This slim novel has attained a cult following as an American classic and more particularly as a California touchstone. Garnering some mixed reviews at the time of its publication, largely for its ‘obscene’ language and subject matter (cussing and sex in the 1930s), Charles Bukowski revived its popularity by calling it one of his primary influences and writing the introduction for a new edition.
The plot is somewhat autobiographical: Arturo Bandini, a struggling young writer from Colorado, moves to Los Angeles to chase his dreams of success. He bounces from poverty to pay cheque and back as he works through writer’s block from his cheap hotel. Meanwhile, he is distracted by love affairs- the longer more meaningful one with a Mexican waitress at his local cafeteria and a briefer fling with a married woman from Long Beach. The best parts of this novel were the time capsule depictions of 1930s Los Angeles: the cheap rooming houses on Bunker Hill; the 1933 earthquake that decimated Long Beach; driving a 1929 Ford along the sandy back roads into the Mohave. I also liked Fante’s language, which was often picturesque (see his descriptions of the desert and the palm tree blackened by car exhaust).
What I didn’t like was almost everything else- the plot, the main character, the treatment of women, the casual racism, the unrealistic ‘reefer madness’ description of marijuana users, etc. Arturo Bandini is a whiny narcissist who spends his money frivolously when he has it and then despairs again when he is poor- this cycle quickly becomes tedious. Worse than tedious was Arturo’s treatment of women: Arturo says he is in love with Camilla, the Mexican waitress, but then shows her that he loves her by insulting her, purposefully spilling things that she has to clean up as part of her job, sneering at her and- to top it all off- sexually assaulting her. If you think this is what love looks like, just wait until you see how Fante depicts a woman that Bandini hates: Vera Rivkin, the married woman that Arturo has an affair with, is unstable, erratic and needy, and Arturo treats her despicably, not even bothering to see if she has survived the earthquake despite not only being right there (he had just left her place) and being stuck right there overnight (the roads were closed). These are moves straight out of a slimy pickup artist playbook and I can’t believe that this novel still gets such accolades- it has not aged well.