THE FAT MAN RETURNS:
AN INTERVIEW WITH LIONEL ROLFE
Californian bohemian "were artists who experimented with love and life in all its ways, ususally with a political perspective to the left. We now have, especially since Reagan, made businessmen our heroes -- people who make a lot of money. The bohemian movement obviously represented the opposite of that because, to them, the greatest glory is the creative person."
Alexander Dobuzinskis interviews Lionel Rolfe
COPYRIGHT © 2001, 3 A.M. MAGAZINE. ALL RIGHTS
The intersection of the arts and politict has a rich history in LA, and there's no better person to illuminate that history than author and journalist Lionel Rolfe. In his book Literary L.A. -- just out in a revised and expanded third edition -- Rolfe reveals the history of L.A.'s forgotten literary scene. From Charles Bukowski to Robinson Jeffers, Aldous Huxley to Nathanael West, Rolfe describes the authors who made L.A. home and looks at the stories and struggles behind the creation of a culture. Rolfe is also the author of Bread and Hyacinths: The Rise and Fall of Utopian Los Angeles and Fat Man on the Left: Four Decades in the Underground.
: It would have to be one of the first disaster books. Remember, Nathanael West came later, I think. West did highly influence Joseph Heller and "Catch 22." West was about a kind of Jewish alienation from things, which Huxley, the proper Englishman, didn't have. You could look at Thomas Mann's "Doctor Faustus" and Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano," both of which were, at least partly, written in L.A. and say they are disaster novels. But these weren't disaster novels in the sense of a silly Hollywood movie. They were talking about alienation and the human condition. L.A. was sometimes a good place for such novels to play out, or get written in, because L.A. spawned a certain kind of alienation, what with its surrealistic landscape (a desert next to an ocean, etc.) But in a larger sense, the alienation came from World War II and it affected a whole world. World War II was kind of like a cliff where the road runner goes over the cliff but just keeps pedaling and doesn't fall until he realizes what has happened. L.A. is a place where people keep pedaling and don't realize the bottom has fallen out and there might not be much of a future.
3AM: Why are there two chapters on Upton Sinclair but no chapters on Raymond Chandler?
LR: Somewhere in the book I explain -- or perhaps John Ahouse explains -- that I decided not to write about Raymond Chandler simply because he was the only L.A. writer anyone ever wrote about. Also, I was a little turned off by his anti-Semitism and anti-black sentiments, although he was an incredible writer. But I just felt I had the luxury not to write much about him (I did a bit), because he had been done over and over again in addition to the fact he turned me off.
3AM: What sort of research did you have to do when you were writing the book?
LR: Some of them (the chapters), I did the typical research. Read autobiographies, all the news clips I could get and I read all their books. But a lot of it, you may notice also, came out of my own experience and my own knowledge. So it's kind of a combination of both. A lot of the research was done in a very disciplined kind of way, because Dick Adler, who was the editor of the magazine California Living in the old Herald, would give me an assignment and gave me enough money to write the piece-- he guaranteed that whether it was Nigey, my estranged wife, or me, we'd have a piece in every week. So, it would be like being on the staff. But we had to get the article in on time, so I was working 24 hours a day -- reading, writing and thinking, in order to get a story in on Friday in time to get on the following week's payroll.
3AM: You are a big fan of Mark Twain. What do you see in Twain and do you really think he was the first California bohemian?
LR: Yes, Mark Twain is our greatest writer, greater even than Melville. He is at least the equivalent of any writer anywhere else in the world, from Tolstoy to Dostoyevsky. And he really was the first California bohemian. He was known as the sagebrush bohemian, in fact. The start of his career was in the Mother Lode country.
It's no accident that duirng the Vietnam War, somebody asked Ho Chi Minh whether he hated Americans. "How can I hate the country that produced Mark Twain?" he asked.
Mark Twain represented the left before there was a left. He was the first anti-imperialist. He was always very much in the corner of the workingman. He got in lots of trouble in this country at the end of his life for supporting Gorky. He was almost hooted out of acceptance when Gorky was going to come and do a tour and so on. He was in support of the Russian revolution. He was probably the first voice, American voice, to come forward about imperialism ...He was like the Beethoven of writers ... He was incredibly anti-monarchist. After all, the best thing that came out of the American Revolution, which was a revolution, was that it was against monarchy. And, quite like Beethoven, he represented anti-feudalism. He represented the coming of bourgeois democracy where you do have democracy in certain things. He represented a kind of scientific enlightenment. Very much a belief in science which we don't have now because we've seen science perverted for so many evil purposes of the military and so on. But, he very definitely represented the best in the American spirit.
3AM: O.k. so maybe we could describe what's a bohemian by describing what's a California bohemian.
LR: They were artists who experimented with love and life in all its ways, ususally with a political perspective to the left. We now have, especially since Reagan, made businessmen our heroes -- people who make a lot of money. Whereas I think traditionally in old Chinese culture ... the lowest people on the totem pole were the athletes and the businessmen, and the highest were the poets, the philosophers the writers and, I guess, the musicians. I don't know much about Chinese music. We've flip flopped that, and this was the influence of Reagan, so that our great heroes are athletes, rock stars, which is music without brains ... I mean it's glorification of commerce; bankers are our role models. The bohemian movement obviously represented the opposite of that because, to them, the greatest glory is the creative person. But that's who bohemians are and they definitely include certain very specific people ... you've got to include Jack London, Mark Twain, you have to include Steinbeck. Robinson Jeffers was a sort of a bohemian even though he didn't fit politically. Bohemians tend to be left.
3AM: Did you have a favourite author profiled in the book?
LR: It changes from time to time. Like when I wrote about Upton Sinclair, I was really enjoying that because I'd always loved Upton and I felt that I was bringing an author to people's attention. I mean, everybody knew Upton Sinclair as the author of "The Jungle." They didn't realize he spent half a century in Los Angeles writing about a lot of Los Angeles subjects. And a lot of his books were written in Los Angeles ... I mean, like, his book "Oil," which is about Southern California entirely, and actually about Signal Hill, was maybe the best novel ever written about Southern California. It's just an incredible novel. And, probably as a piece of writing it's better than "The Jungle." ... Then I was pretty excited about Bukowski. It wasn't only that night I spent drinking. I went to a couple movie premieres about him and he was there, hung around him in different circumstances until I was really able to spend some time with him. And, also having brushed across him at the L.A. Free Press many years before, that's where he really first became well known.
3AM: What was it like to go drinking with Bukowski?
LR: It was all you might have imagined. He drank, of that there was no doubt. And he was unpredictable and enertaining as well. He's ultimately a disturbing character, with his love of Celine and Sartre, two very contradictory characters -- one a communist and the other a fascist. I write about going drinking with him in one of the chapters in the book.
3AM: The way his poems are written is almost in the dialogue of a street character or something like that. It's not like, he's definitely not an observer. He's almost like an actor.
LR: He's an active participant of the street life.
3AM: So, is that a uniquely Los Angeles way to approach the literature?
LR: That I'm not quite sure about and, in actual fact, Bukowski is probably a lot more European than anything and that's why they loved his stuff there. But I guess the big thing that Bukowski gets is the sense of alienation that a Los Angeles creates. Like Gene Vier ... the one who hooked me up with Bukowski said -- in Europe even somebody on the street has a sense of belonging. Because of some basic structures that will keep them going and so on. Here when we throw people out they're dead, they're gone, they're cut off, they don't exist anymore. We have no sense of we. We have no sense of, you know, everybody belongs in some sense. So what you get with Bukowski is that incredible sense of alienation. And that might be particularly Los Angeles because I think Los Angeles is even stronger in that than other American places. It's the Darwinian survival of the fittest kind of thing, which we have really incorperated into our ethic, into our way of being as Americans, and it's just capitalism run totally amuck.
3AM: In Oscar Zeta Acosta's "Autobiographical Essay," he writes: "Most of the big ideas I've gotten for my lawyer work have usually come when I was stoned... I think the acid experience is part and parcel of the radical Chicano Movement." In your review of Zeta-Acosta's work, you briefly talk about the drug aspect of the movement he was involved in, but you kind of relate it to the broader culture of the 1960s. I tend to disagree, I think the use of drugs described in revolt of the Cockroach People was more related to the use of drugs by certain Southwest indigenous peoples that the Chincano movement took their inspiration from. It had a historical antecedant in a way the hippie movement's use of drugs did not.
LR: But actually the hippy use of drugs was typically related to folklore. I mean everyone knew about peyote and how and why that was used, as well as magic mushrooms. LSD was synthesized, so it was different -- but the hippy drug thing, through Alan Watts and Aldous Huxley, definitely had strong mystical connections.
3AM: What do you think specifically about the use of drugs described in Zeta-Acosta's books and what do you think of the use of drugs during the 60s generally. Do you think it helped the anti-war movement or do you think it sort of derailed the movement?
LR: Well, there are different components. Marijuana had always been the underground drug, especially in black culture. And it turns out it was widely used as an asthma fighter, at the turn of the century. Drugs were always there -- the original coke was just that. Coleridge in "A Stately Pleasure Dome," well that's very much opium. "Alice in Wonderland" was cocaine, I think, or maybe opium. But specifically in the case of the Beats, pot was the drug of choice because a lot of it was based on a reverence for black culture -- especially in music and also in writing. There's some evidence that LSD was more intentional. Henry Luce [founder of Time Magazine] really did push people using LSD, which was sort of created or conceived of as a way of disorienting the enemy. I have often wondered it was used in that manner in the '60s because a lot of people did get permanently messed up using LSD -- and I say that as one who used some LSD in the '60s and while I got negative about it, I think it did help me achieve a certain creativity in my writing that I wouldn't have had without it.
3AM: In the book, you describe some of the parallels between Zeta-Acosta's work and Malcolm Lowry's "Under the Volcano." Why is this? Do you think they were both similar because they were revolutionary novels?
LR: There are strong similarities but strong differences dictated by the times. Acosta is writing about the '60s when, in fact, politics was messed up a lot by mystical nonsense, some of it drug induced. In both novels, there is this strong undercurrent of fascism coming of age. Lowry is writing about Spain and its Civil War, and then Hitler taking over in the form of Franco -- which was reverberating in Mexican politics of the time as well. Acosta is writing about "direct action" -- anarchist reactions -- to what was going on in the '60s. I'm not sure I would call either one of them 'revolutionary' novels, exactly, but they have those elements, certainly. But they reflect radical thinking, in two different times. Remember, Lowry was a cabalist, a mystic, but he lost some of his best friends in Spain -- you know, that was the struggle that had all the good songs but lost the war -- sort of like the Wobblies in American labor history.
3AM: What was your worst experience as a police reporter? ... What do you think about the fact the Parker Center press room is completely empty now, that there used to be a lot of reporters there and is there a change in the way the press has covered the police in recent years?
LR: Yeah the press room used to be -- and it looked just like that. I know Nielson Himmel, who lived through the press room, used to be in City Hall, the basement of City Hall. And when he saw that movie "L.A. Confidential," he loved it because it took him right back to that time and he remembered it very well. When Parker Center was built they moved the press room over lock, stock and barrel. But there used to be a lot of people in it. Nowadays of course it's primarily City News, which is there 24 hours a day and everybody's saving money. But that means of course you don't have as many eyes looking at things and you have to rely more on the official version and you have to pretty much take what cops hand out, because who else are you talking to? You're not talking to the people who were arrested, you don't have the manpower to go out and do those things. But that's just American journalism which has become cruddier and cruddier --dramatically so. And I think that pretty much coincides with the monopolization of the press which has been going on the last decade or two.
3AM: So it's not a coincidence?
LR:Oh, of course not.
3AM: What was Huxley's state of mind when he was writing "Ape & Essence?" Meaning was he out of cash, angry at the world, what do you think was going on in his mind?
LR: Huxley was broke when he wrote "Ape & Essence," only because he couldn't get royalties out of England during the war. But I think he, like a lot of others, was very concerned about Hiroshima and the implications of that. That was the main thing that bugged him. That's what was going on in his mind -- what does all this death and destruction signify?
3AM: It's basically another Los Angeles disaster book, like Nathanael West's "Day of the Locusts." What is it about Los Angeles that spawns all these disaster novels?
3AM: What do you think is the future of Los Angeles literature?
LR: Depends on the future of L.A. itself and the whole society. As the culture has gone into a great decline, sort of a corrupt Roman Circus affair, writing has suffered. People tell me that the great writing is now being done in Latin America. America once produced great writers -- both Russia and America produced the great writers. I don't think that's true right now. The question of writers out of LA is really only a part of the larger question of where do we as a city and a nation go from here.
This interview was conducted by Alexander Dobuzinskis of the Independent Media Center in Los Angeles.
ABOUT LIONEL ROLFE
Lionel Rolfe has published many books including Literary L.A. and Fat Man on the Left : Four Decades in the Underground.
This interview, conducted by Alexander Dobuzinskis was first published in Los Angeles Independent Media Center