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A Walk on the Wild Side

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 Dust while 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 Saint and 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.

Talk about a tale with poignancy, pathos, drama! How disappointing, then, that all these qualities are absent from Stephen Cooper’s book. The problems start with structure: By laying out Fante’s story along strictly chronological lines — and seemingly including everything he learned about the man, no matter how trivial — Cooper ends up with a list of facts and events rather than a narrative. Sometimes it’s a boring list, too: The middle of Fante’s life, when his struggles were those of a B-grade screenwriter and the tragedy lay in what he wasn’t doing, is far less interesting than what came before and after.

From time to time, Cooper seems to grasp that something’s missing and tries to impose coherence by connecting Fante’s story to current events — with often bad, or plain nutty, results. At one point, two paragraphs include discussion of Fante’s work on a film, radioactive fallout in the Nevada desert, mention of a Fante play that includes a bomb shelter, and a foreshadowing of Vietnam, then ends with the zinger “All of these horrors must have seemed remote when . . . Fante went to the doctor for a routine checkup.” (It doesn’t help that Cooper’s prose can clunk as dramatically as Fante’s soared. In an aside about Frank Lloyd Wright, he notes, “But . . . on his own he could not an entire city contrive.”)

An even larger problem with Full of Life is the curious flatness of its main characters. It sounds as though there wasn’t a lot of available information about Fante’s early life, particularly his inner workings. (Though this doesn’t excuse Cooper’s repeated extrapolation of fact from Fante’s fiction, and his reliance on the even more dubious technique of putting thoughts in his subject’s head: “No doubt Fante grew lightheaded more than once in these vagrant days . . . no doubt . . . he also indulged his Jesuit-approved talent for dreaming, so that as he trudged the endless sidewalks he was both himself and someone else.”) But it’s also unclear how much active interviewing and digging Cooper did. A local writer he cites as one of the few non–family members who spent time with Fante at the end of his life was never contacted for the book. That’s just plain lazy.

He’s also failed to make the best use of the source material he did have, such as lengthy conversations with Joyce, and copies of her diaries and Fante’s own letters. The book is virtually devoid of scenes and dialogue; crucial situations are paraphrased, rather than dramatized or told — and, more crucially, explained — in the participants’ own words. As a result, while we learn what happened in Fante’s life, the whats and whys remain unclear: What was the emotional and intellectual connection that so deeply bound the utterly apolitical Fante and Carey McWilliams, a radical activist to his bones? What was the source of Fante’s urge to create, his self-destructiveness, his sometimes stunning cruelty? (He had an affair with an old lover while Joyce was pregnant with their third child, ordered Joyce to have an abortion, then fled the house after she conceived the fourth, and one afternoon drowned a litter of kittens with neighborhood children looking on.)

Fante’s marriage virtually begs for a deeper look — he and Joyce clearly were tied by some combination of self-abnegation and worship on her part, abuse and dependence on his, and intense, lifelong eroticism for them both. “When we were not quarreling we were making mad and enthusiastic love . . . as many as five times a day,” Joyce recalls of their early years. Years later, the blind, legless Fante welcomes his wife into his hospital room with the words “I’ve been thinking of fucking you.”

Time has been good to John Fante. Within a decade of his death, virtually all his books, even those publishers rejected during his lifetime, were in print. They still are. His story deserves to be told, but one would have hoped for a book more . . . well, full of life.

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Black Sparrow Press did the literary world a great service when it published John Fante’s long out-of-print masterpiece Ask the Dust in 1980. Other laudable re-releases followed — the novel Wait Until Spring, Bandini and the short stories of Dago Red, as well as Dreams From Bunker Hill, the novel Fante wrote in the last months of his life. But with Fante’s transformation from a merely fabulous writer to cult hero, the press has mined and printed ever more of his obscure work, with steadily decreasing returns. Its latest, The Big Hunger, does no one any favors.

This collection contains 18 stories, many written early in Fante’s career, a few during its tormented middle. Several were published in the glossy magazines of his time — Scribner’s, Collier’s, Woman’s Home Companion — and many never saw print at all. To be blunt, they’re not very good. Readers who love Fante for the poetic rush and rhythm he gave language will be disheartened by the young writer’s awkward mangling of it: “The fire in the voice of your father made you and your brother reach for the skins of one another . . . ” It’s equally painful, in the year 2000, to read dialogue like “Helly up, helly up. Bling ’em chop suey two times . . . alla same, helly up, yes!” in “Mary Osaka, I Love You,” a Filipino-Japanese love story intended to be part of Fante’s ill-conceived epic of Filipino life.

Other pieces are inoffensive, just slight. Some selections are absurd — we are offered a “prologue” to Ask the Dust, which is in fact a book proposal that Fante sent his editor, and which already was published by Black Sparrow in 1990. Its inclusion is justified by the fact that a missing page has been restored. Perhaps only one piece, “Charge It,” the story of a wife’s humiliation before the grocer to whom she owes money, fully realized and packed tight with class rage, offers an early glimpse of Fante at his best. It is, it turns out, an early treatment of material that later appeared in Wait Until Spring, Bandini. In other words, we’ve read it already — and in the form its author deemed ready for publication.

What’s going on here? Stephen Cooper, the book’s editor, suggests that those who are interested in Fante will benefit from witnessing his evolution. And yes, if you buy the argument that Fante is a significant writer — which I do — these early and unpublished works have real importance. Their proper audience, however, is scholars and researchers. To ask lay readers to plow through a writer’s early struggles to find his voice, his later missteps, and his second- or third-best efforts, can only diminish his standing. Even a great literary talent produces a lot of junk — that’s the reason we have wastebaskets, shredders, the delete key.

The ultimate message this book sends is a warning to writers: Preserve what you know is good, and burn the rest before you go.

—C.L.M.