…was not exactly what I expected. And that in and of itself is never a bad thing – I like to be thrown for a loop. However, what I didn’t expect was to hate his main character, Arturo Bandini, so damn much.
My wife consoled me afterward – she is far more wide read than I. She assured me that Fante runs close to Bukowski in that many of his characters are completely unlikeable. That’s fine, but in the little bits of Bukowski I’ve read (One novel, a handful of short stories and a lot of poetry or journal type stuff) I’ve never come across anyone I disliked as much as I did Bandini.
The Road to Los Angeles is Fante’s first novel, however it wasn’t the first he had published. In fact, RTLA was a posthumous work his widow culled from his papers – Arturo’s origin never saw the light of day while his creator was alive, and I can’t help but wonder if there might not have been a part of John Fante that would have preferred that.
First, the book, which I was surprised to cherish so much in spite of my raging dislike for the main character, is an excellent first novel. Some would argue that point, in that there’s not really a whole lot that happens, and if you’re into taut narratives don’t bother. What RTLA really gives us is a succession of days in the life of Arturo Bandini, Fante’s altar ego; his habitual masturbation in the coat closet with images of woman clipped from art magazines (this is the 30’s for Christ’s sake), his succession of meaningless jobs and intolerant bosses; his family dynamic in a situation where his father has passed, his uncle doesn’t like or trust him (admittedly with good reason) and his mother and sister, who financially rely on him, argue with him or receive the short end of his intolerance stick. The good elements of the book, and this has a lot to do with the fact that I live pretty much in the heart of the part of Los Angeles where the story takes place, the satellite harbor community of San Pedro, is the intimate relationship Bandini has as he walks the streets of Pedro at night, spying on the Ports of Call, frequenting small shops and following locals around through the shadier districts of the working class city. Fante’s simple and often pedestrian descriptions are those of an eighteen-year old boy who has no idea who he is and, based on some of his more disturbed habits, probably has some mental problems. But as Arturo walks the streets and sashes up next to the ocean you get a real feeling for what he’s seeing and it endeared the book, the writer and the city of San Pedro even more to me.
But yeah, Bandini’s pretty disturbed and it is in that facet of the story, his first person ad nasuem fantasizing about being dictator/commander/world renowned writer/artist/lover/etc. and these fantasies’ manifestation as a slew of compulsory acts of violence toward animals, that I really had issue. Animal violence is second only to rape for me as far as areas where I don’t want narratives to go, and even though we’re not talking animals such as cats or dogs being harmed, it is animals nonetheless that quite often suffer at the hands of, as he thinks of himself, ‘The Great Bandini’. The scene that almost made me sick to my stomach was one where Bandini crawls down to the rocks just along the ocean, realizes he’s in the midst of dozens of crabs and then proceeds to kill pretty much almost ALL of them by hurtling their bodies against the rocks and running a block or two away to buy a BB gun and then running back to shoot them as many times as it takes to see them all in pieces, the entire time narrating to himself (and us of course) how he will long be renowned in the crab community as their ultimate and most worthy enemy.
Yeah, I was sickened.
This behavior persists and at times I was sure I was not going to finish RTLA. However, not unlike Cormac McCarthy’s The Road*, which sickened me for other reasons, Fante’s first was a novel I read and at times hated, but now feel a little more kindly toward after having finished it. And although I surprising found myself eager to jump into the second, Wait Until Spring Bandini, it’s going to have to wait a bit as I’ve just found and fallen in love with John Crowley’s Little, Big.
So many books, so little time.
* In retrospect I liked The Road a lot, however at the time of reading it I was often immersed in a dreadful state of despair and frustration.