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Imprints Literary Supplement

California Dreaming

The Old and New Worlds of John Fante

Dana Johnson

Imprints Literary Supplement 1999

Our Favorite Things Writing about books for a living means reviewing new releases, covering publishing-house hijinks, an...

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By Patrick Kenndy | Posted 10/13/1999

Like Henry Miller's before him, Charles Bukowski's books have served readers as indexes of literary and artistic figures, from the obscure to the trivial. Unlike Miller, Bukowski didn't drop names to inflate his worth as an intellectual; his tributes fostered an awareness of unknown writers for readers unfamiliar with their work. In one tribute, Bukowski mentions John Fante and applauds him as a man of courage and wit, and above all, as one of the great—if unknown—literary voices of the 20th century.

I found Ask the Dust, one of Fante's early titles, at a local library, and began thumbing the pages in earnest. Bukowski penned the preface himself and unequivocally declared Fante a major talent and an influence on his own writing. In a sense, Bukowski's words delivered a challenge, and by reading on, I—and Fante, both complicit in this literary gamble—tacitly accepted the task of determining whether Bukowski's praise was justified or inflated.

Bukowski was on the mark. Fante had the power to craft and sculpt language with such grace and ease; he could braid a story as concise and clean-lined as it was rich and stylized. He was an absolute master of the simple, declarative sentence, much in the way Hemingway is prized for his own minimalist, samurai writing style. Ask the Dust resonates with the same elegiac power of the closing paragraphs of James Joyce's The Dead.

Probably the most brilliantly conceived of Fante's novels, Ask the Dust begins the saga of Arturo Bandini, a thinly disguised version of the author himself. To continue the Joycean parallel, this story is truly a portrait of the artist as a young man—an account of his myriad failures, his delusions, his poverty, his initial encounters with women, his ambivalent relation to his family, and, ultimately, the dissonance he experiences upon returning home. The saga includes four books—Ask the Dust; The Road to Los Angeles; Wait Until Spring, Bandini; and Dreams From Bunker Hill.

Fante died in 1983 after a protracted bout with diabetes. By that time, the disease had taken his sight and both of his legs. In the face of such loss, and with death looming on the immediate horizon, the author managed to dictate a final novel to his wife. The book was posthumously published by Black Sparrow Press as Dreams From Bunker Hill.

The city of Los Angeles provided Fante with the matrix to refashion himself, and it became the setting for most of his published works. Born in 1909 and raised in a closely knit Italian-American family in Denver, Fante hitchhiked to L.A. during the Depression, planning to shed the provincial skin of his past and move on to literary fame. For a young man in his 20s, just existing in L.A. during such an economically discouraging period was heartbreaking, especially given his scant achievements in the writing world. This, of course, is not a new story in literature, but in the Arturo Bandini books Fante invests it with such life that it survives to this day as an authentic, enduring document.

Throughout these trials, Fante—as his alter ego Bandini would do—eked out a living on a minimal scale. Fante also began a long and documented correspondence with H.L. Mencken, who provided the upstart writer with tersely delivered moral support. The young man published his first few short stories in Mencken's American Mercury magazine, between 1932 and 1937. Fante's works sold little during his lifetime, but he was fortunate in 1940 to find success in screenwriting, a common vocation for novelists of the time, heavyweights such as William Saroyan and William Faulkner among them. By the time Fante settled into his 30s, he had completed a few screenplays (for genre films such as 1940's East of the River and 1944's Youth Runs Wild; in later years he scored with the 1962 adaptation of Nelson Algren's novel Walk on the Wild Side), gotten married, and created a comfortable life under the umbrella of Hollywood and the bright skies of southern California.

By 1991, Black Sparrow Press, which also publishes Bukowski, had reissued nearly all of Fante's work. His fiction covers the often volatile territory between Denver and Los Angeles, between the parochial world of his origin and the dizzying universe of L.A. Fante straddled and wrestled with these dichotomies throughout his life, and his battles are evident in his work. He is at once inextricably rooted in old-world Italian tradition (both familial and religious) and utterly absorbed by the hyper-real culture of new-world Los Angeles. He feels a pull from both sides. In his later novels, Fante/Bandini is every bit the fully assimilated novelist/screenwriter firmly ensconced in the Hollywood hills, but he adopts the stubborn and ambivalent traits of his father as his own.

As a reader, I am not much concerned with the details of Fante's life story, but with the immediacy of his words on paper, his presence through the words themselves, and his nearly unparalleled ability to hold command over the language without having to resort to craftiness or stilted wordplay. Fante was a storyteller, not an ideologue or pedant. His are not novels of "ideas" whose plots are subordinate to a particular intellectual apparatus or social program, but fully realized tales of life, crafted simply and surely. He allows enough humor to temper the sadness, and the overall curvature of his work resounds with pregnant fullness and truth. Consider this passage from Ask The Dust:

I got up and walked on. I was numb with cold, and yet the sweat poured from me. The greying east brightened, metamorphosed to pink, then red, and then the giant ball of fire rose out of the blackened hills. Across the desolation lay a supreme indifference, the casualness of night and another day, and yet the secret intimacy of those hills, their silent consoling wonder, made death a thing of no great importance. You could die, but the desert would hide the secret of your death, it would remain after you, to cover your memory with ageless wind and heat and cold. It was no use. How could I search for her? Why should I search for her? What could I bring her but a return to the brutal wilderness that had broken her? I walked back in the dawn, sadly in the dawn. The hills had her now. Let these hills hide her! Let her go back to the loneliness of the intimate hills. Let her live with stones and sky, with the wind blowing her hair to the end. Let her go that way. The sun was high when I got back to the clearing. Already it was hot. In the doorway of his hut stood Sammy. "Find her?" he asked. I didn't answer him. I was tired. He watched me a moment, and then he disappeared into the shack. I made my way up the path to the Ford. In the seat was a copy of my book, my first book. I found a pencil, opened the book to the fly leaf, and wrote: To Camilla, with love, Arturo. I carried the book a hundred yards into the desolation, toward the southeast. With all my might I threw it far out in the direction she had gone. Then I got into the car, started the engine, and drove back to Los Angeles.

Few modern writers have proven capable of conveying the full density of the human condition in its redolent sadness and joy, tragedy and gain—and of expressing the knowledge that one can and does experience both, often simultaneously. Fante, above all, was a writer of profound experience and unconquerable spirit, and, far from dissipating in the fiery desert sun, Fante's long overdue acclaim must be just over the horizon.

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