Crossing the street a few days ago after a trip to Goodwill, I decided to stop into Mutiny Now Art, Books and Coffee at the corner of Ellsworth and Broadway. I walked in, “Hey, Jack.” The proprietor, self-described healthy anarchist and meta-pop artist Jack Jensen, was engrossed in conversation with another customer at the front counter, so I checked the “New and Notables” rack then drifted through the shelves, experiencing the usual levels of dissatisfaction and making abortive searches. After about ten minutes of browsing, I returned to the New and Notables, thinking, “Well, maybe I’ll buy that Hunter S. Thompson, I don’t know . . .”
Jack’s voice came from behind: “You ever heard of Dan Fante?”
I turned. “Sure, we’re pen pals even.”
“Well, Dan Fante is making an appearance at Mutiny Now on October 15th. Less than two weeks.”
Holy Fff—! My mind wrinkled and blinked. “How’d you arrange that?”
“Well, a friend of his came in here the other day and I happened to mention that I was the first to carry his new memoir.”
“Hey, I’ve been wanting a copy of that.”
Jensen had a copy of Dan’s latest, FANTE: a memoir, additionally titled A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving, under glass at the front counter, so I promptly bought a copy. This family memoir detailing the integral years-long struggle of conscience between an equally tortured father and son and their love and abuse and appreciation of all their other confused, loving family members as the son zigzags from job to job without discernable trajectory—carnival barker, cabbie, radio host, street peddler, limo driver, private eye, ruthless telemarketer—and the father slips further into bitterness, drinking too much and arguing and playing golf in giving-up-land—is an impactive and rewarding read. For all the tangles of their lives, father and son never stopped loving each other with a sort of stark literalness, uncanny but familiar. When Dan criticizes the first draft of his father’s The Brotherhood of the Grape, which signified his return to writing prose after years of unfulfilling writing for the films, as lacking in apparent commercial appeal, the elder Fante responds that if it’s “good, then people will read it. That’s why literature exists. An author puts his heart and his guts on the page. For your information, a good novel can change the world.”
This statement comes very close to approximating a tendency I’ve ascribed to John Fante’s approach to writing—that of “hospitality,” as if the author were building a house for his readers’ attention, even going so far as to speculate that it might have been organic to his makeup, considering his own father’s years as a bricklayer—though the younger Fante’s perspective has somewhat tempered this idealized portrait of his father’s technique. John Fante’s hostly tendency is nowhere more apparent than in his first novel, The Road to Los Angeles, one of the most ambitious satires I’ve read, written in 1933 but deemed unpublishable when first presented, perhaps for its cavalier treatment of such heavy matters as religion and politics. Had this book been published at the time of its writing, 18 years before the publication of Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, starring a similarly disgruntled but far less entertaining adolescent, John Fante would likely have enjoyed a reputation during his lifetime as an exceptional novelist. Instead, he vanished into the netherworld of Hollywood screenwriters, remaining unrecognized as a creative talent in his own right until Charles Bukowski’s resuscitation of his name in the late seventies, which inspired Black Sparrow Press to start reprinting Fante classics like Wait Until Spring, Bandini andAsk The Dust, publishing new ones, like Dreams From Bunker Hill and The Brotherhood of the Grape and finally, to bring The Road to Los Angeles to print after Fante’s death in 1983.
Like most readers of my generation, I came across John Fante’s name during my exploration of the voluminous Bukowski catalog and first assumed they were contemporaries, later learning that Fante had in fact been a strong early influence on the young Bukowski, who felt starved for authenticity of emotion in literature. I bought a copy of Ask The Dust and was impressed, and after I read The Road to Los Angeles I was hooked. Fante and Bukowski met as senior citizens, after Fante had gone blind and undergone double amputation of his legs due to the effects of diabetes, nevertheless telling Bukowski that the thing that happens to most people when they get old is they become bitter, and he hadn’t succumbed. I heard John’s son Dan Fante was a writer, but couldn’t find his books anywhere. I came across his address somewhere online and sent Dan a letter raving respectfully about his father’s hosptality several years ago. We’ve kept in touch since, our last exchange having been Dan’s invite to a reading from his new book in the Los Angeles area, which I declined because of distance, promising to read and review the newly released FANTE soonest chance. Little did I know said review would include a promotion of a personal appearance by Fante in my own neighborhood, but such are the ways of the as yet unknowable. I sent Dan an email asking how he’d made that selection.
“I have a friend from Sedona, a shop owner/writer named Ann Fabricant who frequents Mutiny Now when she’s in Denver. She raved about the store and said she saw several of my books in the window. I called there on a whim and slammo, one thing lead to another and I was booking a reading with Jack the owner. I have a weakness for indie bookstores. And my grand dad Nicola Fante built churches and schools in Denver and Boulder that still stand. Part of our family history is in Colorado, which is the other reason I wanted to do a reading there.”
After establishing conversational contact with Dan several years ago, I’ve been able to find and read all but two or three books by him. Most reviews compare his writing to that of Charles Bukowski. This is understandable, given Bukowski’s admiration of Dan’s father’s writing (he compared his discovery of John Fante’s Ask The Dust in the L.A. Public Library to “finding gold in the city dump”), and the fact that both writers treat heavy drinking in Los Angeles, but does a great disservice to each man’s individual style. Dan writes with a sort of hardnosed desperation, like a private detective in search of the cold, hard, facts, where Bukowski’s approach might be better described as that of a stern gardener, pruning and enhancing his experience to highlight bits and downplay others. But what do I know, I’m some kind of a writer myself. In Dan’s Chump Change (not to be confused with David Eddie’s excellent novel by the same name), his alter-ego, Bruno Dante, is accompanied in a drunken flight from circumstance by his dying father’s dying pit bull, Rocco. As Bruno rapidly decays physically and all that sweet wine dulls his senses, it’s as if the decrepit, incontinent dog is there to remind him of his own agony, as a surrogate for his absent, dying father, at once an imposition and an obligation. A perfect companion to this book is the John Fante novella “My Dog Stupid.”
I read once that William S. Burroughs Sr. appraised his son Billy that, in his estimation, autobiography ran its course after two or three novels. While I appreciate the logic of this estimate, since inventing pure fiction as opposed to rearranging fond wounds can represent a triumphant escape from personal circumstance, in my opinion the amount would vary from person to person, dependent on the circumstances at issue. Every one of Dan’s books has been a victorious step away from and out of a self-inflicted morass of booze, drugs and depression. “For me, the privilege of possessing the reader’s mind with my words in a novel for hours or days at a time , sharing my personal truth, is a great gift. As it was for my father, John Fante, being a writer is not simply a job. It is an extraordinary and precious calling.” Given this reverent perspective, each successive block of personal experience transmuted to written words equates to its fulfillment and transcendence. Dan’s memoir, FANTE, represents the final vanquishing of his own blasted past, an authoritative objectification of the evolving psychological conditions of his life and the familial and societal conditions over time that gave birth to those, sustained them, and resolved them to the present, with Dan’s recent return to his home base Los Angeles after a rocky five years in Arizona full of “lessons learned about real estate investing and how ruthless a joint like the Bank of America can be. My new book is almost done. It’s called POINT DOOM—a detective thriller. I’m trying something entirely new.”
Memoirist, Novelist, Poet and Playwright DAN FANTE will be reading from and discussing his new book, FANTE: A Memoir,
on Saturday Oct. 15th, 2011 at 2:00 P.M. and lasting as long as it does.