John Fante was blind, and he was watching a football game. It was 1979, and I’d come up to his house on Point Dume to interview him about Ask the Dust, his 40-year-old novel that was about to be republished by Black Sparrow Press. He seemed perplexed: “What have you come for, again?” Fante was near the end of his life, and I may have been the first young journalist to ask to see him in years. That would change over the next decade as his books began selling around the world and gained an almost cultlike following. But for now this was unusual.
Recently bumped up from the United Artists mailroom to the story department, I was the first person there to see Fante’s unbound proofs. The book included a preface by Charles Bukowski, who had discovered Fante at the Central Library as a young man and later came to befriend him. Of Fante, Bukowski wrote: “. . . the way of his words and the way of his way are the same: strong and good and warm.”
I took Ask the Dust home to my claustrophobic flat above Mr. Lee, China Tailor on Fairfax, next to the Jack in the Box. I hadn’t been in the city long, and the story of Arturo Bandini and Camilla Lopez drew me into Los Angeles, made the history of the place real, and “strong and good and warm.” It also excited the hell out of me. I recommended that the studio buy it. Actually, I gushed, ruining whatever career I might have had as a “story analyst” — UA was never going to film a book like Ask the Dust. Naiveté unabated, I called Robert De Niro’s agent, Harry Ufland, and asked if he would take a look at my coverage. He did. There was some interest there — Francis Coppola, it turned out, had Fante’s The Brotherhood of the Grape under option for years. But as for Ask the Dust, it went where you might expect it to: nowhere.
An editor at the Weekly named Tracy Johnston — we would later work together at California magazine — agreed to an interview with the old man. And so it was that I watched that football game with Fante, and talked Bandini. And movies (Fante had made his living writing them), and Bukowski and the screenwriter Robert Towne, with whom Fante had a tempestuous relationship. (Actually, most of Fante’s relationships seemed to be tempestuous.) And Fante shared a little literary secret: He had lived Bandini’s story with Camilla, and now he thought he understood the conflict between them — she was a lesbian.
I wrote the piece, but I left that out — the novel was better with a little mystery. And I made the mistake of a neophyte, writing in the rhythmic style of Fante as a kind of homage. On the Thursday it came out, I took my unopened copy of the Weekly to El Coyote, sat at the bar, and read. And discovered that Johnston had edited out most of my Fanteisms without a word to me about it. (The Weekly was then infamous for rewriting pieces without the writers’ knowledge, let alone permission.) I had several margaritas that night, and promptly began writing for the competing alternative weekly, the Reader.
But no one else seemed to mind. The following week, the paper published a letter from the late Tomata du Plenty, then lead singer for the Screamers: “Thank you for Tom Christie’s haunting encounter with John Fante in your Dec. 28th issue. Four years ago, I left New York for Los Angeles. Pals asked, ‘Why L.A.?’ At that time I discovered John Fante’s great novel, and it seemed so right answering Ask the Dust!”
Nor did Fante or his wife, Joyce, mind. But then, they could hardly object to a piece titled, somewhat optimistically, “The Great Los Angeles Novel.” Joyce was a poet when they met in Santa Rosa, and even with John’s screenwriting successes, their heart and hopes remained with his novels.
Meanwhile, Fante’s diabetic condition worsened; he lost his legs and wound up in the Motion Picture and Television Home in Woodland Hills. I visited him there a couple of times. Once, I took a short story I’d written and read it to him and some of his pals, sitting around me in their wheelchairs. The story was lousy, but Fante was encouraging, even sweet about it. The last I saw of him, a nurse was taking him down the hall to, in his words, put him on the pot. “Don’t be bitter,” he’d once told me.
Fante died not long after. By then his reputation was growing. (Some 100,000 copies of Ask the Dust would sell by the time Black Sparrow sold the rights of Fante, Bukowski and Paul Bowles to HarperCollins in 2002.) New Fante works were published posthumously, articles were written, documentary films begun, biographies imagined. Fante was writing again, too, at the end. Bedridden, he had been formulating a new novel in his head, the morphine encouraging him sweetly.