Ideas

The Family Business




John Fante
Is the public ready for his jerks?

Certain books are better discovered than sold. On a lonely library shelf, say. Or better yet, pressed into one's hands by the one clerk at Borders who actually reads. Or, ultimately, recommended by another writer through the power of literary broadcast. Charles Bukowski pushed a few books into the hands of a generation when he told "a little butterball...in heat" who his favorite author was:

"Fante."

"Who?"

"John F-A-N-T-E. Ask the Dust. Wait Until Spring, Bandini."

Those lines are from Women, and that was 30 years ago. Fante, already forgotten, had his career resuscitated when Black Sparrow Press publisher John Martin asked Bukowski if Fante were real and then brought the writer's work back into print. He even inspired Fante, blind and diabetic by that time, to dictate one last novel to his wife, Joyce. Now it is 2009 and the centenary of John Fante's birth. He is dead. Bukowski is dead. Fante's son, Dan — a cult fiction writer in his own right who spent years in obscurity, published only overseas or by small presses — now has five books coming out this year, four with Harper Perennial. Harper is also releasing an anniversary edition of John Fante's Ask the Dust. But when books are better discovered than sold, as is the case for the work of both Fantes, are they ready for the spotlight that only Big Publishing can provide?
In Women, Bukowski sums up Fante's appeal in just a few words: "Total emotion. A very brave man." It's true. Most of Fante's books are at least semi-autobiographical in that they deal with the lives and frustrations of Italian-American men (or boys) who want to be writers. Father is often a stonemason, a God with feet of chipped concrete. In several of the books, alter ego Arturo Bandini is Fante. He's a romantic figure, struggling to escape the shadow of his father, with his dark features and foreign surname in an era when Italians were just barely white, and to just get something down on paper. He thrashes about, and every setback is agony. Two snippets of Arturo's views on Los Angeles, the city that both saved and ruined Fante's life:

"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!"

"So fuck you, Los Angeles, fuck your palm trees, and your highassed women, and your fancy streets, for I am going home, back to Colorado, back to the best damned town in the U.S.A. — Boulder, Colorado."

Fante's writing in general — and Ask the Dust in particular — is the sort of work an enterprising if desperate young literary man would gobble up. He might even give out copies to friends (if he had any) and especially to women he found attractive (plenty of those around). Heck, I've done it. Maybe it used to work. The most recent response I've had from a woman to whom I sent a copy was, "So, in the 1930s did readers realize that this guy is a jerk? Is he supposed to be annoying?" Another sniffed, "He reminds me of the boys I went to college with." And it's not like anyone is lining up outside bookstores to get a peek into the fevered minds of college boys these days, not even ones who can write like a dream and wish they were Caucasian enough to make it big.

Fante grew up, of course, and in a way he even made it. The dream of being a great novelist died on the vine, but Fante scored big as a hack screenwriter. Dreams from Bunker Hill, his last novel, deals with Arturo's early days at a Hollywood studio — "I smoked a Meerschaum pipe and became a writer once more in the world" Arturo recalls — and two of his novels deal with life in middle-class adulthood and death. Full of Life isn't about Bandini but about John Fante himself. The dream of writing has been replaced with the quiet hell of screenwriting in the studio system for big bucks. "First book sold 2,300 copies. Second book sold 4,800 copies. Third book sold 2,100 copies. But they don't ask for royalty statements in the picture business," the author/narrator tells us. And in the book, Joyce is full of life — she's pregnant. At one point John listens to her belly and thinks he hears a monster. Then Papa shows up, ready to fix up the young family’s termite-infested house. It's a cute book, though of course Fante is a jerk in it. It was made into a film with Judy Holliday, but the movie is not available on DVD.

But even Papa doesn't last forever. In The Brotherhood of the Grape the old stonemason has one last job: He has to make good on a rubber check he tried to pass during a drunken poker game — and has burned through all his old friends and cronies save for his middle-aged son. But years in Hollywood have made the grown-up kid soft. Fante's stand-in can do nothing to extricate his father from this fatal job. He can't break rocks like his old man, and he can't out-think the cagey old Italian motel owner who, in his own way, was letting Papa die with a little dignity by letting him work off a debt rather than beg it off. In the end, the successful screenwriter can only wail, "I was scum again, proletarian scum, the son of an ill-fated mason who had struggled all his life for a bit of space on earth. Like father, like son. Ah, Dostoyevsky! Fyodor could have come walking out of the fog and placed his hand on my shoulder and it would have meant nothing. How could a man live without his father? How could he wake up in the morning and say to himself: My father is gone forever?"

Then there's Dan Fante, whose novels feature Bruno Dante, the son of a screenwriter who published a few novels but has been forgotten. In the Dante series, Dan Fante owes as much to Bukowski and Selby as he does to his father. Forget the braggadocio and solipsism of Arturo Bandini — Bruno Dante is out of control with weeklong wine binges that lead to porn theaters and anonymous homosexuals sucking away from between his legs. In Chump Change, Bruno spends 200 pages with his dead father's dying dog, feeding the beast booze and junk food, the pair of them living out of a station wagon and rolling through the low life of Los Angeles. Short Dog is a collection of stories that share two themes: driving a cab and alcoholism.

Bruno wants to be a writer, too. He's written some poems. He writes stories and then tears them up in fits of self-loathing and anguish. Writing runs through Dan's novels and stories just as it does through John's, but booze and abuse are the real compulsions of the junior Dante's work. In the era of Ask the Dust and The Brotherhood of the Grape, great literature was the secret password to a new way of living. In Spitting off Tall Buildings and Chump Change, the cheapest wines are. Bruno finds himself in dead-end job after tedious dead-end job: cabbie, boiler room phone jockey, window washer; the sweet relief comes only when a co-worker flashes a flask, or when a sales lead ends up being a horny, wealthy, older woman whose eyeballs are floating in booze. Bandini freaked out when his great love, Camilla, smoked some marijuana; Dante hangs out with underage whores for 50 pages at a time.

The Fantes are a bit of an acquired taste, at least in a post-literate era in which authors need platforms — photogenic survivors of cancer, or those suffering the endless horrors of gluten — and Oprah's approval, and in which nobody is allowed to be a jerk unless he is finally defeated with an Expelliarmus spell after seven increasingly lengthy novels filled with ancillary product branding opportunities and multi-license franchise potential (sorry to spoil Harry Potter for those who haven’t read the books). Adolph Hitler, who sued Fante’s publisher for an unauthorized publication of Mein Kampf and drained the firm’s coffers of publicity money, derailed John Fante’s literary career. Dan Fante's enemy is far more insidious: People in the U.S. don't read anymore.

A few months ago I ordered, from the U.K., all four issues of a magazine called The Savage Kick. It's a very unusual literary journal for a couple of reasons. The first is that it is published on a home laser printer. The second is that all the short stories in it are worth reading. Dan Fante is a spiritual godfather of sorts to the zine, and was also all over the first issue. In a Savage Kick interview, he spoke of why it took so long to get published in America despite both talent and pedigree: "Europeans are better readers… I almost quit writing because I sent Chump Change out so many times, perhaps 40, and had it been rejected by everyone. Then a French publisher read it and sent me a note telling me how fine a work it was. I literally fell to my knees when I read his letter.” It's still a hard road for Dan. According to Bookscan, the entire Dan Fante backlist, eight titles in all, sold 85 copies in U.S. bookstores and discount joints since the beginning of this year. Papa is doing a bit better; Ask the Dust alone sells that many copies every week.

The big Harper push, which will include reissues of Chump Change and the other Bruno Dante novels plus a new one called 86'd, has the potential to be a breakthrough, but also carries risk. Can the Fante books be hand-sold by the 30 Borders employees who don't read. "If you liked The Purpose Driven Life, maybe you'll like Spitting Off Tall Buildings…Ask The Dust even had a chance a few years ago, thanks to a horrid film version, but today the Robert Towne effort is perhaps most remembered for Colin Ferrell's ass and Salma Hayek's tits. (Really. Turn off SafeSearch and type ask the dust into images.google.com. You'll get a picture of a rock-hard butt before one of the book's cover.) And, of course, the books are about jerks who don't finally get redeemed when they embrace middle-class lifestyles. Can't sell that, except to proletarian scum…

But this is an era of hope and change, and the thematic core of the work of both Fantes is the redemptive power of the written word. As a swarthy and unsuccessful writer myself, I have high hopes and continue to have them even after years of eating ever so many fists of indifference. For my day job, I attended Book Expo America in May and quickly ran to the Harper Collins pavilion once it opened. Surely they'd have galleys for 86’d, which comes out this September. I could get a copy, spread the word. But no. Global economic crisis meant cutbacks — few publishers were giving out much. BEA had little this year other than that damned giant Clifford the Big Red Dog balloon staring at me with its dead eyes!!! If Rupert Murdoch's Mammoth Mass Marketing Machine is beginning to stir, I've not felt any vibrations though my ear has been pressed close to the ground for years. Even this essay is purely an individual exercise in fanboyism written without the assistance of publicity packages or press releases from which to crib quotes.

Some books are better sold than they are discovered. The publishing industry, in many ways the last bastion of a production-centered manufacturing economy, knows what it wants. However, it has never quite known what sells. (If it did, BEA would have been full of freebies instead of chatter about layoffs!) Surprises have a way of bubbling up from under the surface. If a bestseller is by definition a book purchased by people who don't buy books, a cult classic is by definition a book sold to the same person over and over again, to be handed out like tracts to convert the pagan and the heathen. Well, true believers, there's been some kind of error at the plant and we'll have lots of tracts to hand out this Christmas season. Jerks of the world, who's with me?

But first, maybe a few drinks… • 23 June 2009




Nick Mamatas is the author of two novels, the science fiction satire Under My Roof and the Lovecraftian Beat road novel Move Under Ground. His short fiction has appeared everywhere from Mississippi Review to Brutarian Quaterly; much of it was recently collected in the book You Might Sleep. With Jay Lake he edited the anthology Spicy Slipstream Stories. Mamatas' essays and reportage have appeared in The Writer, Village Voice, In These Times and many other venues. A native New Yorker, he now lives in the California Bay Area.

Photograph © 2009 UC Regents.