John Fante’s Road to Los Angeles

The one for whom I write…. will have to weep out of compassion…. then he will laugh, for he has recognized himself…. I offer him a puzzle: his greatest danger? would it be to weep—or to laugh? or to survive his tears? or to survive his laughter?
—Georges Bataille, Inner Experience

There was too much to say, and no way to say it.
—John Fante, The Road to Los Angeles
John Fante’s biographer, Stephen Cooper, remarks on a curious document found among Fante’s papers after his death. Preceding the Arturo Bandini novels, the fragment concerns the young Arturo as a passive observer of his brother who is named Johnny. Around the same time Fante, 25 years old, published his first short story, Altar Boy. The year was 1934. It might be said that all of Fante’s protagonists are versions of himself, and that he is a casebook study on what it means to “write what you know”. But this early Arturo fragment might pinpoint the moment when Fante’s bifurcated consciousness first became manifest in prose fiction.

By 1936 Fante had come in contact with Elizabeth Nowell, the literary agent who helped critique the novel he was working on and which we know today as The Road to Los Angeles. One of the most important things she did for the young writer was introduce him to Hunger and other novels by Knut Hamsun. Despite her high opinion of Fante’s gifts, their relationship had dissolved by year’s end. Fante finished the novel without any further assistance from her and was unable to get it published.

The publishers didn’t simply reject The Road to Los Angeles. They hated it. Knopf, with whom Fante had signed a contract for a novel, informed the young writer that they were particularly disappointed, that the book was “unworthy of publication”. Viking Press suggested that the “vicious little satire” would only offend readers. Stackpole Sons detested the manuscript. However, by 1938 they had proudly published Fante’s second Bandini effort, and Wait Until Spring, Bandini became known as John Fante’s first novel (The Road to Los Angeles wasn’t published until after Fante’s death).

There are marked differences between the first two Bandini novels. The Road to Los Angeles takes place in Wilmington, California and Arturo’s father is deceased. In Wait Until Spring, Bandini the father is very much alive and the family resides in Boulder, Colorado. But the biggest differences are in style and tone. Wait Until Spring, Bandini has a classical beauty about it, and despite some harrowing details it is Fante’s warmest book. He works magic in that novel, and the final pages sparkle with charm and poetry. Rough cut, and deliberately so, written in short, sharp and sometimes brutal declarative sentences, The Road to Los Angeles is Fante at his harshest and most raw.

It wasn’t easy to get that kind of thing published in the 1930’s in America. Nathanael West had published a few novels, but in small editions that didn’t sell. Henry Miller had to go to Paris, where something like Journey to the End of the Night could see the light of day. Yet when Tropic of Cancer finally made it to the United States in 1961, thanks to Barney Rosset of Grove Press, author and publisher were subjected to a ridiculous obscenity trial. The Home of the Brave was not bold enough, in 1936, for The Road to Los Angeles.

But what if it had been published? It’s a fascinating question. Most likely it would not have sold well. It would not have received the widespread acclaim that Wait Until Spring, Bandini did. But then, would Wait Until Spring have even been written? More importantly, would his third novel, Ask the Dust, have been written? For if Fante proved he could produce a publishable novel, he then proved that he could do so while bringing in more of the disturbing elements of the unpublishable one. In doing so, he produced his masterpiece. There aren’t a lot of novels that I am prepared to say are perfect. Not one word of Ask the Dust need be rearranged or removed and not one added. And yet it retains (or reclaims) the bluster and the agony of the novel that everyone in the young John Fante’s life considered a failure. He took the best of his first two novels and blended them into something that deserves to stand among the finest things America has produced. In the process, he took failure and success and blended them.

Yet as good as Ask the Dust is, I have a special fondness for the novel that Fante couldn’t get published. First off, it’s brilliant writing. Take this paragraph as an example:

The stairs squealed like a nest of mice. Our apartment was the last on the second floor. As soon as I touched the door knob I felt low. Home always did that to me. Even when my father was alive and we lived in a real house I didn’t like it. I always wanted to get away from it, or change it. I used to wonder what home would be like if it was different, but I never could figure out what to do to make it different. [p 16]

Look at the amount of information packed in there. We know he lives in a very old building without an elevator. We know that he used to live in a house, that his father is dead, that coming home brings him down. But coming home has always brought him down, so it’s not the house but the home that depresses him. We know that he has always wanted to get away or change his home, but he is utterly helpless to do so, even in imagination. He’s trapped. It’s a picture of absolute helplessness.

And I can’t help but admire Fante’s courage. All of his fiction has this quality. We call it integrity and honesty. There’s a tough strain of it in The Road to Los Angeles. Arturo Bandini feels trapped and helpless at the same time he’s beginning to explode with adolescent and intellectual power. The episode early in the novel where Arturo kills hundreds of crabs for no reason whatsoever is intense enough to recall Lautréamont or even Sade. But what his prospective publishers saw as monstrous I see as an unmistakable reflection of Arturo’s unendurable frustration. Moreover, Fante takes on the extremely difficult subject of masturbation. He cannot paint a portrait of Arturo Bandini without showing the 18 year-old boy/man with his treasured pictures from Artists and Models in the “land of white dreams groping in the fog of himself”. Off the top of my head I can’t think of anyone in the arts who took on masturbation as a serious theme nearly as effectively, with the exception of Egon Schiele in the visual arts and more recently, in film, David Lynch and Darren Aronofsky.

But what I admire most in The Road to Los Angeles is a much more subtle characteristic than the other factors mentioned. It has to do with Fante’s ability to play himself with the instrument of Arturo Bandini through the medium of prose fiction. Stephen Cooper described it as Fante’s “double consciousness to stand outside himself as both critical and creative observer” [p 64]. Elizabeth Nowell, Fante’s early advisor, understood it keenly:

Now you, John Fante, are a sort of split personality for the purposes of this argument. On the one side you’re Arturo with all his petty weaknesses…. On the OTHER side you’re a really fine and talented writer…. with [the] power of being a character and still seeing that character from the god-the-author angle…. [quoted by Cooper, p 130]

I have called it Fante’s bifurcated consciousness, and I liken it to the actor’s art, albeit with an entirely different skill set related to the written word. A good actor uses himself as an instrument to play the character he is called upon to play. Fante used himself in a special way—through his double, Arturo, forging a blend of fact and fantasy, at once inside and outside the character who was, in truth, not so much a character as an extension of himself, and that is why I like to say he played himself. Fiction writers and dramatists do this all the time. Fante was a master. And because he had mastered it, his play could take on the appearance of mirror play, refracting along levels in the act of fiction writing. Thus we have Arturo Bandini talking to himself:

What a day! What a hell of a day! I walked along talking to myself about it, discussing it. I always did that, talking aloud to myself in a heavy whisper. Usually it was fun, because I always had the right answers. But not that night. I hated the mumbling that went on inside my mouth. It was like the drone of a trapped bumblebee. The part of me which supplied answers to my questions kept saying Oh nuts! You crazy liar! You fool! You jack-ass! Why don’t you tell the truth once in a while? [p72]

We see Fante’s bifurcated consciousness duplicated in his character, Arturo. Fante uses the schizoid state that Arturo walks around in to give us the bitter truth in a technique rich in irony and leavened by humor.

Sometimes The Road to Los Angeles borders on satire. But for me there’s too much realism in it to be full-blown satire, unless one considers Arturo’s alternating self-loathing and grandiloquence a form of bitter self-satire. But this, again, is a function of who he is. It’s realistic. It looked outrageous to his would-be publishers and it looks outrageous today for the simple reason that it is outrageous. Adolescence, particularly the form of it undergone by Arturo Bandini, is outrageous. Perhaps if it had been filtered through more satire, more humor, and if its violence had been toned down, Knopf et al. might have found it palatable. We’ll never know. But I have to wonder, at a time when incredulity from Americans repeatedly arises at our inability to stop another Dylann Roof, if we are unable to come to terms with our own violent impulses. We were resistant in the thirties and we’re resistant now. We’ve always balked at facing our own violence, even while we wallow in it as the pap of mass entertainment. Fante shows a lot more than he tells in The Road to Los Angeles. Confronting such a painful portrait of adolescence—without the pap—takes work. Maybe it was too real to be published.

Its theme is bitterly familiar to me. As a teenage boy I swung back and forth, just like Arturo, between, on the one hand, extreme arrogance and dreams of glory and, on the other, debilitating self-loathing. My relations with my family were deeply troubled. When I was Arturo’s age I worked in a restaurant and there were nights I couldn’t sleep before I fantasized about destroying the whole establishment, piece by piece, then going to my parents’ house, hundreds of miles away, and tearing them limb from limb. I find Arturo’s violent outbursts entirely realistic. We aren’t told when Arturo’s father died but it seems to be a fresh wound. We know the family once lived in a house but now, with the father dead, they have downsized to a dilapidated apartment. The family lives in crushing poverty and the 18 year-old Arturo is expected to step up and support his mother and sister. He tries and fails, repeatedly. His growing mind is exploding with energy he neither understands nor knows what to do with. And of course there’s sexual frustration. His mother is a pious Catholic. Arturo is leaning toward atheism. He is intimidated by his sister’s intelligence and beauty. Rather than coming together as allies, the two tease each other competitively. Others have singled out violent episodes of the novel that are most disturbing to them. For me it’s when, in the midst of an argument, Arturo physically hits Mona, his sister. It’s a devastating moment, upsetting the whole household. Men who physically abuse their girlfriends or wives start somewhere, and in this passage we see the possible beginning of a future wife beater. We don’t want it to happen. We want desperately for Arturo to get his shit together, but we know that this event will scar both of them forever. Most importantly, if you know how to read what is shown, it is apparent that Arturo’s violence comes from an overwhelming feeling of helplessness combined with an inability to escape his own misery. In the same move that Fante allows the reader to empathize with Mona, he shows that Arturo is blocked by his own self-absorption. Arturo hits Mona out of a tragically failed attempt to exert control.

As a young man I learned how to confront and begin to understand the violence within me. Certain books and writers were a great help. I recognized Arturo Bandini in Ask the Dust. However, I never saw a copy of The Road to Los Angeles when it could have helped me the most.

We are not deprived of opportunities to laugh at Arturo. For me the funniest part is when Arturo is fantasizing in the heat, squalor and crushing labor of the fish cannery about impressing a rich girl one day with his published book, The Colossus of Destiny. Arturo’s suffering, at such moments, is just too ridiculous to bear, when laughter erupts like an electrical charge and the body convulses in the meeting of two extremes: Arturo’s dreams and ambitions on one side and his utterly abject condition on the other. Arturo seems a little too intelligent and self-aware to concoct a title like “Colossus of Destiny”. The title is a little textual device invented by the god-author to set off that charge of laughter, a little IED hidden in plain sight.

There are other such devices. Fante’s scenes with Shorty Naylor, Arturo’s boss, are beautifully constructed to at once show us Arturo’s potent contempt for the man while revealing the man’s humanity—a very skillful and subtle accomplishment given the first person narrative form. Here we see the fulfillment of the qualities that Elizabeth Nowell encouraged in the young writer.

We can be thankful that Stephen Cooper (like Charles Bukowski) was struck by Ask the Dust at a young age when he was trying to be a writer, because he then went on not only to write a superb biography, but also edited an edition of previously uncollected stories by John Fante. For Cooper, Ask the Dust is the quintessential Los Angeles novel, and Fante is the father of contemporary Los Angeles fiction. I’m not familiar enough with the body of fiction from Los Angeles writers to doubt him. But neither have I been to Los Angeles, nor have Fante’s novels ever made me want to visit Los Angeles, although I’m sure it’s a fine city and well worth the visit. The point is, it’s not necessary to have any knowledge of Los Angeles to get the full power of these novels. Therefore, that power lies in something apart from locale. Obviously it has to do with the experience of being male and American and coming from poverty. If in addition you have tortured relations with your parents and are beset by uncontrollable dreams of being an artist, then the conditions are right for drinking the Bandini Kool-Aid. Enjoy!

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5 Responses to John Fante’s Road to Los Angeles

  1. Susan Scheid says:

    No one could ask for a more thoughtful, perceptive reader than you are, including, into the bargain, your own pithy turns of phrase: “it’s not the house but the home that depresses him.” You know, for me, violence, beyond throwing a book of Harold Bloom’s writings across the room, is so alien I find it imponderable. It’s not a matter of any presumption that I am a better “class” of person, but rather comes out of the deep physical knowledge that, were I to attempt resorting to it, I would end up the loser. So I may not meet the criteria you note for engaging with Fante (who was entirely unfamiliar to me), but what you write here makes me want to take a look, at the very least.

    • My aggression never took the form of hitting someone. Mostly I only hurt myself. It involved overpowering feelings of rage that, if I did not learn to understand and assuage, would have destroyed me. In my case it stemmed from abuse from my father. The biggest part of the healing process was forgiving my father, yet without pretending the two of us could be friends.

      Fante is one of my favorite prose stylists. I’ve wanted to write about him for a long time, but never thought I could do him justice. Try his short stories. They’re packed with emotion and very funny.

      • Susan Scheid says:

        Mark: thanks for that suggestion. I’ll look out for them. You have taught and continue to teach me a great deal, not least by your example of coming out of the childhood you’ve described from time to time with a strong, clear-eyed sense of how to be, positively and creatively,in a fraught and uncertain world.

  2. M says:

    I live 50 miles south of LA, though it’s been said it has no center, but rather a collection of nodes. I’m unfamiliar with Fante – indeed, I’m desperately de-literate, so will search this out; these days it seems I’m unable to hold thought longer than a short poem in my head – the curse of screens, and staring at the aisles and miles of books in a library daunts me. Yesterday, at lunch break from jury duty (I wasn’t selected), I braved the sun and sauntered 200 yards from the Santa Ana courthouse to the library. Inside, a coterie of relatively cleaned-up homeless people slumped in many of the chairs, reading, napping in safety, evincing a palpable serenity in respite from the rough streets that inevitably surround the seat of ‘justice’ in every sizable city I’ve ever visited. Your reading exudes the rawness and close-to-the-street power of the prose; yet in the house of books, under the roof of paper, we all seem to find a measure of peace. ~

  3. Pingback: What I’ve been reading | The Mockingbird Sings

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