Two Los Angeles city transportation workers hoisted a sign at the corner of 5th and Grand downtown on a recent morning, then covered it with a blue cloth. A handful of onlookers waited, cameras ready.
The tiny band had gathered for the dedication of a small slice of Los Angeles in honor of John Fante, a writer who died in 1983 but has remained popular with fans determined to gain recognition for a novelist who received precious little of it during his life. They knew that if Fante could be brought back to life this day, he would love to stand here alongside the most memorable character from his books, Arturo Bandini, hooting and hollering, arrogantly proud that a piece of the city was now officially theirs: John Fante Square, just as the sign said.
Fante was known for his wit, adolescent naïveté and frustrated rage, traits he gave Bandini. All art is at minimum semi-autobiographical, and Fante's creation of Bandini — who wants to be the world's greatest writer — is a reminder that the man behind the character had an insatiable desire to be the best.
“Fante shared in the Southern European access to strong emotion,” says Stephen Cooper, author of Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante. “He loved, hated, feared and bragged in his own life in ways that rightly parallel Arturo Bandini's.”
Fante's debut novel, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, the first of four books centered on that character, was published in 1938. The following year saw the release of Fante's masterpiece Ask the Dust, which should have been the era's defining moment in literature. But Adolf Hitler screwed that up.
That same year, Dust's publisher, Stackpole Sons, issued an unauthorized copy of the German führer's Mein Kampf and spent the money that was supposed to be used to promote Fante on a two-year legal battle over Hitler's book. Thus a novel that would have, could have and should have placed Fante atop the annals of World War II–era literature vanished for nearly four decades.
It was but the first setback in a career that more often than not found the frustrated writer circling the drain of obscurity. Dust languished until Charles Bukowski, poet laureate of L.A.'s seedy underbelly, urged his publisher, Black Sparrow Press, to reissue Fante's work.
Fante raised his four children in Malibu and made his living not as a novelist but as a screenwriter for films such as 1962's Walk on the Wild Side and The Reluctant Saint. For some, working in Hollywood is a dream gig, but Fante considered himself an author of books, not a screenwriter, and when his literary endeavors were not recognized, he turned to drink, specifically wine.
Accolades came Fante's way during the final portion of his life, but by then diabetes had taken his legs and eyesight. The crippled writer dictated his final Bandini novel, 1982's Dreams From Bunker Hill, to his wife, Joyce. The book shows no signs of artistic erosion. Dreams is a powerful glimpse into the mind of a man whose physical ailments couldn't stop the avalanche of creativity inside his head.
Since his death, the cult of John Fante has grown into a passionate group of people who believe his depiction of Los Angeles is the most colorful committed to print. But on this day, 15 minutes before the unveiling of John Fante Square, just 20 or so people gathered. For Fante — who loved Bunker Hill — this arguably would have been the most important day of his career, and almost no one was here to witness it.
Then, as if someone had flipped a switch, about 100 people showed up, including Fante's offspring, Vickie, Jim and Dan. Los Angeles City Councilwoman Jan Perry gave the first remarks, and the dichotomy of beauty and realism in Fante's work showed itself when his children spoke.
Daughter Vickie read her father's best-known quote, from the third page of Dust:
“Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.”
Son Jim said, “Dad, that sad flower in the sand Los Angeles has finally come to you.”
Son Dan — an author — read two poems that included the phrases “blow job” and “screw the L.A. Times,” and somewhere John Fante was drunk with joy that his children gave him a tribute more fitting than a street sign.