The Road to Los Angeles by John Fante

The narrator in John Fante’s The Road to Los Angeles kept reminding me of Ignatius J. Riley in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. But without the heart.

Both characters are really incapable of functioning in the world. Both live at the bottom of society, relying on the good graces of their mother for support. Both are convinced of their own genius and not shy about letting those around them know it. Both speak in polysyllabic words, long, long sentences, when they really don’t have anything to say. Both go through a series of low-level jobs, each further and further down the social ladder.

While Kennedy Toole’s book is lightened by the presence of a wide cast of characters who all work to make his novel very funny, Fante’s narrator is a serious loaner. He has no friends; he has no love interest. Any solace he finds in this word he finds in his own imagination which imagination grows darker as the novel progresses. I kept thinking, this is what incels must be like. Arturo Bandini seems like the proto-incel to me, involuntarily celibate before it was cool.

It’s a very dark thing to live a life of poverty in Los Angeles. I think it was Charles Bukowski, a man who certainly lived that life, who wrote about how difficult it is to have nothing while living side by side with the highest level of glamour and wealth in the world. To look at the “beautiful people” as they walk by unaware of your presence living on Bunker Hill’ skid row while Beverly Hills is just a bus ride away. It was through Charles Bukowski that I found John Fante’s novel Ask the Dust which is terrific and also about Arturo Bandini. Turns out he wrote four novels about Arturo Bandia, this is the first one, unpublished in his lifetime.

I can see why.

Written in the 1930’s it deals with 18-year-old Arturo’s sexual frustrations and imagination with an uncomfortable frankness. John Fante is not shy about describing the sex life of a young man too frightened of women to ever talk to one even if they would give a 25-cents-an-hour cannery worker the time of day. Arturo is reading Neitzche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra which should be illegal for anyone under 35 if you ask me. He has come to see himself as a Superman, misunderstood and hindered by everyone around him. No one sees his genius, no one is worthy of it. If you’ve never felt this way in your own life, you probably know someone who has. Please keep them away from Friedrich Nietzche, from Ayn Rand, from all their disciples. Take them to drag queen story hour instead.

Arturo tells everyone he is a writer, though he has never written anything. While he creates elaborate narratives about the women whose pictures he has cut out from photography magazine, one of the only types of erotic imagery available in the 1930’s, he doesn’t produce anything in the way of written words until the close of the novel. When he does, it turns out to be a silly adventure, largely a series of romantic/erotic encounters featuring a handsome yacht owning hero. Essentially the man Arturo wishes he was in his wildest fantasies. Even Arturo sees how bad his own writing is once he has finished his novel.

But he doesn’t give up. He steals some money from his mother and leaves his home in Port Los Angeles for the city of Los Angeles where he is certain he will become the recognized genius of an author he knows himself to be. I’ve already read the next book in the series. Doesn’t happen.

I looked it up on Wikipedia, still the best source on the internet, turns out A Confederacy of Dunces was published five years before The Road to Los Angeles finally found a publisher. Both were published posthumously, by the way. So, neither influenced the other, but I’d still argue they should be seen a part of the same sub-genre, stories of America’s urban underclass. John Fante’s work should sit alongside Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust and Miss Lonelyhearts; Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They; and most all of Charles Bukowski’s novels. All portray Southern California’s underbelly, those who never found the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

There’s a lot more of them out there than you’d think.

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