Guts, glory and pathos

The life of writer John Fante reads like a Greek tragedy.

The life of writer John Fante reads like a Greek tragedy, and biographer Stephen Cooper captures it vividly in all of its guts, glory, and pathos. Fante, best known for his quartet of novels revolving around his literary alter ego Arturo Bandini (including Ask the Dust, which Charles Bukowski called "the finest novel written in all time"), was a man who "hated and loved with equal intensity, and often simultaneously," Stephen Cooper writes in Full of Life. The line between the emotional havoc in Fante's real life and in his confessional fiction was communion-wafer thin.

Fante was raised Catholic in Colorado in the early 1900s, at a time when the mayor of Denver was an acknowledged member of the Ku Klux Klan. With communities nervous about the burgeoning Italian population, Fante took many lumps at school for his heritage and for his family's poverty. It didn't help that his father, an otherwise respected bricklayer, was also a heavy drinker and carouser and often spent the Fantes' money on booze and gambling. Fante told an interviewer in 1978 that "my father was in many ways a beast." Conversely, his mother was quiet and religious, having considered a vocation with the Catholic Church before her marriage.

Fante's aunt often came to look after his mother when things got ugly in the family, and her son Mario was young John's mirror image and best friend. While walking home from altar-boy practice one day, Mario was killed by a car. At the funeral, young John had the haunting experience of staring at his dead double. This turbulent childhood instilled Fante's writing career with what his biographer calls "his fundamental themes of poverty, Italian-American Catholicism, mismatched love, and imaginative untruth."

Fante's literary idol, H.L. Mencken, gave him his first big break when he published the story "Altar Boy" in The American Mercury, but it was literary agent Elizabeth Nowell who most influenced Fante's writing by introducing him to the novels of Knut Hamsun, author of Hunger. According to Cooper, Hamsun's writing was "the model that, more than any other, would influence [Fante's] style at its most idiosyncratic . . . a style of deceptive simplicity, emotional immediacy, and tremendous psychological point, all delivered in a seemingly improvised first-person voice which by turns addresses itself in the second person and narrates itself in the third."

Ask the Dust was published in 1939. Although many fans and critics consider it to be Fante's masterpiece, the novel didn't sell very well. The disappointed author then gave in to the siren call of Hollywood and became a screenwriter. He spent the next few decades slipping away from his serious work and getting lost in alcohol and bad, mostly unproduced screenplays, hitting what he considered the bottom with My Six Loves, a 1963 Debbie Reynolds vehicle. Although a torpid period for Fante's own writing, that phase of his life makes for good reading, thanks to Cooper's detailed look at the repressive forces in Hollywood at that time, mainly the stultifying Motion Pictures Production Code and the House Un-American Activities Committee.

By the mid-1970s, Fante's problems were overwhelming — his health had deteriorated, most of his books had long since gone out of print, and his creativity was sapped by Hollywood. Then, at the urging of Bukowski and Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne,Ask the Dust was brought back into print by Black Sparrow Press. The reprint caused a resurgence in Fante's popularity and inspired him to write the fourth novel in his Arturo Bandini series, Dreams From Bunker Hill.

And so this survivor's tale ends happily, with Fante's work back in circulation and the author "recognized as the father of the Los Angeles novel," according to his biographer. Fante also embraced Catholicism once again, a move that he prophesied for himself in an early unpublished story: "It's in the blood. It's in the blood of all you Latins. 'Anima naturaliter Catholica,' and once you guys forswear your birthright, it's wandering you will be through the arid wasteplaces of the spirit, sick with the unappeasable longing of a nostalgia of the soul."

Rupert Wondolowski writes for the Baltimore City Paper, where this review first appeared. Send comments to [email protected].

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