There’s something about this town that drives a man to drink — a writer, anyway, or so local literature would have you believe. One gnarled little twig wobbling forth from the sturdy trunk of L.A. noir is the “piss-drunk-down-‘n’-out-in-L.A.” subgenre, the most famous (and perhaps the clumsiest) practitioner of which was Charles Bukowski, the stumble-drunk bard of L.A.‘s scotch- and vomit-stained carpets. Many writers have pickled themselves here — Chandler, Faulkner and Fitzgerald are among the notables — but then, writers everywhere are drunks. In no other town that I can think of, though, has such a site-specific literature of drunken despair taken shape.
With its roots in Philip Marlowe’s desk drawer, the genre took an important if relatively dry pit stop in the work of John Fante. Arturo Bandini, Fante‘s protagonist, wasn’t a lush, but his wistful literary bohemianism, acted out on L.A.‘s Bunker Hill, proved a lasting influence on Bukowski, who made a cottage industry of stories about boozing, brawling, skirt chasing — and, occasionally, about writing — in the tawdrier corners of Los Angeles. The genre persists, perhaps in part because writers are held in such relatively low esteem here, where even the grandest literary accomplishments are deemed meaningless without box-office returns to match. So Dan Fante, son of John, suggests in his latest novel, Mooch:
The preposterous dream world created 80 years before in Los Angeles between the sand and the planted palm trees and . . . Mayer’s and Karl Laemmle‘s image of America was now the national mindset. A nation of mooches. Writers were dinosaurs. Chumps. Real life was a cop show and a pair of silicone tits. So what.
Don’t believe him. Beneath the nasty facade, Fante, like his dad, is a sentimentalist at heart. He laid that heart bare in his first novel, Chump Change, an excruciatingly raw, presumably autobiographical novel about one Bruno Dante, an alcoholic telemarketer and sometime writer whose life is disintegrating around him. Freshly released from a recovery program after trying to kill himself during a wine binge (Mad Dog 2020, not chardonnay), he returns to California to see his father (a writer named Jonathan Dante who, in all relevant details, is identical to John Fante) on his deathbed. Some long and gruesome benders follow, harrowing but sweet-souled adventures with a stuttering teenage whore and a dying pit bull.
Mooch takes off where Chump Change left off. Bruno is alone and sober and living in L.A., not drinking but not writing either, selling vacuum cleaners and hating himself. He gets a new job selling computer products from a phone-bank boiler room staffed entirely by recovering addicts and headed by an enormous former junkie with a taste for martial metaphors. “Regroup,” he shouts at Bruno. “Attack. You have just joined an elite assault force.”
Not for long. Bruno falls hard for Jimmi, an ex-crackhead with an ass “packed and rounded like a foam pillow from Motel 6.” His crush turns to obsession, then gets him fired. He plummets off the wagon in no time, waking up in a motel bathroom, all his belongings piled in the tub with him; or in his car, out of gas in the desert, a cop pounding at his window; or again in a motel room, covered in his own blood.
Fante‘s novel gets lost at times, unsure of how to resolve itself, falling back on easy sentiment and even dipping into the 12-Step cliches that Bruno himself dismisses as “pig snot.” But at its best, Mooch transcends the genre’s staple macho Bukowskian antics with brutal honesty and painful vulnerability. Bruno Dante is a real prick, drunk or sober, but no less sympathetic for all that.
Mooch is, in its way, an update and rewrite of John Fante‘s Ask the Dust. In both books, a struggling writer arrives in L.A. and falls hopelessly in love with a self-destructive Mexican woman who couldn’t care less about him, has a brief fling with a sad, deformed, older white woman, goes on bizarre shopping sprees, and carts around a copy of a completed short story like a piece of his very soul. But Mooch is set in a vastly transformed Los Angeles, an L.A. that John Fante, via Bukowski and countless knockoffs, helped create. Fante pere‘s rotting Kansan pensioners weren’t so far off the citizen-mooches described by his son, with “their dismal, chicken-shit, insect, ratshit, little lives,” though the old man was a little gentler about it. But Fante the elder wrote about L.A. with ambivalent affection, as a city of misty, perhaps illusory dreams. Fante fils watched those dreams wither in his father‘s life, and his Los Angeles is the now-familiar dystopian noir metropolis, “a city of 13 million being choked to death by smog one day at a time.” The American Dream that animated his dad has been replaced by a cruel parody. The boiler-room rip-off stands in for America, and the good life is that of an ex-junkie in a thousand-dollar suit, zipping through town in a convertible Jag, blasting Zig Ziglar CDs at ear-splitting volume.
There is a bitter irony to the title of the late Jesse Kimbrough’s autobiographical novel Defender of the Angels. “It appears that the eternities are definitely marked on the basis of color,” Kimbrough wrote in his foreword. “All the redeemed of heart in heaven are white, and all the damned in hell are black.” Kimbrough, though he took his place among the latter, for 23 years defended the property and privilege of white Los Angeles as one of the very few black members of the LAPD. He took the job in 1915 because, as his protagonist, Strite Hinton, puts it, the three dollars and change a beat cop took home each day “was more money than I had ever earned for a month‘s work.” Defender of the Angels, originally published in 1969 (Kimbrough died in 1988) and now back in print thanks to Blue Line Press, records the complexities of its author’s fight to “uphold the law that had denied me so many rights,” and to survive with decency and dignity intact.
Offered kind advice by a white officer on his first day (“This is a white man‘s job, but if you don’t stick your nose in where you‘re not wanted, you won’t have too much trouble”), Strite will later have to dodge being set up and shot at by his fellow officers, always without the possibility of redress or the opportunity to freely air his complaints. He will simultaneously struggle to do right by his own people, long used to being wronged by men in uniform. Defender of the Angels records such battles in all their complexity and provides a fascinating portrait of black Los Angeles in the early 20th century.
In addition to its historical interest, Kimbrough‘s novel contains some flat-out terrific storytelling: tales of whores and hustlers and crooked cops, doomed affairs of various stripes, cranks and revolutionaries, a charming drunk named No-Nose Eva (“Since nobody remembers her ever having a nose,” Hinton decides, “how she lost it is of no consequence”) — all told by a tough but kindly cop with “an affable taste for bootleg jackass” and a secret love of reading and writing. “I get a sinking in my innards,” HintonKimbrough confesses, “when I think of the man I would be today had I not wandered afar on the pages of books.” He more than paid back his debt.