Road to Los Angeles, The
by John Fante (1936)
An ugly little debut with First Novel written all over it. It’s not difficult to see why it remained unpublished during Fante’s lifetime. The most surprising and disappointing aspect is how unrecognizable Bandini is here compared to the glorious Ask the Dust (see my review), offensive and obnoxious compared to bold and brilliant.
Fante does a good job channeling the arrogance of youth, and a lot of the discrepancies between the two Bandinis could probably be chalked up to just that, in addition to his isolation in the later work (i.e., he has no loved ones to continuously abuse as he does here). But it really just reminded me of my own first efforts at writing, which will also remain mercifully unpublished.
The differences between the two novels don’t end at the protagonist. The language here is much flatter, not the soaring imagery and innovative flow of Dust. Again: First Novel, understandable. But there’s also little to nothing that happens here, and while that was somewhat similar in Dust, there were still various interpersonal connections in that one, not just the one-way invectives or obsessive fantasies you get here. Consequently, the title is somewhat of a misnomer in all but the metaphorical sense. You don’t see Bandini physically making his way to Los Angeles; you just see the precious few events that lead to his decision to go there.
But Bandini himself stays largely the same from first page to last, literally psychotic at times, even displaying occasional self-consciousness of his mental disturbance. There are even flashes of “Walter Mitty” here, though a sinister Mitty, with Bandini’s tendency to convert the mundane into the self-aggrandizing fantastical (interestingly, “Mitty” wouldn’t be published until three years after this was written). But Bandini’s flights of fancy, unlike Mitty’s, hold real-world consequences.
Ask the Dust is one of my all-time favorite books, beautiful and inspiring, so I was eager to read the entire Bandini saga in chronological order. Sadly, though I read this in just a day I didn’t enjoy it at all, save for a nice little interlude of lovely cheer when Bandini helps an old lady carry her bags and comes away inspired by his own goodness, albeit all-too-briefly (pp. 48-9). But I can’t recommend it to anyone except for Fante completists and other writers, and I hope Wait Until Spring, Bandini will be closer in quality to its successor than its predecessor.
You can’t blame Fante for this one though, because though he wrote it he also recognized after-the-fact that it shouldn’t be published. It’s disrespectful in a way for his estate to have published it posthumously; Fante certainly had every opportunity to do it himself so you have to assume he deliberately decided not to. And something of such inferior quality can only serve to diminish his legacy. So while it may be valuable as an objective record of Fante’s literary transformation, that’s probably the only way it should be read and appreciated.