“Dreams from Bunker Hill” by John Fante is a beautifully-written story about writing and love-relationships. (I’m not sure how the two themes intersect exactly but I get the feeling they do.) It follows Arturo Bandini as he careens around Los Angelos trying to simultaneously find the focus and inspiration to write and general respect as adult human being. (Maybe the intersection is found in the fact that these two things are diametrically opposed for Fante. More on this later.) Bandini works as an editor of short-stories and as a studio and freelance screen-writer but finds both occupations creatively suffocating. (As an editor, he’s forced to condone bad writing, as a studio screen-writer, sit on his hands day-in-day-out waiting for a project to be passed along from the studio boss whose only goal in hiring him seems to have been to not let his competitors do the same, and as a freelance screenwriter, capitulate to the Hollywood rumour-mill and celebrity-mongering.) Throughout his ordeals he falls in love with terrible rapidity and intensity, causing harm to himself and those he encounters. He does manage to have an almost healthy relationship with the old woman – Mrs. Brownwell – at his rooming house, but ultimately botches that too. The story ends with his finally being able to sit down and write like he’d like to.
It’s hard to say whether or not Bandini is the hero of the book. Certainly, he’s a flawed one if he is. Mrs. Brownwell is definitely more noble but receives less attention from the author. Perhaps what Fante is arguing is that bad characters are more lively and interesting as writing subjects. And, because fiction writing is so often auto-biographical, it’s part of the process as a writer to put oneself in bad circumstances – if not become a bad character. The better question is whether making one’s life a subject for art at the same time obfuscates the self-respect and decency that everyone craves. Arguably, no one is entirely noble whatever their vocation and the edge between ‘profession’ and ‘person’ always bleeds into and taints the other. Notwithstanding the discomfort of the question, it’s worth asking and Fante posits it bravely, without a trace of self-pity.
Of course, I’m probably over-looking a lot of historical factors in my analysis, not to mention, the book is part of a series of five and I’ve only read three. What’s incontrovertible is that Fante’s writing is first rate. It’s energetic but thoughtful. The only possible knock on it is it may eschew profundity a bit, but this is certainly preferable to the opposite. Overall, an exciting read and well worth the price of admission unless it includes Fante’s personal respect. For me, if he wrote this at the cost of his close relationships, then it falls short. All books do.