In Appreciation – John Fante

College is where I made many of the literary connections that have come to shape not only my reading tastes, but also my development as a person…  Charles Bukowski, Kurt Vonnegut, Gloria Naylor, Hubert Selby Jr, and others. I’ve said that before college, I was mostly mired in a sea entertaining-but-mostly-brain-dead slop… Dean Koontz and other pop-lit travesties that I’m not mostly ashamed to have wasted my time on.

Even into my freshman year, a newly kindled interest in T.S. Eliot and my first of three attempts at reading Ulysses (a-ha ha ha, someday, right?) weren’t enough to completely break me from my old reading tendencies.

Then, in a story I’m fairly certain I’ve related before, I was introduced to John Fante in the fall of 2002.  In an AOL Chat Room, of all places.  Some random young woman from Italy told me that, even though I’d never heard of him, he was the greatest author in the English language, and was revered as a god in parts of her home country.

While I still doubt the veracity of her second claim, but I cannot say enough how much I love Fante’s prose.  Every time I read the opening chapters of Ask The Dust, I get chills down my spine.  Every time.  I could pick it off the shelf, flip to a random page, and find a passage that will give me the same reaction.

Before even getting into novel-writing, though, John Fante built up a helluva reputation as a short story writer.  His first, and most frequent, publisher was HL Mencken’s American Mercury, which published “Altar Boy” in August 1932, a full six years before his first novel was published.  Three collections of Fante’s short stories exist: Dago Red (1940), The Wine Of Youth (1985, comprising Dago Red and some later stories), and The Big Hunger (2000).

After years of short story writing, Fante hit the scene with Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938), which was also the first time readers met Arturo Bandini.  A great first novel, but not nearly as polished, sparse, and beautiful as Ask The Dust (1939).  Ask The Dust is by far his most well-known… and his best written novel.

But Ask The Dust was not the huge success Fante wanted it to be.  His publisher, Stackpole & Sons, published an unauthorized version of Mein Kampf and was sued by Hitler.  Seriously, what an asshole, right?  All of Stackpole’s advertising budget went into their defense fund and Fante’s sophomore novel was limited to only about 3000 copies.

Frustrated, Fante found his way into writing for Hollywood.  The easy writing and easy money appealed to Fante.  His letters indicate that he intended to write long enough to make enough money to support a family.

More than a decade after Ask The Dust flopped, Fante wrote Full of Life (1952).  The novel was published in Reader’s Digest and was sold to Hollywood and made into a movie starring Judy Holliday and Richard Conte.  The money from this project bought Fante a house in Malibu while he continued to toil away in Hollywood, occasionally shooting off a short story, or newspaper op-ed piece.

Before his death in 1983, Fante only published two more novels:  The Brotherhood of the Grape (1977) and Dreams From Bunker Hill (1982).  Dreams From Bunker Hill brings Arturo Bandini back, after an absence of more than forty years.  Even though the novel was dictated to his wife, Joyce, the classic Fante prose is there.

Fante’s life was never particularly easy.  He grew up with an alcoholic father, never reached the literary successes he thought he should have, often hated himself for sucking a the easy teat of Hollywood, and only started receiving literary recognition after years of his own alcoholism had afflicted him with diabetes and eaten away his vision and his legs.

But reading Dreams From Bunker Hill… you can tell he remembers the good, early days.  The hungry days when he was starving, living in a filthy hotel and wondering where his rent money would come from.  The honesty and passion in his prose, especially when returning to his greatest creation, is both uplifting and heartbreaking.

Much thanks has to go to the authors Charles Bukowski and Ben Pleasants for their work in attempting to get Fante republished.  Ben Pleasants did a series of interviews with Fante in the late 70s which was then published as a short piece in the LA Times in July 1979.  This attention, coupled with Bukowski’s attempts at bringing Fante’s works back, are the reason why any random person can find Fante’s works without spending hundreds of dollars on editions from the 40s and 50s.

Bukowski referred to Fante as a god, a titan of fiction, and name dropped him consistently in his poetry and once in his novel Women (1978).  It was this novel that made Bukowski’s editor, John Martin, question about John Fante.  Bukowski found a copy of Ask The Dust for Martin to read, and Martin made every effort to get Fante’s work back in print.

Bukowski even wrote an introduction to the Black Sparrow Edition of Ask The Dust.  When I read it, I had no idea who either Bukowski or Fante were, but I knew I held a special novel in my hands.  And when I had finished the book, I knew for certain that I was holding a treasure of literature.

I knew I had to tell people.

I told as many people as would listen in college.  I even wrote an essay for a writer’s conference just so I could awaken more people to the brilliance of Fante’s work.  If you read nothing else, you should read Ask The Dust.  Fante packs so much into such a short novel that you’ll wonder how he did it.

Central to the story is Fante’s love for the city of Los Angeles, and the empathy and compassion he feels for the people struggling to make it on a day-by-day basis in the underside of the city.  Even today, Fante’s words echo and reverberate with meaning and potency.

READ HIM!  You won’t be disappointed.

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