Realization and Recognition
The Art and Life of John Fante
May 23, 2017
May 23, 2017
36 Min read time
The art and life of John Fante.
The universe of John Fante’s fiction is so immediately moving, so poetically vivid, that it is hard to decide which is the greater quandary: that it went so long unrecognized, or that in the factitious worlds of publishing and Hollywood it is receiving such enormous recognition today.
Fante was a writer from the 1930s, only occasionally recognized during his lifetime and swallowed, for long periods, by inactivity and obscurity. And yet today his complete works are in print with sales that any writer would envy: 100,000 copies of his books in America since 1980 and an astounding half-million copies in France. Most of his working life was spent in the subliterary world of Hollywood screenplays, and many of his novels never found a publisher. Yet he has now been accorded the highest commercial accolade: one book filmed and nearly every other one under option or in development, with Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Towne heading the impressive list of Hollywood figures who have invested serious money in his work.
Fante’s highly autobiographical fiction draws us deeply into his life, and that life reveals a struggle familiar to any reader of literary biography: between a profound urge to realize an artistic talent and an equally profound anxiety about recognition in the literary market. All writers struggle with the marketplace and many write about it, from Balzac to Hemingway. But the surprising turns of Fante’s commercial fortunes are rendered especially compelling by the sheer depth of his talent. His disturbing, singular writing stands absolutely alone among American Depression and mid-century writers. He was always the equal, and often the better, of his recognized contemporaries: Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, West, Schulberg. With no place in the genres of his day, it is only now that his finest work is being recognized as utterly original, and the precursor to voices of writers like Kerouac and Bukowski and through them, to a vast spectrum of contemporary writers.
This past spring I visited the Los Angeles of Fante’s books and life. I talked to some of the people, there are not many still living, who knew and worked with him, and to the interconnected group of people involved in the posthumous revival of his work. From the former I looked for a sense of Fante’s Los Angeles, and how it happened there that this singular voice was so consistently ignored by readers and wasted by publishers. And to the latter, in the Los Angeles of the present, I looked for an understanding of what was required for him finally, today, to achieve recognition.
I did not want to cast light on Fante’s work by way of his life, but to understand, rather, the strange life of the work: why Fante found no audience in his time and why, in turn, his voice never realized its enormous promise. I wanted to understand, too, the alchemy of recognition: what was required for this writer, ten years after his death, finally to receive his due? Above all, I wanted to pose the question that is usually answered with such facile confidence by publishers and scholars but which, for writers, is a matter of the highest suspense: in the worlds of books and movies, those strange worlds where some of the savviest, smartest, and most highly paid professionals in America conduct a daily, high-stakes crap shoot to guess what fictions people will buy, does the story of John Fante prove that talent will out?
It’s almost impossible to do justice to the immediacy, the urgency of Fante’s prose: analytic terms slip smoothly from his language like water from the impervious skin of a peach. His first book, Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938), defined his earliest voice: the achingly real, crazily lyrical Arturo Bandini, a child’s voice speaking from the jailhouse of family.
Bandini speaks directly on the page, with an honesty so raw that it is better called vulnerability. He is the eldest son of an immigrant Italian family, at the mercy of his towering father, a mason forever unemployed, always behind in his bills, constantly on the verge of losing his temper from its always thin restraint.
Dio cane. Dio cane. It means God is a dog, and Svevo Bandini was saying it to the snow. Why did Svevo lose ten dollars in a poker game tonight at the Imperial Poolhall? He was such a poor man, and he had three children, and the macaroni was not paid, nor was the house in which the three children and the macaroni were kept. God is a dog.
On the other side is his mother, cowed also by the father, but with a stubborn Catholicism as oppressive as the father’s violence. And in this constricted universe, Arturo exists with the knowledge, often rehearsed in the confessional, that the guilt his father lives is his too.
[The children’s] names were Arturo, August, and Frederico. They were awake now, their eyes all brown and bathed brightly in the black river of sleep. They were all in one bed, Arturo twelve, August ten, and Frederico eight. . . . [Arturo] was telling them now what he knew, the words coming from his mouth in hot white vapor in the cold room. He knew plenty. He had seen plenty. He knew plenty. You guys don’t know what I saw. She was sitting on the porch steps. I was about this far from her. I saw plenty.
Where Arturo and his father are the same, and where they differ, is the heart of Fante’s entire published work: the tragic identity of their vices, the gulf between their ambitions. Arturo does not want to be a mason, and what he wants is something incomprehensible to his father. And so the Bandini tetralogy, the first three novels written in the ‘30s, the final novel of his life in the early ‘80s traces Arturo from his boyhood in Colorado to Los Angeles where, in his early 20s, he went to write. It describes him starving, inhabiting first the subterranean world of his Bunker Hill hotel with its hop head prostitutes and mad, lonely, lost citizens, then the surreal universe of a low-level writer in the Hollywood studios.
Fante’s letters from this period to his mother and to H.L. Mencken reveal a time of tremendous struggle. It is documented in the second book of the tetralogy, Ask the Dust. Here, Bandini is brash, wildly ambitious, rapturous: drunk with Los Angeles, nearly beside himself in a newly discovered universe of libido, without the slightest doubt of his literary destiny:
Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.
A day and another day and the day before, and the library with the big boys on the shelves, old Dreiser, old Mencken, all the boys down there, and I went to see them, Hya Dreiser, Hya Mencken, Hya, hya: there’s a place for me, too, and it begins with B, in the B shelf, Arturo Bandini . . . right close there to Arnold Bennett. . . .
It is the voice of rapture, of youth, of ambition, hilarious and too callowly outrageous to be co-opted by more sober forces, or so it seems. For after Ask the Dust, Bandini disappears into the Hollywood studio system; he will not come out again until just before Fante’s death in 1983. And Fante’s voice retreats in his midlife novels many unpublished until after his death to a safer ironic distance. In the novella My Dog Stupid, written in the 1960s and published posthumously in West of Rome, the narrative voice is that of a writer at the end of a half-successful career.
I could feel the blow in my gut and kidneys, sheer panic, creeping up my back and riffling the hair on my scalp. It wasn’t a novel at all. It was conceived as a novel but the wretched thing was actually a detailed screen treatment, a flat, sterile one-dimensional blueprint of a movie. It had dissolves and camera angles, and even a couple of fadeouts. One chapter began: Full Establishing Shot, Apartment House, Day. And in The Brotherhood of the Grape, 1977, in which a successful Californian writer returns to his native Colorado for his father’s death, he writes of the evanescence of his escape from his past.
What had happened to my love for writing, the urgency of it? I groveled in self-pity. . . . I was scum again, proletarian scum, the son of an ill-fated mason who had struggled all his life for a bit of space on earth. Like father, like son. Ah, Dostoyevsky! Fydor could have come walking out of the fog and placed his hand on my shoulder and it would have meant nothing. How could a man live without his father? How could he wake up in the morning and say to himself: my father is gone forever?
From the nearly mad, 20 year old scribbler of Ask the Dust to the hopeful, hopeless expectant father in Full of Life and the disenchanted L.A. writer visiting home in Brotherhood of the Grape, it is the same voice. And for every avatar of his novelistic persona the same themes define that voice: the inescapable guilt of a lapsed Catholic; his hard escape from his father and his past; above all, ambition. The ambition to realize what he knows to be his gift to write, and his great and unfulfilled ambition to have that talent recognized.
The obstacles were immense. They were personal, his suffocating ties to his family, the need to prove himself, his profligacy with money, and what one correspondent described to me as his “personality like a buzzsaw.” And they were practical: his utter poverty in Depression L.A., the subtle anti-Italian racism of the time, his distance from the East Coast publishing establishment. But his gift was large and, with the remarkably patient, broad-minded patronage of H.L. Mencken, success came early. He sold his first short story to Mencken, then editor of The American Mercury, and soon was publishing short stories widely in magazines ranging from The Saturday Evening Post to Woman’s Home Companion. Extraordinarily eager for money, and vastly concerned with the details of its acquisition by writing, as his letters show, it was not long before he was working for the Hollywood studios. "The movie enterprise sounds excellent," Mencken wrote in a letter of 1934. "I see no reason whatever why you shouldn't get something from the movie magnates in order to finance the work you want to do."
The advice reads with the weight of a tragic portent. But whatever the threat of Hollywood to creative ambition, Fante did the one thing most aspiring writers simply cannot do, whether struggling with Hollywood or not: he wrote. Through Mencken, he secured a contract with Alfred A. Knopf for a first novel and wrote it over the next three years. That we know it now as The Road to Los Angeles, the first of the Arturo Bandini novels, is due to Black Sparrow’s posthumous publication: Knopf rejected it. And still he wrote, through Hollywood and into marriage.
In 1937 he met and married Joyce Smart, a poet and editor, and in 1938 the obscure house of Stackpole and Sons brought out his first published novel, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, the second of the tetralogy. In 1939, his third Bandini novel, Ask the Dust, appeared, again from Stackpole. And in 1940 Viking Press brought out a collection of short stories, Dago Red.
It was ambition that died hard. There was critical acclaim, but the books found no audience, made no money. Poorly published, dogged by bad luck, Fante’s books disappeared, as one critic put it, from "the roll-call of the '30s." It would not be until 12 years later that Fante again published fiction, and not until just before his death that he returned to the themes of the Arturo Bandini books.
Nothing in Fante’s autobiographical work explains the 12 years of silence. Nor does it explain why its driving energy, its sheer lyrical intensity, found no audience in his day. So the first question I wanted to ask in Los Angeles was why those books had gone unread. And the second was what had happened during those 12 years.
Our mythic images of Hollywood are drawn not only from movies, but from their production. Among them, the sell-out screenwriter, the hero of Barton Fink, has a special place. In my first interview, Harry Essex tried to give me a sense of what Fante found in the studio system.
Essex was brought to Hollywood after having a hit play on Broadway at 21 years old, a boy from Coney Island. While he wrote more plays and three novels, he in main devoted himself to writing or directing over 50 movies, including The Creature from the Black Lagoon, It Came from Outer Space, and I, The Jury. I spoke with him in his study: a gentle, aged man telling a tale of indignation in a language of generous honesty. As he spoke, the story of his beginnings was brought into the sharpest focus by the location of its end: this Beverly Hills house where, downstairs on the walls around the living room pool table, hung among other canvases a Modigliani, a Moses Soyer, and a Chagall.
My first novel, I Put My Right Foot In, from Little, Brown, received reviews such as you can’t believe. The New Yorker, The Times, The Tribune. You think I’m exaggerating? I’m going to show you something.
Essex showed me the clippings, and indeed: they were splendid notices in major venues, perhaps two dozen of them. It sold 7,000 copies. Because it was in none of the stores. None of the stores! They never thought it would succeed this way. Never! Publishers don’t know what the hell they’re doing. They have no idea about business at all . . . It’s discouraging. That’s probably one of the reasons that John and I would never stick with the novels. You sit down and do a novel, and you’re concerned with every word. In a screenplay, you know, in my head I can dump it. But you can’t do that with a book. And then you don’t make back your advance!
Gordon: What did your publishers say when you spoke to them?
Essex: Took me out to lunch at the Harvard Club! [Laughs.] I mean, I was a kid out of Coney Island, rough, you know, basic. I say, look. Don’t give me this bullshit about these lunches, you know? Why the hell don't you have my goddamn book in the stores? How often do you get reviews like that, once every 20 years? And they shrugged. Well, that’s Little, Brown. Bowtie, and take you out to lunch at the Harvard Club. And they damaged me that way.
It is pointless, of course, to compare Harry Essex’s novels to Fante’s, and Essex himself pointed out that in the studios, Fante was far more fortunate in his assignments. But Essex allowed me vividly to feel some of the experience of Fante’s working years in Hollywood, perhaps, I thought, the feeling of those 12 years in between Dago Red and his next published fiction, Full of Life.
Essex: In my case, I came out here as a playwright, and they assigned me a thing called The Chant of the Voodoo. And I was very disturbed. What am I going to do with The Chant of the Voodoo? I ended up filing a complaint with the studio. I said, I was hired to come out here as a playwright. I like to deal with character. I don’t understand The Chant of the Voodoo. I have no feeling for this, I have no desire to do this. And they said, well, what would you like to do? And I said, I’d like to do something worthwhile. Now, there was a book at the time, I can’t think of the name of it, but it was a book that was given to anyone who complained. And they’d have you write a treatment. And I said, well, now, finally, I have something worthwhile. A published novel. And I prepared a treatment, I devoted myself to it. Later I discovered that they had maybe 80 treatments of this. This is what they gave the writer who complained. Nothing would ever happen to it. They never did anything with the picture.
They assigned me on one occasion, took me off an assignment for Robert Young and put me on a thing called The Creature From the Black Lagoon. I was embarrassed. People would ask me, what are you working on, I would mumble: mmm-mmm-mmm. How can you tell anybody you’re working on Creature From the Black Lagoon? And what happens? It becomes a classic! No matter what good things I’ve done, I mention Creature From the Black Lagoon, and they cheer me. That’s my claim to fame!
Gordon: You end up feeling very cynical I suppose?
Essex: Sure. But you try to do the best you can with it. Look, on one hand you’re the envy of people who are not in Hollywood. You have a job, you’re making a lot of money, you are a Hollywood writer. The others are looking in, hoping to be there. It takes somebody with great character, it takes an Arthur Miller, I guess, or a Tennesse Williams, to back out and walk away from it. To say I don’t want any part of this thing. I think it’s ridiculous what you asked me to do. You want me in the movies? Buy my plays, the way I wrote them. But it takes a sense of character. Did John and I have that sense of character? No. It’s pretty obvious: no.
Gordon: Well, there’s also the fact that Fante, and perhaps you also, came from real poverty.
Essex: That’s the whole idea. We had this big dream, money was a very important adjunct. Here we are in a place where we had money. Now, are you willing to trade this money for your total integrity? You do what almost anybody does: one day I’m going back to really do it my way. And you don’t. You become a victim. It takes a very special character to say "no."
Gordon: Now that Fante’s literary work is finally being recognized, does that mean that after all, talent will out?
Essex: No, it’s not true at all. In John’s case it’s fortunate, serendipity. The right moment, the right impetus, the right thing. When John was alive, nobody cared. Nobody cared.
It was a powerful view, that Essex gave me, of the 12 years between Dago Red and Full of Life; 12 years Fante spent in lucrative hell of studio screenwriting. Leaving Beverly Hills, for a moment it seemed that my first interview had answered my most pressing question: the temptation of Hollywood’s lucre was simply overpowering to Fante’s literary aspirations. He was too poor, too susceptible to the lure of money, to the hope of a place in a powerful establishment. It was an explanation that many of Fante’s reviewers had found sufficient, and yet as I continued to interview, crossing L.A. again and again in heavy traffic, the mantle that Essex had offered to share with Fante, the sell-out Hollywood screenwriter, seemed to fit him less and less.
Edward Dmytryk literally grew up in the studios, starting work as a messenger at Paramount in 1924 at the age of 14, rising from projectionist to editor and, ultimately, to a star studio director who shot Fante’s scripts of Walk on the Wild Side and The Reluctant Saint. His many credits include directing Bogart in The Caine Mutiny and Brando in The Young Lions. Sadly, Dmytryk is equally well-known today for being the Hollywood Ten member, jailed by the HUAC, to return later, in a complex and controversial decision, before the committee as a friendly witness. After meeting him, and watching many of his films again, I very much regretted that this injustice, of being caught between the highly ideological communists of the '40s and '50s and the powerful fascistic force of McCarthyism, so overshadowed his dignified person and long career.
I found him in his home in a pretty neighborhood of Encino, a quiet, thoughtful man in his 80s. Describing a Fante scene, he spoke with real passion.
Jesus Christ, this is a perfect motion picture! This is a metaphor, you know, this is the thing we try to get. Nowadays, they just shoot dialogue. But this was . . . without a word being said! You can get the whole thing. You can get from his reaction, you can get the shot of the old man, how he feels about his father, who is literally dying, and then all of a sudden, there’s that goddamn strength again, you know. Wonderful. Now, he had the ability to do that kind of thing, he had a sense, a wonderful sense of contrast. To develop character. Not every writer has that. Most writers can write a scene, but they can’t develop wonderful characters. And Fante could.
He always had. Right from the very beginning.
Gordon: So you don’t feel the problem with his Hollywood career was with his writing?
Dmytryk: I think he was a great movie writer who wasn’t understood by producers, and people like that. I loved his stuff. But I think if I had have been able to do another story of Fante’s I would’ve probably done a good deal of changing on it, to try to make it more acceptable to average people. Because he was, there’s no question that he was an artist. There’s just no question about that.
Perhaps I was influenced by my regard for Fante’s literary work. But after talking to Dmytryk, Fante as a writer corrupted by Hollywood no longer seemed a satisfying explanation of his career. Of course an element of what Essex so vividly described was true of Fante’s experience, and clearly, Fante did his share of cynical Hollywood work. But Dmytryk had raised a point that rang true, perhaps because in it I heard the echo of Fante’s experience in publishing: A misjudging of the market. And a friend, A.I. Bezzerides, who used to drink with Fante and Faulkner, strengthened that feeling when he spoke indignantly of Fante’s dismissal by his contemporary audience.
Bezzerides was brought into the movies by his novel Long Haul, the basis for the Bogart/Raft vehicle, They Drive By Night. His credits came to include Juke Girl, Action in the North Atlantic, and Kiss Me Deadly, the noir classic that, as usual, found a French audience before an American one, as well as episodes of Bonanza and Big Valley. I spoke to Bezzerides, sitting somewhat apprehensively in the kitchen of his strange, dilapidated house: even before entering it was obvious that I was to be in the presence of an unusual number of cats, 30, as it turned out.
Bezzerides: I wrote Long Haul, and that got me into the picture business. Unfortunately. Because if I had stayed as an engineer, I would have been writing all the time. Books. Instead of the shit I’ve had to write.
[I asked Bezzerides how Fante felt about the failure of his novels.]
Bezzerides: He knew he was a good writer. Even though he wasn’t a successful writer. It’s disturbing. He wrote it, and he couldn’t understand why it wasn’t successful.
Gordon: Wouldn’t that have made you doubt your writing?
Bezzerides: No, because when you’re writing you write. You don’t fuck it up. He wrote what he felt. What he felt was sensitive. He was a sensitive guy. . . .
Gordon: Was Fante bitter?
Bezzerides: No. I think he was disappointed, 'cause he wrote these things with all these feelings and nobody responded to him. And that they’re responding to him today, like he wouldn’t believe, is fantastic. But why so fucking late?
Why so late? Was it just bad publishing and the renowned, mercurial vapidity of film producers that kept Fante from an audience? Clearly, there was miserable luck in Fante’s career, the Knopf rejection, canceled film projects. Stackpole and Sons was even sued out of existence by Adolf Hitler, for unauthorized publication of Mein Kampf! But another force was at play, a force that had to do with the contents, not the circumstances, of Fante’s work. Ben Pleasants, while taping interviews with Charles Bukowski for a planned biography in the '70s, learned about Fante and became the first critic to write about him. In an interview with me, Pleasants suggested that Fante’s novels suffered under a double stigma.
First of all, he was an Italian. I think there was a strong, nasty, anti-Italian bent at that time. And then also, in the '30s, there was the problem of politics. Fante, I wouldn’t say that he had clear political aims. And in the '30s, where you had a strong Marxist-Leninist bent, where a lot of the critics, Malcolm Cowley, for instance, were essentially Marxist-Leninist, this guy didn’t fit. He wrote about working class people but he didn’t raise the banner. So, he didn’t fit and they didn’t hold him up, because he wasn’t one of their boys.
Frank Spotnitz, a journalist who is currently directing a documentary about Fante, refined Pleasants’s point.
It’s not so much that he’s ethnic, but maybe the world that he wrote about, which is this down and out L.A., unvarnished, you know, Mexican waitresses, and poor Fillipinos: what might be seen as unsavory types, without the sort of moral uplift that somebody else might have treated it with, that might have seemed just too foreign, dark, and just not tasteful enough for the New York publishing houses. Whereas today, of course, it’s enormously appealing. When I read Fante, I think, this is what it was like. This is true. Unlike Raymond Chandler. You read Chandler and you think: this guy is a great stylist, this is a wonderful world that never existed. It’s all fantasy. But you read Fante and you think this is this time and place and this is what it was really like to be there.
Nor, as Fante’s widow so vividly showed me, was the lure of money sufficient to explain his failure to realize his promise as a writer. For he rarely wanted for money or the occasion to write. To visit Joyce Fante in her home on the Malibu cliffs is the oddest experience: even as you climb Highway One from Santa Monica and head north, you are aware that you are entering the set of Fante’s life and fiction. When I spoke to her, at a table from which I could watch out the window, over the swimming pool, the brilliant blue of the Pacific Ocean, I realized, uncomfortably, how much one knew of her life through her husband’s books. But her age, a soft blur on the delicate beauty of her youth, gave a lucid unsentimentality to her reminiscences about her husband, as if there were no room, in his posthumous celebrity, for myth. When I asked her if, given enough money, Fante would have concentrated on realizing his talent in fiction, she answered "no." Besides the fact that she had brought her own inherited income into the marriage, there was the inevitability that he would have spent it.
He had an unfortunate proclivity for gambling for high stakes. He would spend every night at the poker table if he had the money. It’s unfortunate because publishers have a theory that writers don’t write their best unless they’re starving. And there’s something to it I’m sorry to say. In cases like John’s, he wrote a lot when he was starting out and didn’t have any money. He had to write, so he could eat. At times he did have all the money anybody could, any reasonable person could, want. He made a salary of four figures a week for a long time. When he was working. But it went right out the window.
It did not help, then, to see Fante as a Hollywood sellout; nor did it do to see him as a writer forced to the subliterary by money. In understanding the life and death of his work, my interviews, which were biographical in nature, seemed to be driving me back to the work itself. And when, in the light of my understanding of Fante’s life, I re-read the work, I saw it differently.
I began to feel aware of how badly Fante fit his era, its literary atmospheres, its commercial demands. The inevitable comparisons to his American contemporaries, from Hemingway to Dos Passos, were distracting: Fante could not be appreciated as a sort of Italian-American Saroyan. He fit better with Joyce, or Miller, or even with the writers published in the Paris of the '50s by Maurice Girodios such as Trocchi, Burroughs, Genet. And as I re-read these books that rehearsed, again and again, his family, his father, his ambition and his failure, I saw that in the most meaningful sense, Fante was best appreciated as working, to unique effect, within the constricted space that Dostoyevsky inhabited: a mind encircled by trauma, endlessly wrestling within its psychic limits. Most of all, like Dostoyevsky, he was willing to expose the substance of those limits with unseemly profundity.
From this vantage, when I re-read The Road to Los Angeles, I was struck by how extraordinarily unfit for publication Fante’s earliest work must have seemed to Knopf in 1936, a few years after Mencken had rejected a Fante story on the ground that references to syphilis risked "disgusting readers."
And I see you now, you woman of that night, I see you in the sanctity of some dirty harbor bedroom flop-joint, with the mist outside, and you lying with legs loose and cold from the fog’s lethal kisses, and hair smelling of blood, sweet as blood, your frayed and ripped hose hanging from a rickety chair beneath the cold yellow light of a single, spotted bulb, the odor of dust and wet leather spinning about, your tattered blue shoes tumbled sadly at the bedside, your face lined with the tiring misery of Woolworth defloration and exhausting poverty, your lips slutty, yet soft blue lips of beauty calling me to come come come to that miserable room and feast myself upon the decaying rapture of your form, that I might give you a twisting beauty for misery and a twisting beauty for cheapness, my beauty for yours, the light becoming blackness as we scream, our miserable love and farewell to the tortuous flickering of a grey dawn that refused to really begin and would never have an ending.
Appollinaire would have read this; Cocteau would have known how to film it. Had Fante been in Paris in 1936, Sylvia Beach of Shakespeare & Co. might have published him, as she did Joyce. But in an America where Lawrence Ferlinghetti was prosecuted for obscenity for the publication of Ginsberg’s Howl as recently as 1957, Fante would have had to starve for three decades.
There were writers who starved; Bukowski was one. But everything in Fante’s life, his childhood poverty, his deeply ingrained conception of family, as well as his expensive tastes and vices, made starvation impossible. And while he would write the four great Arturo Bandini books, the fourth the last book of his life, and five other good novels (three found after his death in his papers, and published only posthumously), Fante would never again attain, and never fully realize, the enormous, subversive, sensual, and utterly original power of his first, unpublished manuscript.
But if Fante only partially fit the role of the compromised Hollywood writer, he also failed in the role of the unappreciated genius. For there was accommodation, a deliberate effort to write for his audiences expectations, and there was still success.
Accommodation came, in 1952, with a light comedy about the birth of a young couple’s first child and the bumpy progress of their bourgeois aspirations. Full of Life was published to popular success. It was adapted by Fante as a screenplay, and produced in 1965 as a successful comedy starring Judy Holliday.
Fueled by the film’s success, having purchased the home in Malibu where he was to live for the rest of his life, Fante worked on for Columbia, Twentieth Century Fox, MGM; raised a family of four children; earned considerable money, and published no fiction. Much in demand after the success of Full of Life, he wrote scripts for Harry Cohn, Dino Dilaurentis, and Orson Welles. All three were killed in production, simply and stupidly. The '60s came, the studio system died, and writers like Fante, who had by now solidly cast himself into the herd, were forced to scramble cynically, and sometimes humiliatingly, with spec scripts and one shot assignments. And, in what would be documented in the posthumously published My Dog Stupid, Fante was raising four children with the typical litany of '60s problems: drugs, the draft to Vietnam, arrests. Further, Fante’s health was in decline, with the progression of the diabetes that was ultimately to kill him.
He was at the height of his writing powers in those years. They were beautiful scripts, let me tell you. And they were never made. This was a crushing blow, three times in succession. They weren't made not through any fault of the script, but because of exterior circumstances of one kind or another that prevented them from being made. That was very depressing. And then the '60’s became a depressing decade. I think he wrote 1933 Was a Bad Year in the '60s, and he wrote West of Rome and My Dog Stupid.
There was still another chance. When the influential scriptwriter, Robert Towne, discovered Ask the Dust while researching '30s L.A. for Chinatown, he purchased Fante’s unpublished novel The Brotherhood of the Grape for screen adaptation. Towne was instrumental in having Brotherhood published by Houghton Mifflin, and in bringing Fante to the attention of Francis Ford Coppola. Coppola serialized the novel in his City Magazine, and scheduled Towne’s screenplay for his next production after Apocalypse Now. But by the time that disastrous shoot was finished, Coppola and his studio would be bankrupt. The Brotherhood of the Grape has yet to be filmed.
So it was not until just before his death that John Fante’s writing finally received the recognition that had for so long escaped him. Recognition that was not precipitated by his own industry, or even his ambition, but by a chance event that had occurred 40 years earlier when Ask the Dust was published.
In the mid-1970s, Charles Bukowski, in his novel Women and in a series of taped interviews with Ben Pleasants, made known his early debt to Fante. As a very young man Bukowski had chanced upon Ask the Dust in the Los Angeles public library, and been deeply influenced by it. Not until 40 years later did he acknowledge his debt, but when he did, it profoundly altered Fante’s fortunes.
Ben Pleasants followed the lead and found Fante blind, wheelchair-bound, and in the final years of his diabetic decline. He interviewed him at length, wrote about him in the Los Angeles Times, and began efforts to have his work republished, receiving a notable rejection from Ferlinghetti at City Lights, suggesting that he try John Martin, Bukowski’s publisher, at Black Sparrow.
It would seem, however, that John Martin was already on the ball: In 1980 he republished Ask the Dust with a foreword by Bukowski, and Fante dictated the final book of the Arturo Bandini sequence, Dreams from Bunker Hill, to his wife for publication by Black Sparrow. Joyce Fante:
He was feeling well, at the time. He was mentally okay. He was in a wheelchair and he used to go out on the patio and sit at the table out there and he would dictate to me and I would write down and then type it after writing a few pages. He was happy. Ben Pleasants was coming over frequently during that period, and he would help me read to him, what he'd written. And he was always very pleased when Ben reacted positively to it.
Fante died in 1983 in the Motion Picture Hospital in Los Angeles, the year of Black Sparrow’s republication of Wait Until Spring, Bandini. In 1985 Martin completed the Bandini tetralogy with the book Knopf had rejected nearly 50 years before: The Road to Los Angeles. By 1991 Black Sparrow, without advertising, had brought the entire work of John Fante to its remarkably extended audience. And when, in 1985, the maverick literary agent Paul Yamamoto fulfilled his long standing aspiration to represent the Fante estate � Yamamoto had discovered what he calls "the work" wholly independently, in 1976, Fante’s fiction at long last gained the currency that Hollywood had so long refused his screenwriting.
We like literary biographies to be "high concept," to borrow a Hollywood term: we like them to be morality plays, with tragic failure and triumphant success, told in elemental terms. At the end of my last interview, with Edward Dmytryk, I asked my signature question one last time, and received a surprising answer:
Gordon: That brings me to my central question. Does the cream rise to the top in Hollywood? Is talent rewarded?
Dmytryk: Yes, as a rule, but it depends on the people who have the talent. Now, I don't think there’s anybody that’s been in this business as long as I have, 70 years. There used to be a saying and I used to hear it in the old days when Hollywood was still a town. They used to say that there is better talent walking Hollywood Boulevard that will never be recognized than there is actually in the studios. That is not true. Personally, I have never known anybody who had any talent who didn't get a chance to show it.
But none of Fante’s work, not even Full of Life, which was written to be, is high concept. And it is equally hard to pitch his life as a morality play, for the moral is obscure indeed. Rather, by the end of my trip to Los Angeles, I was aware of the tremendous complexity of Fante’s bid for realization: his bitter struggle with the personal terms of his existence, his father, his family. I was aware of the hefty doses of bad luck, the difficulty of his life-long effort to accommodate his talent to the expectations of publishers and producers.
And I was aware of the contingency of recognition: Bukowski’s long-delayed endorsement, the unlikely willingness of Black Sparrow to reissue the work, Pleasants’s dogged discovery and devoted interest, Frank Spotnitz’s idealistic commitment to putting a biographical documentary before an audience, and the rare combination of salesmanship and discrimination in Paul Yamamoto.
I understood how complex was the interdependence of realization and recognition, the one inspiring and feeding off the other, and the implacable unfairness of the mechanics of a writer’s failure or success.
When I asked Frank Spotnitz my formulaically repeated question, he answered with a readiness that revealed its familiarity to him.
Gordon: You know, the biggest question that lies behind everything we're talking about, in the barest terms, is: does talent out? Does the cream rise to the top?
Spotnitz: Yeah. You sort of have this complacent belief that our system is the best of all possible systems. That talent is always being recognized. And even writers who struggled for many, many years before they finally made it view the fact that they did make it as a vindication of the system after all.
Gordon: Do you see Fante’s case as a vindication of the system?
Spotnitz: For Fante, it’s too late. No, I don't see it as a vindication of the system. I think there’s something terribly wrong with the system that it takes this long to even get the books in print. When a book like Ask the Dust is out of print from 1939 to 1978, there’s something very wrong.
And yet, I understood that still, Dmytryk was right: everyone has their chance. The alignment of events required for an artist to achieve realization, never mind recognition, is so complex, that to give any thought to it is the artistic equivalent of betting the horses: everyone has a system, no one can make it work twice.
Fante would have had to triumph over the powerful personal obstacles before him, find a way to accommodate his gift to the expectations of his day, and accept a long period of solitude and penury to bring his literary gift fully to realization. Even that might not have been enough: he would have needed an agent who understood the work, a publisher willing to stand behind it for the years and years required to build a readership, the discipline and economic freedom to work. And even given that, the fact would remain that the audience he has ultimately attracted could never have been predicted.
Essex had his chance, Bezzerides had his chance, Dmytryk had his chance. No matter how firmly Essex is fixed in B movie catalogs as the writer of cult classics, a family, a house, and some fine paintings are a great deal to have at the end of a career. More tragic is the derailing of Dmytryk’s career by the implacable ignorance of McCarthy, but his body of work remains. And for Bezzerides, whose judgment of his own writing was so harsh, I found enormously moving a story he told me in passing. Once, when filming in Paris, a man called him on the phone and asked in great detail, with evident admiration, about Kiss Me Deadly. He knew the film by heart, and wanted to know the genesis of each scene. At the end of the conversation, Bezzerides asked the man who he was, the man answered, Truffaut.
John Fante had more of a chance than most, he came within an inch of full realization as an artist, he lived above the brilliant Pacific, knew a long marriage and a family that provided him with a fictional universe. And if the body of work he left behind is tragically incomplete, if the place reserved for him in American literature is a slighter one than he deserved, he is at last receiving a fair measure of recognition.
Driving to the airport from Edward Dmytryk’s house, I thought that the lesson of Fante’s story, in the end, was that there are no lessons and no exemplars. Each story is unique, and each writer takes his chances, against a calculus of very, very long odds, alone.
Writing, real writing, from a need to write rather than for the fruits of celebrity, is only to a very limited extent a game of calculation. I saw that if Fante had simply been able to follow his gift, simply written what he had a deep need to write, without a view to its reception, he would have realized his immense talent, and gained, eventually, the recognition that was so evidently his due. I felt deeply how futile was Fante’s attempt, during his lifetime, to calculate his audience: the attention he has received over the past ten years is not the mainstream audience he held in his sights but a serious, independent minded audience, apt to value in his work the exact qualities that tended to lose his readers during his life.
I saw that the lack of a contemporary audience is meaningful only in personal terms, however tragic that may be. And that for real writing, of originality, of integrity, there will always, eventually, be a John Martin, Frank Spotnitz, Ben Pleasants, and Paul Yamamoto, and that they will more often than not show up too late.
I saw how little, how very little comfort was available to an artist faced with a lifetime of failure. And I regretted intensely that, in the nexus of realization and recognition, Fante had not been driven enough, or mad enough, or enough possessed in the confined, suffering world of literary genius to aim for the place next to Dostoyevsky that should have been his.
While we have you...
...we need your help. You might have noticed the absence of paywalls at Boston Review. We are committed to staying free for all our readers. Now we are going one step further to become completely ad-free. This means you will always be able to read us without roadblocks or barriers to entry. It also means that we count on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, help us keep it free for everyone by making a donation. No amount is too small. You will be helping us cultivate a public sphere that honors pluralism of thought for a diverse and discerning public.
May 23, 2017
36 Min read time