The opening sentence of Dan Fante’s debut novel suggests just how thinly disguised his fiction really is. The narrator, a washed-up writer struggling with the imminent death of his novelist father, begins: ”My name is Bruno Dante and what I‘m writing about here is what happened.“
The ”alias“ is almost defiantly transparent, and much of Chump Change obviously parallels Fante’s own life: He‘s a late-blooming writer himself, the son of deceased L.A. novelist John Fante. First novels based on truth are common; what’s odd here is the extent to which Fante resists masking even the most obvious autobiographical details, leaving one to wonder: Why not just write a memoir? As fiction, the blatant parallels are distracting.
Fante‘s story is a familiar one: Troubled protagonist abandons all responsibility and hits the open road (in Dante’s case, it‘s with his father’s dying dog in the passenger seat), wandering the seedy streets of L.A.N.Y.S.F. in a drunkendrugged-outdepressed haze (Dante‘s is a wine-induced stupor), picking up strays along the way before arriving at some self-realization amid the chaos. After encountering a string of equally pathetic characters — a ratty teenage hooker, lonely female dating-service clients — as expected, Dante has an easy epiphany and kicks booze altogether.
Despite these problems of predictability, Dante’s story is raw, honest and sad, told with vivid details. While peering down at Los Angeles through an airplane window, Dante mutters, ”This enormous, overfed, infected pink pig of a city rolled across the landscape as far as the eye could see, coughing, snorting and sucking up whatever was once natural and undisturbed.“ It‘s this sort of visceral anger that, ultimately, makes Chump Change interesting.
Bruno Dante is a strong, painfully funny character, and his bitterness sharpens the lonely, rhythmic prose. As Dante rapidly decays physically and alcohol dulls his senses, it’s as if the decrepit dog is there to remind him of his own agony. ”Sorry, bud,“ he whispers, deadpan, to the shit-soaked pup, while feeding him wine and Percodan to quiet the repeated yelping. ”I know it hurts.“