By Anthony D'Alessandro
By Catherine Wagley
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
In 1983, when I first became fascinated with Los Angeles history, reading Carey McWilliams led me to John Fante. “I can think of only four novels that suggest what Southern California is really like,” McWilliams wrote in the brilliant Southern California: An Island on the Land. I’d already read (and loved) the first on his list, The Day of the Locust; I’d never even heard of the second, Fante’s Ask the Dust. That I easily found it (at an independent bookstore, of course) was a miracle I didn’t appreciate until much later — until its re-publication in 1980, the novel had been out of print for 40 years. In the late ’70s, Fante had been rescued from literary obscurity by an unlikely pair of champions: Robert Towne, who discovered Ask the Dustwhile working on his script for Chinatown, and Charles Bukowski, who had read the novel during his own youth, idolized its author and later, as his own fame grew, sent a copy to his publisher at Black Sparrow Press.
Fante’s story of youthful ambition, desire and loss amidst the seedy hotels and bars of Depression-era L.A. enjoyed a far greater critical success this second time around, and no wonder. The rhythm, flow and poetry of Fante’s language may be timeless, but his sense of the grotesque, and the bleakness of his vision, are intensely modern. (Day of the Locust also did better in re-release.) The book attracted to its author a cult following that flourishes to this day. Now, for the first time, Fante’s life, a combination of artistic promise realized and wasted, is the subject of a biography, Full of Life, by Cal State Long Beach professor Stephen Cooper.
For those who’ve not heard the John Fante story, the basics are these: He was born in Denver in 1909, the eldest child of a miserable union between an Italian immigrant bricklayer with a “taste for wine and a weakness for bar fights” and a young woman so pious that local priests had expected her to become a nun. His early years were marked by poverty and a wretched home life — his father, whom Fante both loathed and adored, regularly beat his mother, and abandoned the family for a time. Fante was further shaped by the anti-Italian sentiment that permeated Colorado (which had seen lynchings of “dagos” not long before), and by Catholicism, which he alternately repudiated and embraced for the rest of his life. In 1929, he dropped out of the University of Colorado and fled to California, determined to become a writer.
Living in cheap rooms in Wilmington, Long Beach and, later, downtown L.A., Fante worked in menial jobs and spent his nights reading Nietzsche and struggling to write. He also began a correspondence with H.L. Mencken, who in 1932 bought one of his short stories for The American Mercury. By 1936, he’d found his voice as a writer of autobiographical fiction, and created a vivid and original alter ego, would-be author Arturo Bandini, who would star in all his best work. Although Fante’s first Bandini novel, The Road to Los Angeles, was rejected, his second, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, was not only published, in 1938, but picked by two reviewers as the finest novel of the year. His third, Ask the Dust, appeared in 1939, and in 1940, the collection that made up Dago Red was celebrated by Time as “perhaps [the year’s] best book of short stories.”
At 31, Fante was at his peak — married to an upper-middle-class Stanford-educated poet with the almost too-perfect name of Joyce Smart, close to compelling figures like William Saroyan and Carey McWilliams (who occupied the center of L.A. political and intellectual life), certain of his own creative powers. “I have done an immortal work of art,” he bragged to Saroyan when Wait Until Spring, Bandini was released.
Then a long slide began. Fante’s literary success was limited — a would-be epic about Filipino workers, with the nightmarish title The Little Brown Brothers, was rejected. The books and stories he did sell didn’t pay the bills; he and Joyce ultimately â had four children; and repeated efforts for grants were turned down. He turned to Hollywood. His relationship to the film world, writes Cooper, was “utilitarian and cynical” — Fante himself described studio work as “the most disgusting job in Christ’s kingdom” — but in the end, it was what occupied the bulk of his life. (His credits include Jeanne Eagels, The Reluctant Saintand Walk on the Wild Side.) Rather than doing serious writing, “He logged his time at the studio cranking out piffle and drank himself stupid at every chance.”
It would be 12 years before Fante published another book — Full of Life, an unabashedly commercial venture originally written for Woman’s Home Companion magazine. (Ironically, it became a best-seller, then a hit movie starring Judy Holliday.) Several other novels went unpublished; Fante’s creative life was a horror, and he knew it. “For Esther,” he wrote in the copy of Dago Red he gave to a friend, “from that Hollywood whore, that stinking sell-out artist . . . that Paramount cunt-lapper . . .” His eventual rediscovery by a new generation was nothing less than redemptive. Shortly after the reissue of Ask the Dust, Fante, by then blind, sick and minus a leg from complications of unmanaged diabetes, began to write again. Dreams From Bunker Hill, the fourth Bandini book, was completed via dictation in less than three months. A year after its publication, he was dead.