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Dreams From Bunker Hill

FULL OF LIFE, A Biography of John Fante By Stephen Cooper; North Point Press: 406 pp., $30

April 16, 2000|PHYLLIS RICHARDSON | Phyllis Richardson is the author of "Portmanteau."

"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." So intones Arturo Bandini, the hero of John Fante's "Ask the Dust." Holed up in his cheap room, subsisting on oranges and stubborn determination, he is the quintessential starving artist, his base not a romantic garret in Paris, or even a drafty loft in Manhattan, but a rooming house on Bunker Hill, Los Angeles. He has come, like his creator, from a poor Italian family in Colorado, left his religion and his family to become that great thing, a writer. Arturo's success seems both imminent and highly unlikely. But succeed he does.

Fante's fame, however, was transitory. Only a few years after publication, "Ask the Dust," the book many call the Los Angeles novel, was out of print. It stayed out of print (except for a cheap paperback version issued in 1954) until Charles Bukowski alerted his publisher to the man he called "a lifetime influence." Black Sparrow Press reprinted "Ask the Dust" in 1980, only three years before John Fante died of complications caused by diabetes.

Fante continues to be appreciated; his name was invoked repeatedly in the pages of the Literary L.A. issue of Book Review (April 25, 1999) as one of the most influential L.A. writers. Now, finally, the publication of a full-length biography is testimony to his renewed popularity.

Fante's inauspicious beginnings are mirrored by those of his protagonist, Bandini. His father was an immigrant Italian stonemason; his mother Italian American and frustratingly pious. Born in Denver, he survived a childhood shaped by poverty and prejudice, as well as by the sorry clash between his mother's meekness and his father's drinking, brawling, gambling and macho posturing. Fante was educated in the local Catholic primary school and a Jesuit secondary school; he considered a career in the priesthood until he began to question Catholic teachings. Thereafter his relationship with his family religion grew more complex and antagonistic.

Though he dropped out of the University of Colorado at 18, he had, according to Stephen Cooper, already shown some talent for writing. He spent his nights drinking and carousing; by day Fante became something of an autodidact, reading avidly in literature and philosophy and becoming obsessed with Nietzsche. He also discovered the American Mercury and was so inspired by the ironic social commentary of its editor, H.L. Mencken, that he wrote to Mencken expressing his great satisfaction with the critic's views.

As Cooper describes it, Fante absorbed both the sharp irony and wit of the Mercury and started sending "missive after missive," "assailing Mencken with letters and stories . . . and the great man had been reservedly encouraging." Their correspondence lasted until Mencken's death in 1956.

In 1929, Fante left Colorado for Los Angeles, striking out on his own soon after his father left the family for another woman. Though Fante later claimed that "[p]overty drove me out to California," Cooper asserts that "[h]e was going to become a writer." He settled in Wilmington and a job in the fish canneries. He began writing between shifts, and his experiences working in the canneries and the docks, the hard men, the racial divides, all found their way into his exquisite fiction. It was, however, his family, alternately cast as the Bandinis, the Toscanas, the Molises, that preoccupied the majority of Fante's work.

Fante soon left Wilmington for Long Beach, where he resumed his education at Long Beach City College and encountered an English teacher who, along with his mentor, Mencken, would prove instrumental in bringing his work to print. As Fante later wrote, Florence Carpenter showed "a deep respect for a talent I did not even know I had. . . . I suddenly discovered the English language and the pleasures of manipulating it." With Carpenter's encouragement, Fante sent his story "Altar Boy" to Mencken, who accepted it immediately for publication in the American Mercury in 1932.

*

After Mencken had published two of Fante's short stories, the young author presented a third, a sequel to the story "Home Sweet Home," which glimmers among the many gems of Fante's oeuvre for its description of a tense father-and-son relationship. When the young man narrator of the story sees his unemployed father in the street, he is unable to meet him and unsure how to keep his distance: "We smother the music of kinship under brazen skins while we avoid each other's eyes and speak not in soft terms lest the beauty of affinity burst forth and make stuttering fools of us." The narrator goes on to describe his father's life as "a big scab of kicks and tears and frustrations" that cannot be easily approached by anyone, let alone his son. It is a startlingly eloquent portrait of a father who preferred to vent emotion with his fists rather than words.

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