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Where Father Ends and Son Begins

John Fante drank and raged and wrote some of the best prose to come out of L.A. J.R. Moehringer talks to his son Dan, who drank and raged and is determined to write some of the best prose to come out of L.A.

April 30, 2006|J.R. Moehringer | J.R. Moehringer is a senior writer for West and the author of the memoir "The Tender Bar."

This is a big night for John Fante, and for his son, Dan, who is proud of the old man, even if he doesn't often say so. Dan needs to be in the right mood to speak well of John, and tonight you can see in his smile, he's in the right mood. Tonight Dan is setting aside the bad memories, the sorrow and rage and resentment over John, for a few hours. For as long as any son can set aside such things.

Many consider Dan's father the best novelist Los Angeles has ever produced. In spare, gleaming prose, John painted a city that was nasty and harsh, but also shot through with magic--part land mine, part gold mine. "Los Angeles, give me some of you!" John wrote in the 1930s, while starving in a downtown flophouse. John's Los Angeles, where it was normal, even noble, to be a loser, where you could be down to your last nickel and still preen like a diva, won him a cult following, including Charles Bukowski, who famously called John "my god."

Of course, most of the actors and producers attending tonight's premiere of "Ask the Dust," the film version of John's masterpiece, wouldn't know John if he fell in their laps. They're here for the booze-and-schmooze. Nor would they recognize Dan, which amounts to the same thing, since Dan is a dead ringer for the old man. (In Dan's vernacular it's "the old man," rarely "my father.") Dan, 62, not only looks like his father, but writes books like his father, and wants to follow in his father's footsteps. That is, some of his father's footsteps. Certain of his father's footsteps lead directly to the grave.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday May 05, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
Dan Fante: In last Sunday's West magazine story on writer Dan Fante, it was incorrectly reported that Fante's grandfather had stabbed and killed a man in a barroom brawl. The man was stabbed and critically injured, but he survived the attack.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 21, 2006 Home Edition West Magazine Part I Page 7 Lat Magazine Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
In the article on Dan Fante ("Where Father Ends and Son Begins," April 30), it was incorrectly reported that his grandfather had stabbed and killed a man in a barroom brawl. The man was stabbed and critically injured but survived.

The Fantes are a remarkable tandem: One of the few father-son acts in American literature, they are profoundly different, and yet they have more in common than some twins. Like his father, Dan loves fast cars, mean dogs, good books. Like his father, Dan can hold forth on all the classic masculine subjects--boxing, baseball, poker, pretty women. Like his father, Dan can give off an air of menace, with a gravelly voice and a large tattoo and eyes that narrow suddenly into the kind of scowl that precedes a knife fight. And yet, like his father, Dan can also be deeply sentimental, and terribly fragile. Tonight, for instance, Dan is still smarting over a slight suffered earlier in the day, when a publicist called his last novel "depressing."

But the key link between the Fantes is the way their lives are defined by a trinity of risky activities--drinking, writing, fathering--each of which can be a coping mechanism, or delivery mechanism, for rejection. And rejection, above all, is what binds Fante father and son. Rejection is their muse, their curse, their subject, and rejection is the best one-word precis of Dan and John's relationship. All his life Dan has been seeking and rejecting John, a rejecter of the first order.

It's stirring, therefore, and symbolic, that tonight, after decades of professional rejection, John will get his turn in the spotlight, and Dan will be here to see it. John won't see it, because he died 23 years ago, but Dan is fully capable of standing in for the old man. Collin Farrell plays John in "Ask the Dust," but Dan can play John in his sleep. Dan can conjure John in a sentence, as John did his own father. (In the opening sentence of his first autobiographical novel, in 1938, John described his father's footsteps: "He came along, kicking the deep snow.")

So here comes Dan, kicking in the old man's footsteps, making his way through the well-wishers in the lobby of the Egyptian Theater, proudly taking his seat in the VIP section. Dan's younger brother, Jim, is in the VIP section too. He sits a few seats from Dan, alongside their younger sister, Vickie. Strained smiles. The siblings haven't always gotten along, and things have been extra tense since their mother, Joyce, died last June. For months the Fante siblings have been negotiating a division of the estate, and recently they reached an accord. Tonight, on top of everything else, Jim will hand Dan a check for his share. The money will help Dan pay his bills and finally focus full time on writing.

It's a very big night for Dan.

In walks Robert Towne, the legendary director, the John Fante of directors, who put his own literary stamp on Los Angeles with his masterpiece, "Chinatown." He steps to a microphone below the screen and the crowd quiets. By way of introducing his film, Towne recalls first meeting John in around 1970. He describes John's pessimism. John doubted that Towne could turn "Ask the Dust" into a film, and tonight Towne is beaming with pride, a prodigal returning to prove the old man wrong.

Dan beams too. He can relate.

Towne closes by thanking John's children for their help with the film. He asks them to rise and be recognized. He names them.



Jim and Vickie stand. Applause, applause.

Towne doesn't name Dan.

Has he forgotten Dan? Does he not know Dan is here?

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