Friday, November 23, 2012

Ask the Dust by John Fante

Portrait of the artist as a young dago

It was fortuitous I ended up reading this book right after the actual Portrait of The Artist.  Both books concern the same subject, the devout Mama’s boy who intends to be a genius. Except one book is a masterpiece with insights pertaining to all humanity and the other is an exhilarating yet dated snapshot of LA in the Thirties. Cartoony but in a good way.

Ask the Dust is about Arturo Bandini, an aspiring writer from Colorado (i.e., a hick), who’s published one story, The Little Dog Laughed.  He has come to LA to make his fortune and spends most of his time daydreaming about that fortune, handing out unwanted copies of The Little Dog Laughed and eating cheap oranges. He goes to a bar for a cup of bad coffee and falls in the love with the waitress Camilla Lopez. They have a weird relationship – he is terribly mean to her and she is terribly mean to him. But apparently they have initiated a grand love affair. Meanwhile there is an earthquake in Long Beach.

The novel is unmistakably funny with visual and dialogue gags. Arturo Bandini is an egomaniac, and the other characters, such as the hilarious landlady, are seen in telling bursts, but they lack dimension, they have no roots extending into Bandini’s soul. We see the start of the Left Coast, peopled by eccentrics who moved here from calmer burgs. Fante's downtown LA is filled with fruits and nuts.  

I was under the misapprehension that nobody had casual sex before 1964 but this book and Mildred Pierce have shown me otherwise. Although Arturo Bandini, unlike Stephen Dedulus, seems to suffer from a detumescing case of Catholic guilt.

Also, what kind of marijuana does Camilla smoke? It sends her to the mental hospital and is depicted by Arturo as if she is shooting meth. I also liked the somewhat hopeless ending.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

A young man exiles himself from his culture, his motherland, in order to be who he is.

Stephen Dedalus, a bright half blind sensitive boy, from a family on the downward slide, gradually realizes that the oppressive culture that molded his sensibility, and made him an artist, an observer, is the culture he must abandon. Non serviam. I will not serve. The bloody drawn out cutting of the apron strings, as Stephen is squeamish about being the most terrible of the disappointments inflicted upon his saintly mother. But he cannot be a hypocrite, however much society prefers him to be.

This short novel begins when Stephen is a small child.  The prose corresponds to Steven’s age and understanding. Each scene is wonderfully vivid, with powerful characters leaping off the page. The Christmas Dinner and the family argument about Parnell. The mistaken caning of the shy little boy’s palm. Nothing is wasted – each scene illustrates Stephen’s character as well as the Irish culture of the time. Most of the time the sentences are like poetry. The sacred and profane are mixed up together and you can’t tell where one stops and the other begins. In parts, the book is extremely funny. (Although Stephen himself is utterly humorless.) Silence, exile and cunning. He takes himself far too seriously, but that perhaps is how you become a Mount Everest of an author, whose writing works on about seventeen levels at once.

The famous hell lecture bored me. I don’t think I got it, understood the fear, the tension between teenage horniness and the dread of immortal suffering. That is partly a function of modern times, but it doesn’t seem like the other Irish boys in the book are hung up by piety. They seem sarcastic.

Stephen is kind of a namby pamby obsessive but through his eyes a entire world of people come into view, passionate people oppressed on two sides – by the English (that is, what the Irish are NOT) and the church. Oppressed by the English and repressed by the church. And that pressure is what squeezes out a genius.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Busy Monsters by William Giraldi

A word obsessed guy sets off on a quest across America to win back his lady.

Charles Homar, our self conscious hero, is dumped by his marine biologist love Gillian Lee, after she seizes an opportunity to hunt the giant Kraken. He objects, and three months in jail later, journeys to find her, encountering heros and monsters, until at last the lovers are tearfully reunited on the docks of the New England Aquarium.

I didn't really like this. It reminded me of Swamplandia!, that is, a story that sounds great on paper -- the chasing of the Kraken, the hunting of Bigfoot, a quest across the United States, but once into the actual reading, despite all the driving around the country, the story lacked forward momentum. The real emotions are under glass or under a mile of ice or something; they are not being transmitted. I never bought that Charles was in love with Gillian. In fact, Gillian does not seem at all real to me. Each night when I picked up the book to read my allotted 50 pages, I couldn't quite remember/care what was going on with Charles.

Although I liked the clever idea that he was a weekly columnist for a magazine (why not a blogger) and everyone he visits on his journey is aware of his prior columns and comments on them.

In Nabokov sentences are delightful and funny and erudite -- mini masterpieces. Here the sentences felt strained and reading the prose was like chopping through the underbrush.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

The rise and fall (and rise again?) of an American woman

I thought this would be light popular reading, musty perhaps, but instead I was impressed by this character study.  The book is also a glimpse into a particular culture (Los Angeles) at a particular time (the Depression). Mildred Pierce, abandoned by her kindly ineffectual husband, desperately needs money in order to keep a roof over the heads of her children. She swallows her pride and becomes a waitress, then uses her pie making skills, supplemented by her shapely legs, gradually to reinvent herself as a wealthy woman. Her unreasonable devotion to her dreadful "artistic" daughter, Veda, however, ultimately causes her world to collapse.

I didn't love the book, however. It had a coldness for me, as I kept anticipating the anvil floating above Mildred's head.  Mildred needs money though Mildred has a weakness for handsome weakish men.  You root for Mildred Pierce because she's a go getter, she won't be beaten down. That part was typically American, and in some ways, since Mildred Pierce is unmoored, unchurched, typically Los Angeles. She gets her kids' names from a psychic.

The book is a study not only of just one woman, but of productive friendships between women and hierarchal enmity between women. Women bail Mildred Pierce out and she helps them in return, provides the best outlet for their talents. I'm not sure if the mother/daughter plot fit in that well with the pulling herself up by the bootstraps plot.  I didn't quite buy Mildred's behavior on behalf of Veda. Unless Veda is the idealized version of Mildred, the weapon she sends into high society to have her revenge.

The plotting was wonderful, unforced, except at the end when the soap opera like plot twists hurt my neck and harmed the story.  Until that point the novel was a naturalistic character study with planted interjections of shocking nudity and casual sex (and I was in fact shocked at how quickly Mildred falls into bed with men). At the end, however, the believability of Veda's operatic success become suspect.

Is Mildred Pierce a monster? Not at all. She strikes me as an efficient manager. She does what she has to do. Unlike Madame Bovary, she cannot rely on men for money, as the upper class men she sleeps with (Bert her husband and Monty her lover) are completely useless (financially, that is) after the Depression wiped away their wealth. So instead of taking rat poison after her world collapses, Mildred just "gets stinko" and lights the oven for more pie baking. Again, typically American.

The most spectacular scene in the book is the New Year's Eve party in the colossal downpour. Only a woman would do that, right, not be deterred by washed out roads to attend a party. An extremely vivid and well written scene.

There's also some humorous parts for someone reading the book in 2012. Mildred is always dashing between Pasadena and Newport Beach-- nowadays that would be about three hours each way.