Tarantino’s first novel is, to borrow a phrase from his oeuvre, a tasty beverage ... Tarantino isn’t trying to play here what another novelist/screenwriter, Terry Southern, liked to call the Quality Lit Game. He’s not out to impress us with the intricacy of his sentences or the nuance of his psychological insights. He’s here to tell a story, in take-it-or-leave-it Elmore Leonard fashion, and to make room along the way to talk about some of the things he cares about — old movies, male camaraderie, revenge and redemption, music and style. He gets it: Pop culture is what America has instead of mythology. He got bitten early by this notion, and he’s stayed bitten. The novel is loose-jointed. If it were written better, it’d be written worse. It’s a mass-market paperback that reeks of mass-market paperbacks. In my memory, it’s the smell of warm coconut oil and dust mites and puddling Mercurochrome ... Tarantino goes so deep into Manson’s once-promising music career, you may feel you’re reading a back issue of Rolling Stone or Mojo magazine ... Tarantino makes telling a page-turning story seem easy, which is the hardest trick of all.
The book is a distinct experience — rangier, sexier, bloodier. More wistful, and somewhat more oblique in meaning, it expands the film’s world even as it comments upon it ... Some lines are lifted verbatim from the screenplay, but there’s plenty of new material too ... Cinephilia is integral to Tarantino’s work, and Once Upon a Time is a fanboy’s scrapbook of period detail. A footnoted edition would run twice the length parsing references to forgotten actors, separating real from invented movies and glossing the insider talk about old action movies. How much readers will enjoy all this may depend on their familiarity with Golden Age Hollywood. But even casual Tarantino fans will enjoy his self-referential nods ... Tarantino’s explosive dialogue, with its blend of streetwise and formal cadences, is almost as effective written down as read aloud ... And although the brio with which he imitates period idiom produces the occasional absurdity, on the whole it helps to create an authentically pulpy atmosphere ... Tarantino is a narrator who likes to show and tell, making him a boisterous if somewhat undisciplined presence. There’s often no tidy line between a character’s perspective and the narrator’s, and given the decidedly non-PC attitudes on display, this can be a little hair-raising. (Not that he cares.) It can also disrupt the period effect ... Absent the voluptuous thrills of the cinematic experience — the operatic splatter, the rambunctious camerawork, the golden needle-drops — Once Upon a Time is perhaps less like a trip to the movies than a night in with Tarantino. Chapters have the propulsive thrust of anecdotes; his exuberant excess is the dominant charm. Far from being the throwaway artifact it sometimes pretends to be, Tarantino’s first novel may even, as he’s hinted, herald the start of a new direction for this relentlessly inventive director.
... the 400-page novel wears its sprawling messiness on its sleeve and frequently expands on and deviates from the film ... Fittingly, the novel often reads like the affable, drunken remembrances of things past from those seasoned showbiz Old Timers—replete with Tarantino’s trademark foot fetishism for good measure. The most elating moments stem from the alternative Hollywood histories Tarantino concocts, bits of which yield terrifically fourth-wall-obliterating winks to the reader (including a brief reimagined possibility of his own career). Admittedly, for anyone looking to quench a thirst for something resembling truth about Charles Manson and the murder of Sharon Tate—not to mention Roman Polanski’s relationship with the actress—this book unfortunately runs dry ... However, for fans of Once upon a Time … in Hollywood’s buddy duo for the ages, Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, those glibly shallow, factually weak points are easy to overlook in a book with such effervescent delights to offer in the company of these wonderful characters. If Tarantino’s 10th film is indeed his cinematic swan song, this novel bodes well for a worthy post-retirement creative chapter ahead.