Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A book review: The Road to Los Angeles

The Road to Los Angeles, by John Fante, Black Sparrow Press, 164 pages, 1985. Originally written in the 1930s.

John Fante's first novel, The Road to Los Angeles, sat in the trunk for more than 50 years, finally to be published after his death. It's a brilliant, manic, energetic, wild at times almost incoherent novel of a pretentious well-read 18 year old, Arturo Bandini, trying to sow his oats in Depression-era Southern California. If Holden Caulfield had been on drugs, he might have resembled Arturo Bandini.

The subject matter might have scared away 1930s publishers. Arturo, is to put it mildly, quite eccentric. He masturbates to photos of women who he develops fantasy relationships with, then executes them by tearing the pages apart. He scorns religion, mercilessly teasing his devout mother and sister. He's a thief, a vandal, and he delights in killing crabs and other small critters. He has a vivid imagination, and manages to write a novel in a week. He also has ups and downs, and frequently maims himself and thinks of suicide.

What keeps The Road to Los Angeles at a fast pace is the vivid imagination of the author Fante. At times the novel seems written in a stream of consciousness, so quickly do ideas, mad, cruel or otherwise, flow from the mind of the character Bandini. One of the high points of the novel is Fante's description of fish canneries, where Bandini works. They are putrid, choking, grotesque factories where employees are paid 25 cents an hour and rewarded with a smell that no bath can wash away.

Fante's spare, fast-paced prose, with short sentences, was an inspiration for Charles Bukowski, who regarded Fante as his idol. Fante eventually gravitated to Hollywood and wrote mostly screenplays. One Full of Life, was also made into a movie. However, hard living and untreated diabetes left him lame and blind. He was living in obscurity in the mid 1970s when Bukowski sought out his idol, and eventually stirred re-interest in Fante's work.

-- Doug Gibson

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