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I am on the threshold of expression (Arturo Bandini)

June 18, 2010 11 comments

The Road to Los Angeles, by John Fante

The Road to Los Angeles is the second volume of the Arturo Bandini Saga. John Fante wrote it in 1936 but it was published posthumously in 1985. According to the editorial note of my American edition, the subject was too provocative for the mid-1930s. I suppose it’s due to Arturo’s atheism and his communist views. The first book of the saga is Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938), which has already been reviewed by Max Cairnduff (1) I didn’t read any other reviews before writing mine, to be sure to only express my own thoughts.

In this volume, Arturo Bandini, the alter ego of John Fante, is 18. His life is at a crossroad. After his father died, he dropped out of high school to make a living to support his mother Maria and his 16-years-old sister Mona.
The Road to Los Angeles is actually the psychological road Arturo is following to leave childhood behind him and move out to Los Angeles to start his grown-up life. The novel is centred on Arturo’s inner mind. He struggles to discover who he is and what he will do with his life. Early in the novel, he declares he wants to be a writer:

“The writing instinct has always lain dormant in me. Now it is in the process of metamorphosis. The era of transition has passed. I am on the threshold of expression.”

We thus follow him through his metamorphosis.
His adolescence is not finished yet and he has typical teenage rebellion crises. He fights with his mother and has a stormy relationship with his nun-to-be sister. He reads frantically all kinds of books, delights in grandiloquent expressions and concepts, without quite understanding them. He rejects his Catholic education, becomes obsessed with sex and now worships the secular Trinity of males: Legs, Breasts and Bottoms. (NB: Brain wishes it could one day dismiss one of the Trinity members to take their place but yet to no avail.)
Let’s follow Arturo at the public library :

“Will you show me the history section?” I said.
She smiled that she would, and I followed. It was a disappointment. The dress was the wrong kind, a light blue; the light didn’t penetrate. I watched the curve of her heels. I felt like kissing them. At History, she turned and sensed I’d been thinking of her deeply. I felt the cold you through her. She want back to the desk. I pulled out books and put them back again. She still felt my thoughts, but I didn’t want to think of anything else. Her legs were crossed under the desk. They were wonderful. I wanted to hug them.
Our eyes met and she smiled, with a smile that said: go ahead and look if you like; there’s nothing I can do about it, although I’d like to slap your face. I wanted to talk to her. I could quote her swell things from Nietzsche; that passage from Zarathustra on voluptuousness. Ah! But I could never quote that one”

He has multiple fantasies about real and unreal women. When they’re real, he never dares talking to them. Since I’m a woman, I don’t know how it feels to be an adolescent boy but Fante seems insightful. I do remember though my legs being watched that way and being given such silly nicknames as “Beautiful Legs”, whose you never know whether they’re a tribute to your legs or an offence to your unremarkable face.
Moreover, having a Catholic Italian-French grand-mother, I do sympathize with his rebellion against religion. I dreamt of ditching mass and couldn’t because my grand-mother would be checking I was there. I remember quite well the fight I had with my father when I declared I would never attend mass again.

Arturo goes through teenage mood swings. He may be deeply convinced he is a genius and a minute later, be as deeply convinced that he is a despicable loser. He experiences outbursts of violence, which can be physical, like spending an afternoon killing crabs, or verbal, with swearwords Captain Haddock would be proud of:

“You sanctimonious, retch-provoking she-nun of a bitch-infested nausea-provoking nun of vile boobish baboon of a brummagem Catholic heritage.”

When Arturo eventually writes his first novel, the metamorphosis is completed.

“I looked up. It was daylight. The fog choked the room. The gas was out. My hands were numb. A blister showed on my pencil finger. My eyes burned. My back ached. I could barely move from the cold. But never in my life had I felt better.”

His story may not be the best novel ever written but now he’s sure he’s meant to be a writer. Writing brings him happiness.
Fante succeeds in describing the turmoil of adolescence and its luxuriant imaginary life. He never judges Arturo. His look is full of tenderness but without concealing Arturo’s flaws or foolishness and his benevolence reaches the reader.
Apart from Arturo’s personal dramas, Fante also succeeds in showing the life and work conditions of poor immigrants workers. Indeed, the latest job Arturo takes is in a fish cannery. He spends his first day vomiting because of the heavy and persistent smell of mackerels and on his way home…

“Travelling with me was the stench of fish, a shadow that could not be seen but smelled. It followed me up the apartment the smell was everywhere, drifting straight for every corner of the apartment.”

The smell was bad enough that the Catholic Bandinis couldn’t stand the idea of eating fish and ate meat even on Fridays. John Fante describes the tough work in these factories, the heat, the absurdity of the job.

“My uncle was right about the work, all right. It was work done without thinking. You might just as well have left your brains at home on that job. All we did through the whole day was stand there and move ours arms and legs.”

The workers earn just enough money to survive and are not always well fed. Fante was probably attracted to communist ideology, as many artists of the 1930s.

I discovered John Fante around 1990, through Philippe Djian’s novels and interviews. I like his style, made of short sentences and funny images. He has a real sense for picturing people and sceneries, like this description of the owner of the fish cannery.

“This man was Shorty Naylor. He was much smaller than I was. He was very thin. His collarbones stuck out. He had no teeth worth mentioning in his mouth, only one or two which were worse than nothing. His eyes were like aged oysters on a sheet of newspaper. Tobacco juice caked the corners of his mouth like dry chocolate. His was the look of a rat in waiting. It seemed he had never been out in the sun, his face was so grey.”

 Annie Proulx has also this kind of sharp and precise way of writing.
The Road to Los Angeles is huge fun. I started reading it in a train, where I had got on all stressed by work. I got off totally relaxed, smiling. This novel should prescribed as a tranquillizer!
I have at home the third volume of the saga, Ask the Dust, and I plan to read it soon.

PS : I know I used a lot of quotes in this post, but honestly, it was hard to chose. And for once, I read the book in English, so I had quotes in the proper language.

I also reviewed Ask the Dust here

(1)  http://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/category/fante-john

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