore itself was the center, the black hole, the very bottomless hell that would consume me in the end. ..the bookstore was insatiable, a structure of otherworldly forces. It devoured everything that came within its sphere of gravity, and didn’t bother to spit out the pieces.”
Nick Kastinovich, owner of The Little Big Bookstore, simply wanted to supply his harbor community of San Pedro, CA with quality literature, not the mediocre fare prevalent in chain bookstores. He felt most authors followed a basic formula; he was seeking those who took chances. However the more difficult this became, the more obsessive he became. He could either make money and pay off his creditors, or make it his mission to discover great authors and poets and keep them and existing ones from fading into obscurity.
This quest consumed him to the point in which he imagined that the great writers such as Poe, Twain, Dostoyevsky, Cervantes and Fante were actually in the bookstore making fun of him. He was sure that even the books were mischievous as they were moving when no one was watching.
Nick admired the work of local legend and acquaintance Charles Bukowski, but all of a sudden it hit him that Bukowski along with Hemingway were just like the others, mediocre. He wrote a scathing letter to Bukowski and then feared that “L.A.’s meanest poet of the streets” would retaliate. For the sake of what sanity he did have left, he escaped the bookstore, taking a Hemingway-esque trip to Mexico while still consumed with constant fear and paranoia that Bukowski was on his tail.
As a tribute to the independent bookstore, this well-written, character-driven novel takes us through the daily life and thoughts of a once indifferent twenty-eight year old who found his passion by struggling to uncover and preserve remarkable literature. Our protagonist isn’t the only essential character in this fictionalized memoir. Each of the supporting characters who work or roam the streets of 1980s San Pedro- –also coping with various levels of sanity— plays a vital role in making this a unique and enjoyable read.
If you only appreciate formulaic run-of-the-mill novels, the dark but comic Shadowboxing with Bukowski is not for you. However, if you’re like me (and Nick for that matter) who are desperately seeking something introspective, distinctive and different, you’ll enjoy this one.