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Esotouric tours explores L.A.'s dark side

Times Staff Writer

It was on a bus tour of 100-year-old ghost stories that two L.A. history freaks hit a speed bump on their journey into the city's most obscure corners.

"The problem with that tour," says Richard Schave, one of the movers behind a new tour series called Esotouric, "was that all the buildings were gone. So I was sitting in the back of the bus, and everybody was just lost."

Getting around this paradox — the combination of architectural / historical fandom and the official city's long-standing indifference toward even its signature structures — led Schave to his solution: He'd use the lives and works of iconic L.A. writers to unify and order the experience.

The next project, which takes place Saturday, is built around the work of L.A. cult writer John Fante and his lusty, resentful and oddly innocent alter ego Arturo Bandini, best known from the classic novel "Ask the Dust" from 1939. "You have to find a compelling narrative, and I found that Arturo Bandini was a great way to do it. And there's so much left of Bandini's downtown."

The project grows out of a series Schave started last year with his wife, Kim Cooper, focused on crimes of the past such as the "Black Dahlia" murder.

These days, Cooper does the crime stuff while Schave handles the literary side. "There's some overlap," she says. "Because it's all just cultural history." Especially, it seems, in Los Angeles. (They're also running a discussion series about classic L.A. books.)

On this day, the obsessive Schave and Cooper are walking through the remains of '30s and early '40s downtown — "Like all good biopics, we're just 10 years," he says. Downtown was once fed by subway and train lines. Some of it remains much as it was during Bandini's day; some of it, like the formerly Victorian Bunker Hill, has changed radically.

Saturday's tour, which will include walking and a bus ride to Hollywood and to Fante's now-condemned apartment in Koreatown, will look at the places where Fante and his protagonist lived, ate and drank. It includes old-school L.A. sights such as Angels Flight, as well as places like Little Italy, where Union Station now stands, that exist only in memory. "This was where it all happened!" Schave says, pointing at Pershing Square, with its mix of fountains, corporate plazas and homeless people. "Pershing Square was the bellybutton of the world — it's where everybody went. Arturo Bandini would go to the library to read a book of poetry, and then hit Bookseller's Row on 6th Street. This is so ugly; it used to be such a great place!"

THOUGH other Southland writers — including Raymond Chandler and Charles Bukowski, who will also be tour subjects this year — are better known, Fante may be, to the faithful at least, the most beloved.

"Ask the Dust" especially seems to continue to generate enthusiastic readers, despite a poorly received Robert Towne film version last year. The novel tells the story of a down-on-his luck writer, crashing in a cheap rooming house, who lives through poverty, a brief stroke of what he takes to be wealth, romantic misadventures and an L.A. earthquake. Among the most powerful aspects of the book is the huge ambition and hunger for literary success that Bandini generates, as well as his passionate, if ambivalent, love of the city's sense of possibility.

Cooper, discovering the book as a teenager, said that even decades later it managed to distill what it was like to be an Angeleno.

Part of Fante's continuing appeal comes from his connection to Bukowski, who found a copy of "Ask the Dust" in an L.A. library and based his career on the older writer, whom he called "my God." Bukowski also helped bring his work back into print.

Some readers, including Schave, get into Fante through Carey McWilliams, the California historian who befriended the author, or scribe H.L. Mencken, who published his first story.

"His soul was on fire," Schave says of Fante's appeal to the young. Readers also respond to the audacity of his characters, whose needs are so naked as to be nearly animal. "You can have 15 mistresses and lie to your wife," Schave says. "I don't do that, but it's about being honest about what's important to you, about how you feel."

And Fante became a kind of patron saint to frustrated screenwriters. Fante, Schave says, was in a long line of novelists — from as close by as downtown L.A. or as far away as New York or Britain — who wrote for Hollywood and thought they would be the one writer to survive the experience. Fante once called toiling for the studios "the most disgusting job in Christ's kingdom." Says Schave: "They think they'll come to town, write great screenplays … and leave. But they didn't — they were destroyed."

Cooper says Fante appeals to people who are curious about the overlooked, the underclass. "He had these round tables of all the losers and weirdos he knew," she said.

"I would do that myself," Schave replied, "if I could."


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