REVIEW: The Road to Los Angeles

By in Culture

Arts Editor

John Fante is Arturo Bandini. The details are not perfectly aligned but, nevertheless, John Fante — the unheralded great American writer — is Arturo Bandini.

The Road to Los Angeles was Fante’s first novel. In 1933, on a $450 advance, Fante typed out a life-long alter ego in Bandini. Unfortunately, he would not make his mark with The Road to Los Angeles. The book was rejected by his publishers for being too edgy. The manuscript collected dust.

In 1983, the recently widowed Joyce Fante uncovered her husband’s lost masterpiece and Black Sparrow Press, who incidentally also publishes the work of Charles Bukowski, soon published the missing saga of Arturo Bandini.

The Road to Los Angeles essentially recounts and exaggerates Fante’s own adolescence. But unlike the other Bandini novels (Wait Until Spring, Bandini, Ask the Dust and Dreams from Bunker Hill), Fante removes the character of his father from The Road to Los Angeles.

The novel opens simply: “I had a lot of jobs in Los Angeles Harbor because our family was poor and my father was dead.” Without a father-figure, Bandini rebels against all figures of authority.

Early in the novel, other reasons for Bandini’s numerous and sporadic jobs are illuminated: an inflated ego — a result of reading and memorizing too much Nietzsche — and a knack for telling people off.

Eventually, his inability to hold down a single job leads Bandini to take employment at a fish factory on the harbor, a workplace full of immigrants. Teenage sexuality, an over active imagination and latent racism quickly bubble to the surface.

The strength of Fante’s writing lies in his ability to lay bare the inner workings of Bandini’s mind. Bandini is never the moral centre of the story; he is an angry, mildly delusional teenager, and Fante makes no excuses for what very well may have been his own prejudice and hatred at that particular stage in his life.

The connection between all of Fante’s works seems to be a psychological honesty, which at times is painful and embarrassing to read. Still, the terrible honesty of The Road to Los Angeles makes it my favourite of Fante’s work, though it contains some of the author’s most gruesome sections.

Bandini’s ritualistic destruction of his glamour magazine girls is one instance of the embarrassingly honest moments that litter Fante’s work.

Sitting in the bath, initially trying to wash the smell of fish from his skin, Bandini tears countless pictures of women to shreds. For pages and pages, the fantasies Bandini has meticulously crafted of his imaginary life with these women are recounted: “So it was that one by one I picked them up, remembered them, kissed them goodbye, and tore them to pieces. Some were reluctant to be destroyed, calling in pitiful voices from the misty depths of those vast places where we loved in weird half-dreams, the echoes of their pleas lost in the shadowed darkness that was Arturo Bandini.”

Each book from the saga of Arturo Bandini can be read on its own — many details of Bandini’s life will not match-up, anyway. Reality and fantasy are liberally blended.

If you would like to start with the most famous and influential of Fante’s work, read Ask the Dust (it’s still a cult novel but it was made into a crap feature film in 2006, starring Colin Farrell and Selma Hayek). Otherwise, start anywhere; they’re all great.