I first read Fante some 25 years ago through, of course, the Bukowski connection and I was not disappointed. I bought and read a half dozen Fante books. Then, for some odd reason, I forgot about him. Until recently. Lately, I’ve been pulling some of those old Fante books off the shelf and rediscovering them and reminding myself why I liked reading him in the first place. With that in mind, I ordered this book, West of Rome, which is an odd pairing of two novellas, “My Dog Stupid” and “The Orgy.” The first one, at close to 150 pages, is nearly novel length itself while the latter, at only about 50 pages, is closer to a long short story. And they are very dissimilar and fit oddly together. Which doesn’t make them bad. Not at all. I just wouldn’t read them together at one sitting.
West Of Rome contains the usual gritty, passionate prose Fante is known for, while also, particularly in the first novella, containing the usual rough comedy about difficult situations and people placed in awkward situations and how they deal with them. There’s also the usual explosive display of emotions. In “My Dog Stupid,” Henry Molise and family discover a 120 pound Akita lying in the yard in the rain seemingly near death. They nurse it back to health, place ads notifying the public of having found a lost dog in the papers, and come to grips with the fact that the dog seems to have adopted them. He’s big, strong, a little mean, a little bit loyal, very “passionate” (read horny), gay as the ace of spades (thus, much of the humor), and they name him “Stupid” by default. He humps any and everything that moves, especially if it’s male. Male dogs, male humans, male anything. He becomes known as the community rapist. He humiliates the community bully/watch dog, the regal German Shepard, by trying his best to rape it into submission. It’s hilarious and frightening at the same time.
Molise, meanwhile, is a middle aged failed writer, screenwriter and novelist, who has done nothing of note in some time, living in Malibu with his demanding wife and four grown kids, most all of whom are deadbeats in one way or another. He dreams of selling everything he has and running away to Rome to start over again. He dreams, too, of the kids getting out of the house and letting he and his wife get on with their lives. And so it comes to pass. Their complete spoiled bitch daughter who’s living the good life with an ex-Marine beach bum while in their house gets ticked off at Molise because of the dog and leaves. A son, who dates only black women, which frustrates his racist mother to no end, ends up introducing his parents to a black girlfriend who calls them Mom and Dad, to their horror. Later they get a late night call telling them to come down to Venice Beach and when they arrive at their destination, this woman opens the door and there they find their son, beat to holy hell. They take him away, take him back home, where the son later tells his father that the black girl is his wife and she is pregnant and she beat him up and they fought over what to do about the pregnancy; he wanted to keep the child. Another son has been trying to avoid the military for years, trying to get out due to medical “problems” of one sort or another through quack doctors, and Stupid inadvertently helps when the boy kicks the dog several times when the dog pins the ex-Marine against a wall to hump him and the dog bites the son in the leg. He goes to a doctor, winds up on crutches, and weeks later, unable to walk, gets his military walking papers and is miraculously healed. The fourth child, a son, is a college student who has his mother write all of his English papers for him. It’s especially funny when she gets extremely upset at getting a C on a paper that she did her very best on. However, to their shock and horror, he is thrown out of the college due to lack of attendance and when they confront him, they discover he has been volunteering at a poor community children’s disabled center. But the draft board has called for him and now he is terrified. Naive, he is convinced his good deeds will get him off. His father knows better. And to top things off, the man in charge of the board is someone they had a confrontation with on the beach a few months previously because Stupid tried to rape him too. Needless to say, Molise’s son is in the army in a heartbeat. His one request? Take care of Stupid. Who immediately disappears, nowhere to be found. The parents freak out. And as the climax of the novella approaches, the tension mounts and what was previously an incredibly funny work becomes less so as all of these rather serious life crises have taken their toll on the family, as these lies and pretensions have been lifted and erased. What starts out very funny becomes nearly sad, and at times, quite touching. It takes a gift to be able to make that type of a transition in a short work such as this and pull it off successfully, yet Fante does. It’s truly an excellent work.
“The Orgy” is very different. It’s told from the innocent eyes of a ten year old boy in Boulder, Colorado, the son of an extremely devout Catholic mother and a poor, hard working Italian father whose best friend and workmate is an atheist, much to his wife’s horror and disgust. One of the men, an older black man, who works for the boy’s father dabbles in penny stocks and one day makes a small fortune. He quits, but in a seemingly nice gesture, gives the boy’s father a certificate of ownership to a small gold mine in the mountains north of them. As the man wouldn’t be able to mine on his own, he takes his friend, Frank, as a partner and they start heading off to mine on the weekends, with little luck. The story then centers around one particular weekend when the mother forces her husband to take the son with them to the mine for the weekend and the ultimate loss of innocence that boy encounters along the way. There are moments of humor, but not nearly anything like in the first novella, and in all candor, this work, while decent, pales in comparison to the first and probably shouldn’t have been placed alongside it. It’s bound to be found lacking when compared to the former. It’s good, but merely average when compared to the excellent “Stupid.”
This book was published shortly after Fante’s death in the early 1980s. It’s not his best work, but I’m certainly glad to have it in my library and I think it’s definitely worth four stars. Recommended for anyone who enjoys unpretentious, “real,” funny literature from the author Bukowski admired the most.