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THE ROAD to Los Angeles by John Fante (Black Sparrow: $17.50, hardcover; $10, paperback; 164 pp.)

November 17, 1985|Edward M. White | White is professor of English at Cal State San Bernardino and author of "Teaching and Assessing Writing" (Jossey-Bass, 1985). and

T he late John Fante developed a modest following with his Depression-era novels and stories, although the last years of his life were spent in prosperous obscurity as a screenwriter. He quite properly felt uneasy about the quality of his first novel, although he apparently mailed it to Knopf back in 1936. It is unclear why the publisher did not put the book in press, but Fante was sufficiently encouraged to keep writing about the central character in his more successful later fictions. "The Road to Los Angeles" was discovered among his papers after his death in 1983 by his widow, and is now published in a handsome small volume by the creative and diligent Black Sparrow Press of Santa Barbara.

While this new old novel is a slight affair, it speaks so clearly of its time that it seems more interesting now than it must have seemed in its day. Those few who know of Fante's fiction are most likely to have read his first published novel, "Wait Until Spring, Bandini" (1938), an affecting and unified book portraying the painful family situation of Arturo Bandini, a young adolescent obviously modeled after the author. The Bandini character, who later becomes a Los Angeles writer, is also central in "Ask the Dust" (1939) and "Dreams From Bunker Hill" (1982). Now we can read Fante's first novel, which gives us Bandini as a late adolescent, rebellious and outrageous, just out of school, trying to make it in a Los Angeles that offers no way to reach the American dream.

Bandini is no Horatio Alger, though he keeps trying to realize riches and fame, at least in his prolonged fantasies. Unable to hold the jobs he can get--digging ditches, washing dishes, putting labels on cans--he abuses and steals from his long-suffering mother. Unwilling to admit to the world that he has anything to learn, he secluded himself in the library reading German philosophy so he can impress others with his big words. He comforts himself with his own superiority, using tags and cliches from communism, atheism, racism, and H. L. Mencken, while those about him tend to see him as mildly insane. Occasionally, his fantasies explode into violence toward the world in general, which fails to give him the admiration and cash he so desperately wants.

Toward the end of the book, Bandini decides to write a novel, which, understandably is unspeakably bad. Not even his mother can say much good about it, since it offends her morality: The hero, she says, "should find a nice clean little Catholic girl, and settle down and marry her." Bandini's response is typical: "Don't stand there like a woman, like an idiot, a bourgeois Catholic Comstocking smut-hound." The novel ends with him casting off his home and beginning a new novel, presumably a better one.

Now, it is hard to take seriously this outrageous character, clearly designed to be an unlikable but budding artist. The novel offers little besides its energy and focus, a "promising" start that foreshadows the successful writing that we know was to come. But he and the novel have other claims on our attention, now, 50 years later. When he attempts to outrage his pious sister with a mock prayer, this is what his then-young author has him say: "Oh Holy Ghost, Oh holy inflated triple ego, get us out of the Depression. Elect Roosevelt. Keep us on the gold standard. Take France off, but for Christ's sake keep us on!" This is a prayer for its time in a book that embodies its time.

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