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Author's bygone L.A. comes to life for fans on walking tour

John Fante's vivid evocations of 1930s Bunker Hill and Pershing Square contrast with the modern skyline.

June 17, 2007|Deborah Schoch | Times Staff Writer

Back when Bunker Hill really was a hill and Pershing Square was packed with lush palms, the young writer John Fante roved through downtown Los Angeles in search of stories and fame.

He struggled to write his first fiction in a cheap room in the hillside Alta Vista hotel, clambering down the nearby Angels Flight stairs to explore the city and rub shoulders with its charming, seedy characters.

For those who revere the work of the acclaimed novelist, Bunker Hill is sacred ground.

A troupe of Fante readers gathered Saturday at the intersection of 3rd and South Hill streets, gazing west at what should have been a steep hillside topped with the Alta Vista and other run-down hotels.

Instead, they faced a wall of gleaming office towers.

"This used to be where Angels Flight ran," explained tour creator and guide Richard Schave. But the hill was decapitated decades ago; the Wells Fargo Center now rises where the impoverished Fante wrote draft after draft of his first published short stories.

As 38 participants learned this weekend, a literary walking tour in Los Angeles poses special challenges compared with, say, a tour of James Joyce's Dublin or Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's Cambridge.

This is an ephemeral city, just as Fante portrayed it in "Ask the Dust" and his other novels.

The Red Car trolley system he rode was removed long ago. The Marcus bar where he once worked as a busboy is now a parking garage. The beaux arts-style Pershing Square that he frequented has vanished, replaced by a concrete-and-grass park that hides a parking garage.

But for some who know Fante's work, images of his 1930s world persevere amid the skyscrapers, freeway off-ramps and dingy office buildings.

Joshua Darlington, 37, an aspiring film writer who works in the business law section at Paramount Studios, where Fante was once a screenwriter, is among those who has read every novel Fante wrote.

"He did such an amazing job of describing the emotional roller coaster of it all, of trying to write," Darlington said.

Some barely knew who Fante was. Evan Burge, 56, of Irvine, whose son gave him tickets for the tour for Father's Day, said he had never read anything written by Fante. But he used to ride on the Angels Flight funicular as a boy with his grandfather.

"We're seeing the city as it once was," he said as the tour paused at Grand Central Market, a former Fante haunt bustling with shoppers.

The fact that some of the tour participants were new to Fante's work was not surprising.

"Either the work of John Fante (1909-1983) is unknown to you, or it is unforgettable. He was not the kind of writer to leave room in between," Janet Maslin wrote in a 2002 New York Times review titled "A Truly Famous Unknown Writer."

But even Fante's early novels won him praise nationwide.

Born in Colorado, Fante came to Los Angeles poor but hungry to write. His first novel, "Wait Until Spring, Bandini," introduced a fictional alter ego, the young writer Arturo Bandini, who was featured in later books, including "Ask the Dust," in which Bandini also lived in a ramshackle Bunker Hill hotel.

His novels have been praised for their mix of dark characters, passion, subtle humor and realistic portrayal of seamy Los Angeles. Fante would write a number of novels and became well-known as a screenwriter for films like "Walk on the Wild Side," "The Reluctant Saint" and "Something for a Lonely Man."

Schave said it was coincidence that the tour had been scheduled for June 16, known as Bloomsday in Ireland to honor the day featured in James Joyce's "Ulysses." The day is celebrated with tours of Joyce's haunts, and Schave said he liked the symmetry.

But Fante is hardly acclaimed in Los Angeles the way Joyce is in Dublin.

For instance, a key moment in "Ask the Dust" takes place in Pershing Square, where Bandini flees in search of open space after watching buildings topple in the 1933 Long Beach earthquake.

Schave paused at a pale, crooked line embedded in the square's paving leading from the fountain to the street.

"This fissure that you're walking over," he told the group, "is a reference to the 1933 earthquake and Chapter 13 of 'Ask the Dust.' " The crack is a little-known memorial to Fante, he said.

Those on the tour heard comments by Victoria Fante Cohen, 57, of Malibu, the writer's only daughter, who took the tour and commented on some of the landmarks.

In the rotunda of the Central Library, Cohen talked briefly about Fante's friendship with another famed Los Angeles writer, Charles Bukowski, who wrote a famous foreword to later editions of "Ask the Dust." In it, he recalled how he first discovered Fante's work in the library's main reading room, now the children's wing.

When asked about her father's evocative descriptions of Los Angeles, Cohen paused on the library steps, recollecting his images of palms coated with dust blown in from the desert.

She then recalled an early section from "Ask the Dust":

"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."

As Cohen stood on the sidewalk observing the Bunker Hill towers, she described how her father brought her downtown when she was 6 to ride the Red Cars shortly before they were removed.

"He showed me where Angels Flight was and the Red Cars," she told the tour-goers. "He said, 'You may not know this, but this is important.' And it was."

--

deborah.schoch@latimes.com

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