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Murder Slim Review: WEST OF ROME

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Damn, I thought I'd already reviewed this a while ago. But I suppose I got it mixed up with THE CAPTAIN IS OUT TO LUNCH. Like that, it's a brilliant - but lesser known - work by a great author. Of course, Bukowski and Fante have a lot in common. After all, they wrote the only good books on Black Sparrow Press (Mrabet did THE LEMON elsewhere, but BSP printed his worst book).

In fact, it could be argued that one of Bukowski's greatest achievements was shining the light back onto John Fante. ASK THE DUST hadn't sold so well due to political forces at the time (you can read up about that online) but is one of the best books out there. But you already know that. You wouldn't be on this website if you'd didn't. But do you know WEST OF ROME - and specifically MY DOG STUPID - is up there too?

MY DOG STUPID forms a large portion of WEST OF ROME. And what's so wonderful about it is that it has John Fante as a middle aged grump. Sick of working on movies, kinda sick of marriage, and now faced with his kids in early adulthood... including what must be Dan Fante trying to avoid the draft. MY DOG STUPID charts a guy looking back as his life, happy on the surface in a large house in the plush part of Los Angeles... but truly full of ire at the screenplays he's had to write, the movie folks he's had to deal with, and the lack of success for the Bandini books that he was actually proud of.

West of Rome

John Fante is a peerless writer. Smooth, powerful, no words wasted. Ahead of his time in a lot of ways and much better than 99% of Knut Hamsun's work... a writer that he (slightly bafflingly) adored. You feel for the curmudgeonly Fante in MY DOG STUPID... his ire at his own dog, but more tellingly other people's dogs and the annoyances of family life. MY DOG STUPID reads like a personal diatribe, a "fuck you" that he only intended himself to read. He probably dashed it off in a couple of weeks, while mere mortals would take months to craft the fucking thing.

There's a marked difference between the early Bandini novels (all of which are wonderful, of course) in that they deal with a guy full of arrogance and a sense of cock-eyed hope. MY DOG STUPID is a story of a guy who's trying to contain himself. He's no longer screaming "I AM BANDINI!", he's occasionally biting his tongue or just cursing humankind under his breath. It's fantastic, and if you haven't read it, do so as soon as you can.

The other - much shorter - story in WEST OF ROME is THE ORGY, which has an interest of its own. Wheeling back to Fante as a kid, it charts his realisation that his father is having an affair. It's actually a nice counterpoint to MY DOG STUPID, with Fante openly revealing himself up as vulnerable. I'd argue that all his work does this, however. Readers, like Bukowski, fixate on the tough guy stuff but what makes both writers succeed is that there is an undercurrent of self-knowledge. Whether it's Fante losing his dream of being a baseball pitcher (1933 WAS A BAD YEAR), or his woman to another guy/lesbianism (again, read up about ASK THE DUST) or Bukowski wondering why the hell he's fucking all those women (the last third of WOMEN).

The length of THE ORGY makes it feel slight in comparison to the novella length MY DOG STUPID. But if they'd included it in THE BIG HUNGER or THE WINE OF YOUTH, you would have adored it. So still adore it now. It's a very fine story, from a writer who - when not dictated to by the demands of Hollywood (FULL OF LIFE) - is seemingly incapable of writing anything less than very good work.

WEST OF ROME is more than that. It's great. Buy it and see for yourself.

Review by Steve Hussy