Noah Van Sciver‘s sequel improves upon the original in every way, although it does make that first volume feel even slighter in retrospect. With fuller characters, a more complex narrative arc and an increased dose of humor, Fante Bukowski 2 is a much more satisfying read than its predecessor.
One of my only qualms with the first Fante Bukowski was that it felt incredibly short, failing to give its sloppy, minimally talented protagonist a chance to grow and redeem himself; Fante didn’t even get a proper sendoff. The second chapter in his story retroactively makes the first feel even smaller, more like a prologue rather than an actual installment. Whether you took it as a standalone story (as I initially did) or as the first part of a series, it didn’t leave you with the sense of having absorbed a full story.
The exact opposite is true for this second book. Even if there was no third installment (note: there is one planned for release this November), this one effectively tells a complete story and allows Fante to advance in his career and as a person- even if by the tiniest increment.
The book begins with Fante taking up residence at the most derelict motel ever imagined as he embarks on a quest to distribute his poetry zine. The circumstances are comically bad, and show off Van Sciver’s comedic chops much more than the original did. Not that the first book was some dour screed, but here the jokes are noticeably more on display. The motel superintendent is a psychotic, paranoid man with wild demands, making for some very inconvenient situations for Fante. His room is full of unexplained peepholes used by the mysterious denizens of the building to spy on the struggling writer, something that he doesn’t mind too much after a while.
Things don’t go much better for Fante outside of the motel, and the entitled writer ends up in one wild misadventure after another. Not that readers will sympathize with Fante- he’s nearly as unlikable as he was before, with just a few moments of humanity sneaking out over the course of the book. The difference this time is that he’s got competition for the title of Worst Person, with several characters surpassing his reprehensible behaviour. One of those is the motel superintendent, another is Van Sciver himself. Yes, the author’s written himself into the story not as a protagonist but as an incredibly irritating secondary character. A bold move and one that does offer Fante a brief chance to actually look good compared to someone.
Van Sciver’s character plays the boyfriend to Audrey Catron, a secondary character from the first book who steps into the spotlight this time around. Her story runs concurrent to Fante’s, although she has quite a bit more luck come her way. While he struggles to sell his abysmal photocopied poetry zine, she becomes a published author, gets a book deal, soon followed by a movie deal. Things don’t go exactly as she wants, but she takes frustration in stride and is perhaps the first and only genuinely good person in both books. She’s a solid balance to Fante’s insufferable nature, and gives the reader someone to relate to.
Their parallel storylines eventually merge and lead the two towards each other, concluding in an intentionally anti-climactic meeting between them. It works though, thanks to the structure Van Sciver’s set up throughout the novel. It’s a subtle denouement where not everything comes together, but it feels resolved anyway. There’s also a twist from earlier in the book that allows for Fante to have a moment of good luck.
All this is a huge improvement on the bare bones first novel, and bodes well for the third (and final?) part to Fante’s story. If we’re to extrapolate the leap in quality from the first to second book, it can be assumed this next one is going to be a great read.
Final Grade: A