The Drinking Life of a Family – John and Dan Fante

Fante by Dan Fante is a book that has been on my radar for about two years.  I had a brief correspondence with the author in November of 2011 while attempting to track down the copyright on a piece of his father’s work.

For those of you who don’t yet know, John Fante is my favorite novelist.  He wrote for a brief time in the late 30s and then spent the rest of his life toiling away in Hollywood.   During his time in Hollywood, John Fante wrote a couple more novels and fell into obscurity.

Until Charles Bukowski.  Bukowski is often referred to as the Poet Laureate of Skid Row… which is an awful nickname, but… he was a writer who focused primarily on the downtrodden and the edges of society, so… whatever.

Bukowski was a huge fan of Fante’s and, so the legend goes, spent hours combing the LA City Library on the bum in the 40s and 50s.  One day, he pulled down John Fante’s novel Ask The Dust and read it through quickly.  Two decades later, in his novel Women, Bukowski made a passing reference to Fante.  From there, Bukowski’s publisher John Martin (of the Black Sparrow Press) worked to get Fante’s work back in print.

With Black Sparrow Press reprinting Fante’s older works (as well as a brand new novel titled Dreams From Bunker Hill) and a spectacular interview piece by Ben Pleasants in the LA Times, John Fante’s stock was back on the rise.  But his years of whoring himself out to the Hollywood machine had left him bitter and members of his family felt the backlash of his anger, including his son, Dan.

Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking, and Surviving
Dan Fante
Harper Collins
Aug 30, 2011
416 pages

The first thing to know about this memoir is that Dan Fante doesn’t pull any punches.  Through most of the book, he comes across as a maniac, pervert, and all around asshole.  If you’ve read his novels (and if you haven’t, you really should) you can definitely see just how closely he matches his Bruno Dante character.

Before writing this memoir, Fante wrote semi-autobiographical novels and short stories (much like his father) as well as poetry and plays.  His novels Chump Change (1998), Mooch (2001), Spitting Off Of Tall Buildings (2002), and 86’d (2009) all star Bruno Dante, Fante’s literary alter-ego.  Bruno Dante is a notorious alcoholic, continual con-man, and well… pretty much a massive dick.  But he also has moments of tenderness and brilliance, especially when talking about his father.

This is also true of Dan Fante in his memoir.  Growing up in the Fante household was not easy and not fun for Dan… an angry, regretful father… a jealous, near-homicidal brother…  Dan Fante grew up learning harsh lessons and became a harsh person, living a harsh life.

The memoir continues, alternating between stories of father and son.  While John Fante is aging and growing blind in Los Angeles, Dan Fante was drinking his life away, slogging his way between jobs, and doing his best to remove himself from life… permanently.

The memoir seemed familiar to me at many points because I’ve read just about everything I could about John Fante (including Stephen Cooper’s excellent biography Full of Life), as well as Dan Fante’s novels and short stories.  Despite this, the memoir remained an occasionally humorous, mostly dark journey into the depths of a mad psyche.

So why would you want to read this memoir?  Like his novels, the memoir is about survival.  A man can slog though years and years of shit, but can survive.  The memoir is often disturbing because of how out of control Fante can be become, but is then all the more uplifting when he finally navigates his way out of it.

To me, it always seemed strange the way Dan Fante obviously admired his father in his writing (for instance Chump Change is all about the death of Dante’s father and his attempt to reconnect to him through his writing) and yet had such a turbulent childhood.  This book gives a great perspective, not just on the life of Dan Fante, but also on the difficult father-son relationship between to writers\alcoholics.  Even if you’ve never read a novel by the Fantes… I think you’ll enjoy this book.

 

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