Dan Fante began writing novels when he was forty-two years-old. By the time his father, John Fante, was that age he had all but given up on novels and was several years deep into a Hollywood screenwriting career. The elder Fante considered himself a failure, and when he wasn’t writing unused screenplays he was gambling away screenplay money. He had at least one great novel behind him, Ask the Dust – featuring his alter-ego, Arturo Bandini – but it would take several decades for it to make its impact.
The calamities of John Fante’s career are well known and threaten to overtake his fiction as the most important element of his life. This is regrettable, but his story is too fascinating to ignore. So the reason for the delayed impact of Ask the Dust goes like this: on the year of its publication his publisher, Stackpole Sons, had prepared an extensive promotional campaign for the novel’s launch. Unfortunately Stackpole Sons also decided to publish an unauthorised version of Mein Kampf that same year and were promptly sued by Adolf Hitler (Hitler is mentioned by Bandini once in the novel, triggering a melancholy irony in retrospect: “To hell with that Hitler, this is more important than Hitler, this is about my book.”). Most of the money set aside for boosting Fante’s novel went to the court case. Ask the Dust was released but floundered without promotion and Stackpole Sons eventually went bust.
This is typical of the kind of luck that John Fante experienced throughout his writing career. The luck wasn’t always bad, but it was always incredible. At the enviable age of nineteen he gets his first story published by H.L. Mencken, after peppering American literature’s gatekeeper with handwritten letters. But his major achievement, Ask the Dust, sells a couple of thousand copies and goes out of print fast. So then he falls into screenwriting and earns big money for little work. But he also inherits his father’s temper and burns a lot of bridges along the way (Dan Fante notes that his father was capable of using the word “cocksucker” eleven times in a single sentence). Decades after Ask the Dust is published he is rediscovered and, with the help of Charles Bukowski and Ben Pleasants, Fante’s reputation as one of L.A.’s greatest writers is confirmed. But by then he is seriously ill, blind and amputated at both legs due to severe diabetes.
Normally it wouldn’t be expected of the son of a writer to provide the definitive account of such a savage life, but what’s great about Dan Fante’s Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving is that he avoids the usual pitfalls of family biography (he can veer towards sentimentality at times, but it’s earned). The complete lack of self pity and the amazing trials of his own life prevent the book from becoming hagiographic or unnecessary. At no point does it feel like a scene, a chapter, an anecdote didn’t need to be written. The younger Fante’s life has been one in defiance of the predictable artistic trajectory; a life even more eventful than his father’s, even more savage.
Fante: A Family’s Legacy begins with this Author’s Note:
I have led an intense life. For the sake of brevity I have not included every marriage, girlfriend, arrest, job, and beating. Just the more interesting ones.
It quickly becomes apparent that “intense” is too modest a word. The sheer speed and variety of his life seems to break not just the rules of human endurance, but also the laws of physics. Instead of taking a single route, he has lived multiple lives within one span, so that to the outsider his biography seems like an endless overlapping smear of events rather than a causal chain. Previous careers include: carny, private eye, taxi driver, drug dealer, street peddler, chauffeur, actor, writer of radio plays (including Smoke, featuring possibly the first black superhero), door-to-door salesman, matchmaker, music manager, telemarketer, and used-car salesman. He once worked 30 different jobs in a six month period. Alcoholism was a perennial problem, so holding down a job wasn’t always easy, but it’s still remarkable just how successful he could be. At one point he claims to have been one of the highest paid chauffeurs in New York City, driving people like Elton John, Mick Jagger, and Bette Davis to restaurants and social events. During his telemarketing peak he was earning more than a hundred thousand dollars a year. It’s difficult to imagine John Fante – or anyone else – being so versatile and adaptive.
It’s also difficult to imagine anyone else surviving the outrageous fortune of Dan Fante’s life. There wasn’t just alcoholism and drug use, but regular suicide attempts, sometimes during intoxicated blackouts. The most hard-boiled paragraph in a book filled with them comes when he describes a particularly nasty shove against death’s door.
When I woke up I found blood covering my bedsheets and a steak knife on the floor. I had stabbed myself in the stomach in a blackout. The gash wasn’t as deep as it was long. After washing the wound I put superglue on it to close it, along with some paper towels and duct tape. My hangover was brutal, and I was afraid that I might vomit and open the cut, so I drank a bottle of Pepto-Bismol mixed with half a pint of whiskey. Then I took some sleep meds and went back to bed. The next day I put three thousand dollars down on a new sports car. A red one. I always bought red whenever possible.
This scene, too good to use just once, was also deployed in his first novel, Chump Change. In fact much of this memoir will be familiar to anyone who has read Dan Fante’s other books. It is almost a reader’s digest of his fiction so far, all the more visceral for being in one place.
But the major point of division between father and son is in the writing. John Fante’s energetic, winding sentences, and his knack for landing both feet on the best possible phrase – “…the smell of gasoline made the sight of the palm trees seem sad”, “her hair spilled over the pillow like a bottle of overturned ink” – were not inherited. In Ask the Dust John Fante’s Bandini is unable to seize the moment, trapped by his own inwardness (“you’re too aesthetic for all this”, he tells himself); whereas his son’s writing is a way out of inwardness, an escape from the endless interior chatter.
This partly explains why his prose is so unadorned, so laconic and washed out. But it could also be a product of coming to novels late. There’s a weariness to his phrasing sometimes, as if the decadence in life is enough, without it manifesting as lyricism or self-analysis on the page. In the hands of a more flamboyant stylist the memoir could easily be stretched to a few volumes. There are tantalizing glimpses of dynamic situations that feel like 20-page set-pieces just waiting to bloom. We briefly hear of Katya Kokoff, an ex-girlfriend: “Like me she had radical mood swings, and our time together finally ended after a blowup one night and the arrival of the Santa Monica SWAT Team.”
The bullet-swift prose serves perfectly well for the majority of the memoir, but it isn’t suitable for catching the inwardness of his father – the Bandini within. So we see the bold and violent Fante, but not the solipsistic romantic, the sex-fearing lover, the God-fearing sinner. In the Bandini novels, the protagonist’s anger comes from a complicated and vulnerable place – there’s nothing of the brute about him. But in Fante: A Family’s Legacy John Fante plays the bully; refusing to show up for school events, threatening anyone who crossed him. His son once heard him say to another man at a party: “If I wanted to, I could destroy your life in twenty words or less.” There’s a photograph of him posing with a vicious looking pet dog and both pairs of eyes are eerily alike.
Dan Fante says he himself is not a “profound guy”, and throughout he seems to distrust his own interior being, which is more likely to kill him than reveal itself. At his bleakest he considered his mind as “something separate from me, a sort of newsroom delivering endless, poisonous indictments.” This being the case, he would be loath to intrude on the inner life of his father.
Because he doesn’t probe too deeply, their relationship doesn’t appear complicated. So the toggle switch of emotion tends to have two settings: when there isn’t slight reproach for his father’s wasted talent there is genuine admiration. Dan Fante is clear about just how important he thinks his father’s fiction is, and how much he fulfills the ideal of the writer: “Most of his novels were written for nothing. Not fame. Not recognition. He wrote because a writer was what he was.” In fact he seems to care more about his father’s posterity than his own. In Chump Change, Bruno Dante finds a copy of his father’s novel in a second hand bookstore. The book is called Ask the Wind (Dan isn’t interested in concealing real life – at another point in the novel Dante stops reading a bestseller by someone called “Stanley King” in disgust). Broke and unable to afford the book, he asks an employee at the store to read it, claiming it’s better than Hemingway. It’s Ask the Wind that compels Dante to turn back to his own talent, and at the end of Chump Change he writes a poem about L.A. The result is raw, dry, and almost pathologically afraid of pretension. When Bandini writes a poem in Ask the Dust it’s plagiarized from Ernest Dowson with the express intention of wooing his love, Camilla.
At the beginning John Fante wasn’t there: “The night I was born my father was boozing at a club in Hollywood. The next day he played golf. It took forty-eight hours before he finally made an appearance at the hospital.” It was down to his wife, Joyce – more than a match for her husband, she taught herself German in her spare time, practiced Tarot readings, and read four books a week – to set the rules and raise the children. But at the end of John Fante’s life, as he lay blind and exhausted, his son was there to see him up until the last moment. Dan Fante often claims to be entirely different to his father, a “ne’er-do-well, a whackjob”, compared to the driven artist-patriarch. And yet the way both men climbed clear of their wrong beginnings is an important and noble similarity, and not to be neglected.
We had become a loving father and son after a rocky thirty-year start. John Fante’s gift to me was his ambition, his brilliance, and his pure writer’s heart. He had begun life with a drunken, self-hating father, backing out of the hell of poverty and prejudice. Now he was ending it as the best example of courage and humility I had ever known. John Fante was my hero.