I’d never heard of American writer John Fante before being recommended this book, The Road to Los Angeles by Emma and Guy of Bookaroundthecorner and His Futile Preoccupations under their Merry Christmas Humbook scheme. I had no idea what to expect but knew that John Fante has attracted attention as a significant American writer of the 1930s era.
In The Road to Los Angeles we read a first person account of a year or two in the life of aspiring writer Arturo Bandini, a young man still living with his mother and younger sister and trying to support them by working at menial jobs for minuscule wages.
Bandini seems to have a touch of ego-mania, believing he is called to higher things but full of frustrations of all types – sexual, professional, familial and also with a hefty does of status-anxiety. He believes he is a gifted writer in the making although as the book opens this seems to be more aspiration than reality and it is only towards the end of the book that he finally gushes out a vast sprawling novel which seems to be an example of the “angry young man” genre.
I found Bandini to be a pretty unappealing character. Vivid bursts of verbal abuse, largely targeted at innocent bystanders, reveal him to be racist, sexist and full of contempt for almost everyone he encounters. He is seems to be without friends and almost completely alienated from his family. No doubt this comes from his sense of bewilderment that he, a great writer, has to work for 25 cents an hour in a canning factory and use a broom-cupboard as his study.
As I read the book I realised that Bandini shows all the personality traits of psychopathy with its grandiose sense of self-worth, it’s need for stimulation, proneness to boredom, parasitic lifestyle, lack of realistic, long-term goals, impulsiveness, irresponsibility, lack of remorse or guilt, emotional shallowness, callousness and lack of empathy (see Wikipedia psychopathy check-list).
Much of the book consists of a sub-Joycean stream of consciousness as Bandini struggles to understand the injustice of his life, taking out his frustration on various small creatures along the way (another well-known trait of young psychopaths!) –
I crawled on all fours to the place at the edge of the lily pond where roamed bugs and crickets, and I caught a cricket. A black cricket, fat and well-built, with electric energy in his body. And there he lay in my hand, that cricket, and he was I, the cricket that was, he was I, Arturo Bandini, black and undeserving of the fair white princess, and I lay on my belly and watched him crawl over the places her sacred white fingers had touched, he too enjoying as he passed the sweet taste of blue dye. Then he tried to escape. With a jump he was on his way. I was forced to break his legs. There was absolutely no alternative. I said to him, “Bandini, I am sorry. But duty compels me. The Queen wishes it—the beloved Queen.” Now he crawled painfully, in wonder at what had taken place. Oh fair white Miss Hopkins, observe! Oh queen of all the heavens and the earth. Observe! I crawl at thy feet, a mere black cricket, a scoundrel, unworthy to be called human.
On another occasion he spends an afternoon sitting under a bridge killing crabs, first by bashing them with rocks and later with an air-rifle –
I shot crabs all that afternoon, until my shoulder hurt behind the gun and my eyes ached behind the gunsight. I was Dictator Bandini, Ironman of Crabland. This was another Blood Purge for the good of the Fatherland. They had tried to unseat me, those damned crabs, they had had the guts to try to foment a revolution, and I was getting revenge. To think of it! It infuriated me. These goddamned crabs had actually questioned the might of Superman Bandini!
As well as being a threat to small creatures, Bandini is also a nightmare to his employers and his fellow-workers. At one point, his boss asks him if he knows how to operate a hand-cart, eliciting the response,
“Of course I didn’t know how to work a hand truck. I was a writer. Of course I didn’t know. I laughed and pulled up my dungarees. “Very funny! Do I know how to work a hand truck! And you ask me that! Haw. Do I know how to work a hand truck!”.
He is assigned to work with a co-worker, a Mexican, to shift a load of boxes with the hand-cart and after the Mexican has shifted a few loads, Bendini decides to try the hand-cart himself, only succeeding in knocking over a vast pile of boxes as the Mexian tells him, “Too many, too many!”.
As the boxes fall, Bandini turns around and screams, “Will you shut your goddamn greaser face, you goddamn Mexican peon of a boot-licking bourgeois proletarian capitalist!”.
Fante’s work tears along at a furious pace, mixing bravado, self-pity, crudeness, cruelty, bursts of frustration and anger, youthful lust and sexual obsessiveness. The writing grabs my attention and forced me to carry on with the book despite my loathing for the character and his dark heart. Reading the book is not a pleasant experience but it’s certainly memorable!
I have been trying to think of other books like this one. Someone compared it with Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, but Salinger’s is a much kinder, more subtle book. In some ways I was thinking of early Jack Kerouac but there is more poetry in Kerouac’s writing. Perhaps Arthur Miller’s Black Spring which describes the writer’s youthful years in Paris comes closest – Wikipedia describes Miller’s writing as “a mixture of novel, autobiography, social criticism, philosophical reflection, surrealist free association, and mysticism” – an almost exact description of John Fante’s writing in The Road to Los Angeles (but without the mysticism perhaps).