Reading John Fante
Born in Denver, Colorado on April 8, 1909, John Fante was the son of a hard drinking Italian immigrant father and a timid, deeply religious mother. Fante’s early years were defined by poverty, prejudice and his parents’ incompatible union, all of which became lasting themes in his literary explorations of Los Angeles and the working class immigrant experience.
Fante’s passion for writing eclipsed his interest in school, and by 1929 he had dropped out of the University of Colorado and moved to Los Angeles to make it as a writer. His break came in 1932 when his literary idol, H.L. Mencken, published Fante’s short story “Altar Boy” in the journal American Mercury.
The Bandini Quartet
In the early 1930s, Fante began work on The Road to Los Angeles, the first in what would be a series of four novels featuring his now legendary alter ego, Arturo Bandini. The book was highly autobiographical, describing a young man’s struggle to escape conflicted parents, prejudice and poverty and become a great American writer. Though later critically praised, this first novel was unanimously rejected, and Fante never did see it in print.
In 1937 the author married Joyce Smart, a striking Stanford-educated poet and editor whose support was central to Fante’s ultimate recognition and the survival of his work. She was her husband’s fiercest defender and advocate, eventually resurrecting The Road to Los Angeles and having it published posthumously.
Fante continued his Bandini quartet with Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938) and Ask the Dust (1939). Both were published to great critical acclaim. Ask the Dust is widely considered to be Fante’s masterpiece. Yet neither of the books found a large readership and fell out of print within a short period of time.
Plagued with disappointment, and with children on the way, Fante turned to screenwriting as a side career. He bought a house in Malibu, worked with Orson Welles on the doomed project It’s All True, and made a comfortable living writing scripts that mostly didn’t get made. “I am now a complete and ungarnished hack,” he wrote to his friend, the writer William Saroyan. Anchored to a job he despised, he saw any hope of pursuing the literary work he valued drain away.
Years later, Fante’s health also began to fail. Diagnosed with diabetes in 1955, by the 1970s he had lost both legs and his eyesight to the disease. His books had long fallen out of print, and his inspiration was gone. He was known to say that if he were to have written about these years, the title would have to be “Fante’s Inferno.”
Lost and Found
In the early 1970s, Robert Towne, then a young Hollywood screenwriter with one script to his credit (The Last Detail), came upon Ask the Dust while researching 1930s Los Angeles for his script Chinatown. Towne thought the book was the best novel about Los Angeles he had ever read and immediately sought a meeting with the author in hopes of acquiring screen rights. At first Fante was disagreeable and suspicious, but his wife Joyce smoothed the way, and in the mid-1970s Towne bought the rights with Fante’s blessing.
The writer Charles Bukowski further improved Fante’s fortune in 1980 when he sent John Martin, his editor at Black Sparrow Press, a copy of Ask The Dust. A devoted fan of Fante’s work, Bukowski famously claimed that Ask the Dust was the best book ever written and that John Fante was his God. Bukowski had also referenced Fante many times in his novels, and his editor finally wanted to know if this Fante was real.
After reading Ask the Dust, John Martin was so taken by the work that he phoned Bukowski and exclaimed, “Fante is great, great! I can’t believe it! I am going to republish his works!” And soon Fante’s stories and novels were all back in print at Bukowski’s Black Sparrow Press. The fresh acclaim energized Fante. In spite of his poor health and blindness he embarked on writing what would be last book, the final piece of his Bandini quartet. Called Dreams From Bunker Hill, the novel portrayed the negative effects that Hollywood and screenwriting had on Arturo Bandini’s soul and writing. Fante wrote it by dictating to his wife, and it was published just before he died in 1983.