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PAT'S WHORES by Barding Dahl (Pangloss, P.O. Box 21922, Santa Barbara Calif. 93121: $10; 224 pp., paperback)

July 06, 1986|Don G. Campbell | Campbell is a Times staff writer.

Whatever happened to the literary hero who looked and sounded like a hero: noble of brow, pure of heart, righteous in motivation?

Hail, today, the craven coward . . . the coked-up dope-pusher . . . the prostitute with a heart of flint . . . the unprincipled entrepreneur with his hands in the company till. Wasn't it inevitable, then, that the slum landlord would have his moment of glory, too?

With Barding Dahl's offbeat novel centered on south Los Angeles' jungle of patched-together, roach-crawling, tenements, "Pat's Whores" is a curiously disturbing work where greed and racial exploitation are the name of the game.

The title, incidentally, is a misleading bit of allegory. If there are, indeed, "whores" inhabiting Pat Fegan's profitable collection of stacked-together-piano-crates-passing-as-apartments they are so simply because they are being used by Fegan, and that, after all, is the point of it all. A down-at-the-heels World War II veteran--twice-failed in more conventional small business enterprises--Pat Fegan still has enough native shrewdness in 1952 to recognize the ingredients of the Great American Dream when they fall into his lap: buying up at bargain prices slum properties being abandoned by other whites in the face of a tidal wave of Southern blacks inundating Los Angeles after the war. It's no game for the timid--the tenants are every bit as dangerous, devious and unreliable as the circumstances that have driven them into the ghetto in the first place can make them.

Thus, the exodus of those property owners who have no stomach for what is required to realize the slumlord's goal in life: a 150% return on his money in the first year of ownership. And then, from that, the acquisition of another property, and then another, and then another. Don't look for any slumbering flare-up of nobility in Pat Fegan . . . any gnawing doubts about the morality of what he is doing. Here is a man in the finest slumlord tradition--especially in the '50s and '60s in Los Angeles, before tenants' rights had attracted even passing notice--who is more than capable of shutting off utilities (or simply not providing them in the first place), locking out slow-payers, patching over dangerous wiring and removing a tenant's front door ("for repairs") as a hint that his tenancy is no longer welcome. And yet, as Fegan becomes increasingly frustrated with his parasitic family in their comfortable San Fernando Valley home, he is being drawn ever closer, spiritually at least, to the very people that he is victimizing. Almost without notice over the years, Reggie, the big, brown fry cook whom Fegan has repeatedly evicted, and then readmitted, to his property, has become the only real "friend" he has ever had. But, characteristically, it isn't Fegan who has the sensitivity to recognize this. It is Reggie. And a curious friendship it is between this middle-age slumlord and the similarly middle-age black homosexual. Two men with absolutely nothing in common. Increasingly, Fegan turns away from his family and devotes more and more time, on site, to overseeing his properties and to a brief but comforting affair with plump 45-year-old Mable Nix, one of his black tenants who, in time, drifts back to her jailed lover. Now aging prematurely and beginning to lose his grip on reality, Fegan yields to family pressures and begins to sell off his property except for three hunched-together frame buildings, including his old office with its front porch where he can sit and rock and watch the blacks move out and the Latinos move in. Now, when he wanders off in his befuddlement, the child who takes him by the hand and leads him back to safety is brown, not black. To the very end of "Pat's Whores," however, there is no acceptance by Pat Fegan that the countless blacks he has exploited for so many years have become "his people." As in the beginning, they are simply the source of the wealth that, finally, his family gets away from him anyway. To sit on the porch, rock, and still occasionally play the role of "the rent man" have become the end-all, be-all.

As author Dahl paints him, Pat Fegan is no better than he has to be but, perhaps, no worse, either. There were--and, today, still are--slumlords that are easier to hate. Compassion occasionally flickers, but never ignites, in this strange man.

In "Pat's Whores," we have a humorless and cynical study of a man more to be pitied than censured--so blinded by his greed-for-the-sake-of-greed that he can't recognize, much less accept, the genuine friendship, love and respect that had lain all about him all those empty years, ripe for the taking. At times, it makes for almost painful reading.

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