I must have read Fante's Chump Change around the time it came out in 1998, and remember being impressed by its honesty and directness. Though I admit the only reason I purchased the book was because it was written by the son of one of my favourite writers, John Fante. Still, I was surprised at how much I liked Chump Change. It had a directness about it, by which I mean it was stylistically straightforward and unadorned, not unlike his father's prose. But, at the same time, Dan seemed to be writing mostly about his own life, or a facsimile thereof. It was as though he was digging beneath the surface of his father's fiction. But even though Dan Fante went on after Chump Change to produce other novels, poetry and plays, I felt I'd probably read enough of his work to get a handle on what he was doing. Which isn't to say I wasn't tempted by his subsequent books. However, when I happened across a copy of Dan Fante's memoir, simply title Fante, published a few years back, about his family- not just his father, but his mother and siblings- and his relationship to them, I grabbed the book and quickly gobbled it up.
Fante might be a memoir, but it is every bit as dark and painful as Chump Change. Not surprisingly, the book pretty much culminates in the publication of the latter, and the beginning of Dan's career as a published writer. And, of course, it's protagonist, like the guy in Chump Change, is just as ill at ease with the world and himself, much of which Dan Fante traces back to his relationship with his writer- father, a cantankerous man at the best of time. Yet the book also has lighter moments, and, in the end, makes a valiant attempt at being uplifting, which I found problematic but obviously, at least for the author's sake, necessary.
Fante is a book that takes the reader places Stephen Cooper's biography of John Fante, was never able to go. On the other hand, Dan Fante isn't interested in going into the minutiae of John Fante's life. This book is mostly about him, i.e., Dan Fante. And no doubt about it, his father, a man with old school values, was as abrasive as he was demanding. And it would only be in Dan's later years, in the last throes of battling his personal demons, that Dan would come to some understanding about John Fante as a father and an artist, albeit at a time when the latter was suffering from diabetes, which would lead to amputations, blindness and eventually his death.
From growing up with a difficult father and a somewhat distant mother, to setting out, however wounded, on his own, Fante is a narrative in the tradition of street-wise writers like Hubert Selby and Herbert Huncke. In other words, those sinners who eventually become literary saints. Like those two writers, Dan Fante isn't interested in romanticising the life he led, or the self-abasement he endured as he moved from one crap job to another, one woman to another, while, at the same time, consuming copious amounts of alcohol and drugs. Though that might be the view of some readers. Maybe that's inevitable. Because it's only in the final pages when he begins to pull himself together that the book flirts with the bathetic. But, then, without that light at the end of the tunnel, the book could never have existed, for the simple reason that the author would no longer be with us, having succumbed to his consumerist tendencies. Though he tried on numerous occasions, Dan Fante fortunately did not become just another suicide statistic, but survived to tell the tale. In doing so, he's given us a first-hand account of both his and his father's life and what it takes to survive with or against the odds. Dan Fante may not be quite the writer his father was, but he's not far off. Conversely, I'm not sure even the great John Fante would have had the courage to descend to such depths, and come up with anything quite like Chump Change or Fante.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.