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CALIFORNIA LETTERS : The Luck of John Fante

April 09, 1989|TOM CLARK | Clark has written biographies of several American authors, including Damon Runyon and Jack Kerouac. and

In 1939, the year John Steinbeck's "The Grapes of Wrath" came out, three other novels about the downside of the California dream were also published: Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep," Nathanael West's "The Day of the Locust," and John Fante's "Ask the Dust." Though all four are now justly held up as American classics, it is Fante's book (and literary reputation) that has had the most catching up to do.

"Ask the Dust" is a sweet, crazy, arresting lyric poem of a novel, chronicling the Depression years in Los Angeles from the highly subjective, largely autobiographical viewpoint of one Arturo Bandini, an impoverished young writer holed up in a fleabag hotel on Bunker Hill. The awkward but endearing Bandini's desperate hankering after literary fame and his love of a Mexican waitress make for a book of great charm, yet, almost as if in proof of the futility of Bandini's romantic dreams, "Dust" fared poorly back in 1939.

Its 29-year-old Colorado-born author was the son of an immigrant Italian bricklayer. As a boy, John Fante had dreamed of becoming a baseball star, but once having followed the great wave of '30s drifters to Southern California, he ended up swinging away at fame with a pen instead of a bat--and striking out with his best effort. "Dust" received almost no attention, partly because its publisher, Stackpole, was caught up at the time with a lawsuit filed by Hitler over an unauthorized edition of "Mein Kampf." Unpromoted, Fante's novel slipped quietly into oblivion.

It took until the present decade for Word-of-Mouth, that kindly goddess of lost books and forgotten authors, to come to the rescue. Fate's unlikely agent was Charles Bukowski, Los Angeles' legendary rough beast slouching toward serious literature. Bukowski generously gave credit to Fante and "Ask the Dust" for making him a writer. Finding that book in the public library, he said, had been like discovering gold in the city dump: "Here at last was a man who was not afraid of emotion," Bukowski said. "The humor and the pain were intermixed with a superb simplicity. The beginning of that book was a wild and enormous miracle to me."

It was Bukowski's support that led indirectly to a Fante revival that's been one of the more surprising stories of belated success in recent publishing. A reference to "Ask the Dust" and to two of Fante's other books, "Dago Red" and "Wait Until Spring, Bandini," in the manuscript of one of Bukowski's own novels caught the eye of his publisher, John Martin of Black Sparrow Press. "Bandini was the name of a well-known brand of fertilizer," says Martin. "I thought it was Bukowski's idea of a joke." That was in 1978. Not until a year later did the publisher get around to inquiring, and learn from his author that John Fante was no joke.

In 1980, Martin reissued "Ask the Dust." This time it caught fire and was soon followed by an explosion of Fante from Black Sparrow, which now offers no fewer than nine of the late California writer's books. These include reprints of several novels--"Wait Until Spring, Bandini," "The Brotherhood of the Grape," "Full of Life"--and of the early short-story collection "Dago Red" (Black Sparrow's expanded edition was retitled "The Wine of Youth"), as well as offerings of much previously unseen material. In the latter category are Fante's first youthful work, "The Road to Los Angeles," originally contracted by Knopf in 1933 but unpublished until the 1985 Black Sparrow edition; and his very last one, "Dreams From Bunker Hill," dictated by the writer to his wife Joyce from a hospital bed and released within months of his death in 1983. And later this year Black Sparrow will be bringing out Fante's correspondence with culture critic and American Mercury editor H. L. Mencken, the aspiring writer's first important literary contact.

Unknown beyond a tiny English-speaking audience before 1980, Fante's work now can be read in French, German, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, and Portuguese. Seven of his novels have been optioned for movies. Currently an international co-production of "Wait Until Spring, Bandini," starring Faye Dunaway, Joe Mantegna and Ornella Muti, is being shot in Utah, while "The Brotherhood of the Grape" is under way as a Robert Towne/Zoetrope project, and "Ask the Dust," originally also optioned to Towne, is now being developed by Mel Brooks as an Emilio Estevez vehicle.

It's a shame that Fante is not around to taste a little of the gravy. His end came before his new fame, after a long and difficult battle with diabetes that cost him his sight and legs. "Bitterness is the one thing a writer must fight," he told an interviewer a few years before his death. "I fought it all my life."

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