Tuesday, September 29, 2020

On "The Road to Los Angeles" by John Fante ****

I last read this book in my early twenties, during a Fante fix, when I first discovered him. Alas, outside of Ask the Dust and one of the novellas in West of Rome, his work proved disappointing to me, but three very good works is not a bad record really, in the scheme of of things.

Not much matches Ask the Dust for quality. This work, though, keeps much of what maked that book intriguing. It is another book in the Arturo Bandini saga, but unlike the two of the four, it keeps the narrative voice of Ask the Dust pretty firmly in place (if perhaps with less balance than that one). None of the Bandini novels are particularly consistent among each other with regard to the facts of Bandini's life. In Ask the Dust, Bandini's mom and dad are in Colorado, and he's alone and twenty in Los Angeles. In this book, his father is dead, and his mom and sister live near the beach on the California coast. But as with Ask the Dust, the narrator here is exceptionally bombastic. Everything is superb or awful to the utmost extreme. There is little middle ground with Bandini. And as in Ask the Dust, the narrator is a misogynist and a racist--here, even more disturbingly. He kills animals in cruel and purposeless ways for fun. One can kind of like the characters in Ask the Dust; it's much more difficult to like them in this book--but most especially Bandini.

The main character is a high-school dropout who on some level supports the family. One could feel for such a person whose life has been placed into one of sacrifice for future chances because of his father's death. He works dead-end jobs (cannery work is the central job in this book and is well described). There's a certain intelligence that seems to be going to waste.

And yet, Bandini is also a scoundrel. He steals from his family. He is a slacker at any job he takes and usually quickly loses. He claims to be a writer, but it's clear that he has little talent. He is disrespectful to all and deliberately hurtful. He gloms on to philosophy without really understanding it, the same way that he uses big words for the sake of using big words (sometimes not completely accurately). We see within him a certain maniacal will to power and faith in himself (countered with occasional self-hatred). He is not someone you would want to be friends with.

The empty bravado reminds me a lot of Holden Caulfield. What we really see is a boy who is forced too early to be a man--but who is ultimately still a boy. As his writing is immature, so is he. 

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

On "Ask the Dust" by John Fante *****

I read this book multiple times in my early twenties, but it has been probably more than a decade since the last time that I read it. I remember loving the book, though on the last read, being disappointed by its second half. This time around, I didn't find the second half as disappointing, though clearly the best portions of the book are in its early-going.

What makes this book so utterly enchanting is Fante's use of language. Although he writes simply, he does so in a way that is poetic, even without being luscious in his description. The simple turns of phrase and occasional perfectly placed metaphors do the trick. And he knows it, as evidenced in a passage early on. The book centers around a writer named Arturo Bandini and his love of Camilla Lopez/Lombard. In one passage shortly after he first sees Camilla, Arturo begins an excited oratory to her: Oh, Camilla, you . . . but he abruptly quits with these simple words: "but not here." It's inappropriate, Bandini/Fante seems to be saying to begin with such praise. We don't even know the gal--and what's more, to do so would actually break down how much we understand Bandini's connection to her.

Another thing that makes the book so engaging is Bandini's sense of confidence in his own skill as writer. He is hubristic to the extreme--so cocky that it's funny, so cocky it's hard to believe he's serious. In addition, that cockiness spills over to equal moments of despair. Bandini is a man of extreme emotions.

Finally, there is the dialogue, which consists of constant punches between the performers, most especially Camilla and Arturo. There is not a lot of lover speak here; instead, each line spoken is a surprise, insult after insult, and yet, somehow, beneath it, longing.

Of course, that longing is more on Arturo's end than Camilla's. Camilla is in love with another man--Sammy--a man who unlike Arturo plainly cannot write, even though he wants to.

On this read, one thing that stood out very much to me was Fante's interest in what constitutes an American. Both Arturo and Camilla talk of being American but also denigrate each other as not so, most especially because they are not Anglo. Both want desperately to fit into that narrow definition of American but push each other (and others) down in that effort. Were I writing a paper, I'd likely look at the theme more closely and draw some conclusions, but that is not my place here.

Near the end, Arturo and Camilla reach a sort of understanding that softens their relationship, as Camilla becomes addicted to marijuana and goes crazy (the extremity of this addiction and insanity seems a bit unrealistic given what is known of the drug now), and that certainly makes the writing less compelling (now come those Oh, Camilla! lines that were put off earlier), but that section of the book is relatively short and fits well the work's overall arch.

Monday, September 14, 2020

On "The Death of WCW" by R. D. Reynolds and Bryan Alvarez ****

I didn't care for professional "wrestling" when I was a teen or young adult, when it was on television from time to time, preempting programming I actually did want to watch. I didn't like the violence, the production values, the stupidity. And I don't think I'd care for it now. But I read a book about it.

One thing changed between then and now. Back about fifteen years ago, I went to see a wrestling event in a tiny town, a small event, with maybe one hundred in the audience. It was a hoot. But I also came to respect what the men who work as wrestlers do. Yes, of course, it's fake (only youngsters would think it might not be), but there is a great amount of athleticism involved for most of the wrestlers. These guys are gymnasts, acrobatics, and stuntmen. They learn how to properly fall, how to fake being hit and fake hit, and more than that, they learn how to flip and jump and perform a number of other tasks that high school gym taught me just how difficult such things were to do. And if you don't take things to seriously, a lot of sketches can be pretty funny. That doesn't mean I'd want to watch it on TV--or become a regular at the arena, but in a small venue where many of the guys are just learning, yeah, it's worth the price of admission.

This book is about the big boys, the ones on television, mostly specifically in the late 1990s and early 2000s, in an era when WCW (World Championship Wrestling) was in high competition with the WFF (the World Wrestling Federation--now World Wrestling Entertainment). The latter had some big stars, but WCW, purchased by Ted Turner, as it was a mainstay of his TV empire, threw cash at some big players and brought them over to itself.

But WCW didn't just have the new guys wrestle. It created a storyline in which a new set of wrestlers--the New World Order--was coming to set the WCW right, whipping up on all the WCW stars. This put the wCW in control of the ratings game, as WFF and WCW competed against each other on Monday nights. So successful was the WCW that it expanded its show an hour and also had shows on Saturday and Thursday nights in addition to its regular Monday night slot.

But the success was not to last. Wrestlers get old. And as many of the stars had creative control written into their contracts, they didn't want to lose. That meant there was no room to craft new stars among young guys coming up, which meant that like a really successful pro-sports team that doesn't have young guys waiting in the wings to take over when one generation passes, the WCW's ratings began to fade. And that's when desperation set in in terms of storylines that were nonsensical, such that audiences began to fade, and the WWF retook its dominant role.

In the meantime, Turner sold to Warner Brothers, which in turn merged with AOL, which meant that money guys came to make the decisions, money guys who didn't appreciate how wrestling had helped build Turner's TV stations and how wrestling's audiences waxed and waned. Beyond that, wrestling wasn't good on advertising dollars, even when successful in the ratings, as sponsors tended to take the view that only poor folk watched such stuff. And so it was the WCW, with its TV contract cancelled and running at massive debts, found itself without much of an audience.

In the end, it was sold to the WWF, which, as the authors bring out, squandered its chance for a ratings coup, given how many viewers had wanted to see various WCW stars fight WWF stars. Instead, the WWF essentially reaped vengeance on the WCW wrestlers who came over, writing total domination into the shows and taking on mostly second-tier stars rather than the more expensive ones.

The book, in essence then, is about how to create and squander a TV audience. In between, the authors spend a lot more time talking about the details of this or that episode and its ratings, which, while written with a good deal of jokes and winks, at times becomes cumbersome to a nonfan.