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.
I have to admit I was disappointed with the way Tarantino changes the ending, giving merely a throwaway mention early on to the ultraviolent freakout that formed the film’s finale. Of course, fans of the original will know all about the big finish already; or it could be that he wants novel and film to complement each other, as a multimedia installation. But the book is entirely outrageous and addictively readable on its own terms – even the wildly prolix digressive sections and endless savant riffs about movies and TV ... As usual, the novel shows Tarantino as a black belt in provocation ... The book is a reminder that Tarantino is, in fact, a really good writer, and it should not be so surprising that his brilliance as a screenwriter should be transferable into fiction, in the firework displays of dialogue but also the building blocks of narrative. He’s maybe not in the Elmore Leonard league but, like Leonard, he’s refreshingly unconcerned with the literary mainstream. I read this in one sitting – just like watching a film.