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The Fat Man Returns: An Interview with Lionel Rolfe

by Alexander Dobuzinskis Sunday, Jan. 27, 2002 at 5:43 PM

The intersection of the arts and politicts has a rich history in LA, and there's no better person to illuminate that history than author and journalist Lionel Rolfe. His book, Literary L.A., is just out in a revised and expanded third edition. Rolfe will be at Skylight Books for a book signing on Feb. 3 at 4 p.m., 1818 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz. He was interviewed for IMC-LA by Alexander Dobuzinskis.


The Fat Man Returns 
An Interview with Lionel Rolfe, Author of Literary LA, Fat Man on the Left, and Bread and Hyacinths
   By Alexander Dobuzinskis
  The intersection of the arts and politicts 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.   Alexander Dobuzinskis interviewed Rolfe for IMC-LA.

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 as known as the sagebrush bohemian, in fact.

AD: 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 to 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 have  a bit), because he had been done over and over again and he also turned me  off. 

AD: What sort of research did you have to do when you were writing the book? 

LR: Some of them, 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 and the old Herald ... would give me an  assignment and gave me enough money to pay for -- 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 have a piece in so, on  the writers, I would just work 24 hours a day just reading, writing and  thinking, in order to get a story into him on Friday. 

 AD: You are a big fan of Mark Twain. What do you see in Twain and do you  really  think he was the first Califonia 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  made in the Mother Lode country... I remember Ho Chi Minh during the Vietnam  War, somebody asked him "well do you hate Americans" and he said "how can I  hate the country that produced Mark Twain?"... 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 working man. 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-monorchist and in that sense  defined the best of, after all the best thing that came out of the American Revolution, which was a revolution, was 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. 


We now have, especially since Reagan, have made our heroes our basically businessmen -- 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, whereas the highest would be the poets, the philosophers the writers and, I guess, the musicians.

AD: O.k. so maybe we could describe what's a bohemian by describing what's a California bohemian.

LR: They're artists who experiment with love and life in all its ways, ususally with a political perspective to the left. We now have, especially since Reagan, have made our heroes our basically businessmen -- 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, whereas the highest would be the poets, the philosophers the  writers and, I guess, the musicians. I don't know much about Chinese music.  We've flip flopped that now so that, and this was the influence of Reagan,  so that our great heroes are athletes, rock starts, which is music without  brains ... I mean it's glorification of commerce it's glorificcation of  making money the glorification of bankers. The bohemian movement obviously  represented the opposite of that because, to them, the greatest glory is the  creative person, you know whether it's writing or dancing. But that's who  bohemians are and they definitely include certain very specific people ...  you've got to include Jack London, you got to include really Mark Twain, you  have to include Steinbeck, Robinson Jeffers was kind of on sort of a  bohemian even though he didn't fit politically. But they tend to be left. 

AD: Did you have a favorite author profiled in the book? 

LR: It changes from time to time. And also dependant on when I was doing it.  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." And 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 wriiten about Southern California. It's just an incredible  novel. And, probably as a piece of writing it's better than "The Jungle."  ... But, then on the other hand I was pretty excited about Bukowski. Well,  now of course Bukowski I did a lot of things  -- it wasn't only that night I  spent drinking. I went to a couple movie premieres where he was at and, you  know, hung around 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, where he really first became well known. 

AD: 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. I write about going drinking in one of the  chapters in the book. 

AD: 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  observor. He's almost like an actor. 

LR: He's an active participant of the street life. 

AD: So, is that a uniquely Los Angeles way to appoach 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, felt that what he really got was -- you know 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, the'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, you know 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.

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 mythic connections.

AD: 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  mythic connections. 

AD: 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. Coke Coleridge in "A  Stately Pleasure Dome," well that's very much opium. "Alice in Wonderland"  was cocaine, I think, and maybe some opium. But specifically in the case of  the Beats, pot was the drug of choice because a lot of it was based on a  reverance 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. 

AD: 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 silent 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. 

AD: 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 Hemmerall, 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. But I guess when Parker Center was built it sort  of moved the press room over lock, stock and barrell. 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 that  were arrested, you don't have the manpower to go out and do those things.  But that's just American journalism 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. 

AD: So it's not a coincidence? 

LR: Oh, of course not. 

AD: 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? 

AD: 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? 

LR: 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 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. 

AD: 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. 

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