Despite the title, Lionel Rolfe is far more than simply an overweight Lefty. Journalist, author, musician, he is a self-confessed Californian bohemian. Indeed, Fat Man On The Left effectively captures the pulsating and often contradictory atmosphere of his Los Angeles hometown: chaotic, sometimes self-indulgent, but ultimately alive, exhilarating and highly attractive.
As the subtitle suggests, this work is a collection of essays that describes four decades of his experiences, perceptions and interpretations of American society, culture and politics. The political "underground" is naturally a dark, unknown and neglected abode, but Rolfe is a master of telling those intriguing stories that only a writer living in the underground could discover. What, for instance, was the true nature of the conspiracy behind the assassination of Robert Kennedy? Was Rolfe talking with the murderer hours before the American President was gunned-down?
Fat Man On The Left also offers a highly personal insight into the dynamics of the distinguished musical Menuhin family. Rolfe provides a fascinating account of his Jewish roots (the Menuhin’s are descended from Russian Jews) and the strained relation he had with his Uncle Yehudi, the celebrated violinist, who succeeded in excluding him from his grandmother’s will for, among other reasons, having no ‘class’. Commenting on a letter from Yehudi Menuhin, Rolfe erupts in a characteristically entertaining manner:
"Yehudi is right. I don’t have class. He might have been born in New York and emerged as a prodigy violinist out of the pioneer West at the beginning of this century, but his letter showed me what an Edwardian aristocrat he had become. I, on the other hand, was an American even more, a Californian. And while Yehudi may now be Lord Yehudi, and Lord and Master over there in London, I will tell you what I think of monarchy. Monarchy is a ridiculous concept, even if the monarchs happen to be rare and unusual people which, of course, they almost never are".
To his credit, Rolfe does not latch onto and play up his famed family past and name, but deserves credit as a writer in his own right whose finger is very much on the pulse of contemporary American culture and society. Rolfe writes what he sees, not what people want him to see or tell him to write. Sure enough, this inevitably leads him into conflicts and confrontations, but this sense of danger is precisely what fuels his writings.
From an early age, Rolfe has had an interest in class struggle and worked for his first underground newspaper in the 60s, where he was attracted to the fervent atmosphere of communism and social activism (he now refers to himself as a democratic socialist). His present writing focuses largely on LA culture – a microcosm in itself – yet this does not isolated the non-Californian reader.
For instance, I had no prior knowledge of the case of Ted Derby, the wealthy animal lover and trainer who was shot on his estate by a rival, but I was enthralled by Rolfe’s engaging account of the conflicting reports of a case that never went to court. Rolfe is clearly a journalist who has a nose well-trained to smell a rat, and always appears to be in the right place at the right time mightily annoying for those who wish to avoid prying journalists, but wonderful for those who, like Rolfe, are obsessed "doubters of the official version".
Yet Fat Man On The Left is much more than a collection of "what really happened" stories. It is also an honest account of those experiences which shape one’s own individual life. One cannot fail to be affected by Rolfe’s moving account of his brush with death, his brutally frank and eye-watering account of his treatment for gangrene resulting from diabetes, the split from his second wife and the loss of a close friend soon afterwards. Nevertheless, there is an underlying sense of almost humorous irony lying behind Rolfe’s Californian-inspired writing, even when the subject matter is most tragic. Where else but in LA could a self-confessed Fat Man roll over in his sleep and crush his beloved cockatiel to death, and then describe the account in such moving, heart-rending words? The literary world, Californian and beyond, needs more writers like Lionel Rolfe.