John Fante’s Los Angeles (Exert From “Ask The Dust”)
On paper, Los Angeles can be a hell or a paradise. Often times, depending on the author’s perspective, it is both. The city has always been a sprawling mess of contradictions, which is reflected in literary works based in Los Angeles dating back to the 1920’s till present time; a utopia that is inherently flawed, a beautiful landscape filled with ugly intentions, a place for dreamers to dream the dream of dreams once known; missed opportunities, wasted chances, broken promises, overwhelming regrets – all cast in the shadows of palm trees swaying on a sunny day. A beautiful actress who is unable to give or receive love. A once successful writer who cannot escape his illustrious past. A skeleton in the closet and a manuscript in the fireplace. Only a city such as Los Angeles could produce the likes of Joe Gillis, Dixon “Dix” Steele, Beatrix Potter, Arturo Bandini, Henry Chinaski, Jack Vincennes, Phillip Marlowe – flawed anti-hero’s who blur the lines of morality while seeking redemption, emptathy, or “a place in the sun.”
There is the hard boiled Los Angeles streets of Raymond Chandler, the vapid Hollywood Hills of Bret Easton Ellis, and the grimy Sunset Strip of Charles Bukowski. They all paint Los Angeles with the same poignant dissimilarity – momentary satisfaction underscored by an enduring sense of bittersweetness.
One of my favorite descriptions of Los Angeles is from Chapter Six of John Fante’s 1939 novel, Ask The Dust. Although the passage has aged with time, the sentiment is timeless, and captures the overall tonality of a city that is as beautiful as it is revolting:
“Dust and old buildings and old people sitting at windows, old people tottering out of doors, old people moving painfully along the dark street. The old folks from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois, from Boston and Kansas City and Des Moines, they sold their homes and their stores, and they came here by train and by automobile to the land of sunshine, to die in the sun, with just enough money to live until the sun killed them, tore themselves out by the roots in their last days, deserted the smug prosperity of Kansas City and Chicago and Peoria to find a place in the sun. And when they got here they found that other and greater thieves had already taken possession, that even the sun belonged to the others; Smith and Jones and Parker, druggist, banker, baker, dust of Chicago and Cincinnati and Cleveland on their shoes, doomed to die in the sun, a few dollars in the bank, enough to subscribe to the Los Angeles Times, enough to keep alive the illusion that this was paradise, that their little papier-mâché homes were castles. The uprooted ones, the empty sad folk, the old and the young folks, the folks from back home. These were my countrymen, these were the new Californians. With their bright polo shirts and sunglasses, they were in paradise, they belonged.
But down on Main Street, down on Towne and San Pedro, and for a mile on lower Fifth Street were the tens of thousands of others; they couldn’t afford sunglasses or a four-bit polo shirt and they hid in the alleys by day and slunk off to flop houses by night. A cop won’t pick you up for vagrancy in Los Angeles if you wear a fancy polo shirt and a pair of sunglasses. But if there is dust on your shoes and that sweater you wear is thick like the sweaters they wear in the snow countries, he’ll grab you. So get yourself a polo shirt boys, and a pair of sunglasses, and whites shoes, if you can. Be collegiate. It’ll get you anyway. After awhile, after big doses of the Times and the Examiner, you too will whoop it up for the sunny south. You’ll eat hamburgers year after year and live in dusty, vermin-infested apartments and hotels, but every morning you’ll see the mighty sun, the eternal blue of the sky, and the streets will be full of sleek woman you never will possess, and the hot semi-tropical nights will reek of romance you will never have, but you’ll still be in paradise, boys, in the land of sunshine.
As for the folks back home, you can lie to them, because they hate the truth anyway, they won’t have it, because soon or late they want to come out to paradise, too. You can’t fool the folks back home, boys. They know what Southern California’s like. After all they read the papers, they look at the picture magazines glutting the newsstands of every corner in America. They’ve seen pictures of the movie stars’ homes. You can’t tell them anything about California.” (Fante, Ask The Dust. 1939.)