Saturday, June 21, 2008

John Fante: Between Two Worlds
Part 2

One reason Fante continued to work in the studios was that, even though he published in magazines and obtained a handful of modest book contracts, he was never able to make much money from his fiction, nor find a substantial audience for his work. On the other hand, he was not doing badly for a fledgling writer. In 1932, Mencken paid him $125- worth at least ten times that amount at today’s prices- for his story “Home Sweet Home.” Within the year there were four more stories paid at a similar rate (though Story magazine paid Fante only $15 for “My Mother’s Goofy Song”). Even if it didn’t compare with what he could make working for the studios, writing for magazines could be a lucrative occupation. Moreover, in 1933 Knopf was willing to pay Fante $50 a month- a total of $600 in all- for the manuscript of The Road to Los Angeles.

Though he was represented for a time by the famous Hollywood agent H.N. Swanson, Fante, after Dago Red, had to wait another twelve years before his next book, the 1952 Full of Life. Ironically, considering its subject matter, and its status as the least gritty of his novels, Full of Life would mark Fante’s greatest success as a novelist and screenwriter. Made into a film starring Judy Holliday and Anthony Quinn, and directed by Richard Quine (1956), it concerns a couple’s first child and their attempt to become upstanding assimilated middle-class citizens. Following the book and film, and despite their success, Fante was on the verge of becoming one of literature’s disappeared. It would be another twenty-five years before the publication of Brotherhood of the Grape, a novel in which Bandini returns to Colorado for his father’s funeral. Par for the course, it is another investigation of guilt, lapsed Catholicism, drinking, and sex, set against a backdrop of poverty, racism, and Bandini’s need to prove himself.

Frank Fenton, a transplanted Englishman, scriptwriter, author of the Hollywood novel A Place in the Sun and Fante’s drinking and poker partner, outlined the trials and tribulations of a Hollywood screenwriter in a late 1940’s article entitled “The Hollywood Literary Life.” Humorously criticising the notion of Hollywood as a “hack’s utopia,” Fenton maintains that writing scripts is “a bastard type of fiction, with no discernible rules for its composition.” Ulcers, ingratitude, bankruptcy, frustration- these all await a B movie writer who would “gladly throw the Crucifixion out of the New Testament for a laugh.” Likewise, around that time, Fante would write the following: “The movie people are not making movies the way they did before the war. There used to be 30,000 people working every day in the studios. Now there are less than half of that number. There are supposed to be about 2,000 writers in Hollywood. No more than 150 are working. The whole lies in the uncertain future. The coming of television has greatly changed the situation. Everybody is afraid to spend money. There are even some who believe the movie industry is finished for good, just like the old silent pictures ended when talking pictures were introduced.” While Fenton was correct, Fante’s remarks would prove prophetic. However, for the latter, the situation was soon to worsen.

Two decades after the success of Full of Life, Bukowski, in an introduction to a new edition of Ask the Dust, wrote: “[Fante] is a story of terrible luck and terrible fate and of a rare and natural courage.” This might be the case, but Fante’s lack of literary recognition was, in many ways, his own doing. Having been raised in poverty and seeking financial security, Fante, rather than become a struggling novelist, made a conscious decision to pursue an alternative career. Though he may not have set Hollywood alight, Fante rarely lacked work. Edward Dmytryk who directed Fante scripts of Walk on the Wild Side and The Reluctant Saint, and one of those indicted during the McCarthy era, only to end up giving names to the HUAC, said, “[Fante] was a great movie writer who wasn’t understood by producers...He had a wonderful sense of contrast. To develop character. Not every writer has that...And Fante...always had. Right from the very beginning.”

Though he worked on a number of scripts- most of them would not reach the screen- Fante always felt he had, to some degree, prostituted himself. With tongue only half in-cheek, he signed a 1944 copy of Dago Red, from “that Hollywood whore, that stinking sell-out artist, that sublime literary pervert, that aborted lyricist.” According to friend and fellow scriptwriter A.I. Bezzerides, “[Fante] knew he was a good writer. Even though he wasn’t a successful writer... I think he was disappointed, because he wrote those things with all these feelings and nobody responded to him. And that they’re responding to him today, like he wouldn’t believe, is fantastic. But why so fucking late?”

Another reason Fante remained in the studios was that he had grown accustomed to a particular life-style. He had acquired a large house in Malibu, a family, and a mild gambling habit. Not to mention a taste for flashy convertibles, card playing and running-up sizable debts. Fortunately, Fante, known for his eccentricity- at Metro, he shocked the secretaries by writing at his desk clad only in his underpants (a story about Fante writing naked, the result of a publicity piece by Joyce Smart Fante, in which she jokingly remarked that her husband always begins writing fully clothed and ends up naked, was picked up on by the rightwing syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler)- quick temper and fondness for pinball machines- Saroyan modelled the pinball fanatic in The Time of Your Life on him- was, at the height of his career, collecting a weekly salary in excess of four figures.

Having to contend with the political climate of the 1940s and 1950s, Fante believed his independent politics and status as a first generation Italian-American stopped him from becoming a more successful writer. Hardly rightwing- amongst his best friends were leftwing social critics McWilliams (he would accompany McWilliams on the latter’s speaking engagements) and Louis Adamic (a former worker in a San Pedro pilot house who was found in his home dead from a gunshot wound at the height of the McCarthy era)- Fante, despite his lack of politics, voted in favour of the 1945 Writers’ Guild strike which concerned the issue of hiring and firing screenwriters. With the studios trying to play one set of workers against another, leftwing writer Lester Cole would call Fante a fascist for voting in favour of the strike. Ironical that a communist such as Cole would criticise Fante for voting in favour of industrial action. But, at the time, the party, still observing their popular front policy, viewed industrial action as counter- productive. Often questioned by the FBI regarding his knowledge of Hollywood communists- standard procedure if one wanted a screenwriting job during the war- Fante must have supplied them with information enough to keep him employed during that era.

1945 was also the year Fante would abandon his long-term project, a novel centred on L.A. Filipino culture. Fante had been interested in the subject ever since first arriving in California. With author Carlos Buscolan- another L.A. communist, and the subject of a series of encounters between Fante and the FBI- as his guide, Fante had been making the rounds of Filipino nightclubs, restaurants and poolhalls. The novel was to be entitled Little Brown Brothers, and was mentioned by the author as early as 1933. Unfortunately, it was, by all accounts, an embarrassing affair and received a less than favourable reception at Viking. Intended to rival The Grapes of Wrath- Fante thought of it as the literary equivalent of Carey McWilliams’s influential non-fiction, and a cross between James M. Cain and Harriet Beecher Stowe- it was not written in Fante’s usual intuitive style, but elaborately plotted and written in a highly stilted manner.

After Full of Life, Fante went on to pen scripts for Orson Welles (It’s All True, for which Fante contributed “Love Story,” a short narrative about how his parents had fallen in love), Harry Cohn, and Dino Dilaurentis, none of which would see the light of day. By the beginning of the 1960s, with the contract system fast becoming an anachronism, Fante was freelancing and expressing concern about his future: “The complexities of film writing today, with the decline of production in Hollywood and the resulting bulge in Europe, are almost too much to think about.” By the 1960s and the demise of the studio system, Fante, in poor health, was scrambling for work, a situation documented in his 1971 novella, and only work of fiction from that period, My Dog Stupid: “It was January, cold and dark and raining, and I was tired and wretched, and my windshield wipers weren’t working, and I was hung over from a long evening of drinking and talking with a millionaire director who wanted me to
write a film about the Tate Murders ‘in the manner of Bonnie and Clyde, with wit and style.’ ...‘We’ll be partners, fifty-fifty.’ It was the third offer of that kind I’d had in six months, a very discouraging sign of the times.”

But Fante’s career was given a boost in the early 1970s, when Robert Towne, while doing research for Polanski’s Chinatown, came across Ask the Dust, and optioned the book, paying Fante $4,500, twice the amount the author had received upon the book’s initial publication. In a letter to McWilliams, Fante, in good humour, reflects on his fate: “The combined revenue I have had from Wait Until Spring Bandini, Ask the Dust and Dago Red...wouldn’t purchase a lawnmower on today’s market, and man, what I really need today is a good mower.”

In the same letter, Fante mentions that he had begun Brotherhood of the Grape, “the story of four Italian wine drunks from Roseville, a tale revolving around my father and his friends.” When, in 1975, Towne heard about the manuscript, he purchased an option on it even though it had yet to be published. Not only was Towne instrumental in trying to find a publisher for the novel, but he brought the book to the attention of Francis Ford Coppola who serialised it in his San Francisco magazine City. Invited to Coppola’s home for dinner, Fante and his wife, after a screening of Full of Life, were told by Coppola that he intended to film Brotherhood of the Grape. With a script by Towne- “I don’t think he is a very good screen writer despite his reputation,” said Fante in a letter to McWilliams- shooting was to commence after the completion of Apocalypse Now. Coppola also said he wanted Fante to write a script for him. But his studio, Zoetrope, would go bankrupt after Apocalypse Now, and Brotherhood of the Grape would never go into production. Neither would Fante ever write a script for Coppola, though it is interesting to speculate on the result of such a collaboration, as well as the riches and reputation that might have come Fante’s way. Equally, had Fante not been indentured to Hollywood, there is no telling what he might have produced as a novelist. Though Larry McMurtry, in reviewing Brotherhood of the Grape, insisted that Fante disproves the idea that screenwriting is inevitably destructive for novelists.

While Fante’s work remains more satisfying and realistic than any number of contemporary interpretations of Los Angeles, his son, Dan, carries on the family tradition, having written the excellent Chump Change, which contains material about his father. Suffice it to say that John Fante wrote some classic novels, as hardbitten, if not hardboiled, as they come. Certainly Bukowski was right when he said of Fante, “The way of his words and the way of his way are the same: strong and good and warm.”

Novels Ask the Dust (1939, 1980), Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa, Canongate, Edinburgh; The Brotherhood of the Grape (1977, 1988), Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa; Dago Red (short stories, 1940, 1985), Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa; Dreams from Bunker Hill (1982), Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa; Full of Life (1952, 1988), Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa; 1933 Was a Bad Year (1985), Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa; The Road to Los Angeles (1985), Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa; Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938, 1983), Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa, Canongate, Edinburgh; West of Rome (novellas, 1986), Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa; The Wine of Youth (stories, 1985), Black Sparrow Press, Santa Rosa.
Films Dinky, Warners, 1935. Story by Fante, Frank Fenton and Samuel Gibson Brown. East of the River, Warners, 1940, Story by Fante and Ross B. Wills. The Golden Fleecing, MGM, 1940. Story by Fante, Fenton and Lynn Root. Youth Runs Wild, RKO Radio, 1940. Screenplay by Fante. My Man and I, MGM, 1952, Screenplay by Fante and Jack Leonard. Full of Life, Columbia, 1956, Adapted by Fante from his novel.Jeanne Eagels. Columbia, 1962. Screenplay by Fante, Daniel Fuchs and Sonya Levien. Walk on the Wild Side, Columbia, 1962. Adapted from Nelson Algren’s novel by Fante and Edmund Morris. The Reluctant Saint. Davis-Royal Films International, 1962. Screenplay by Fante and Joseph Petracca. My Six Loves, Paramount, 1963, Screenplay by Fante, Joseph Calvelli and William Wood. Maya, MGM, 1966, screenplay by Fante. Something by a Lonely Man, Universal Television, 1968. Screenplay by Fante and Frank Fenton.
Sources A Correspondence: Fante/Mencken, ed., Michael Moreau, Black Sparrow, Santa Rosa. Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante by Stephen Cooper, North Point Press/Canongate, Edinburgh, 2000. John Fante, Selected Letters, 1932-1981, ed. Seamus Cooney, 1991, Black Sparrow, Santa Rosa.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

John Fante: Between Two Worlds

Part 1

Whatever success John Fante was to achieve as a Hollywood screenwriter would come at the expense of his career as an even more successful novelist. Neither a hardboiled writer, nor a film noir screenwriter, Fante was part of a regional proletariat tradition which would influence hardboiled fiction and film noir. The author of seven novels, two novellas, eleven screenplays and numerous short stories, John Fante’s appeal belies his status as a cult writer. Born in 1909, he would become an early chronicler of low-life Los Angeles, and a forerunner to a reality-based writing associated with the likes of Charles Willeford, Edward Bunker and Jim Thompson. In effect, his fiction bridges the gulf separating hardboilers and low-lifers, such as Charles Bukowski and Hubert Selby.

Lauded by such disparate figures as H.L. Mencken, Carey McWilliams and Bukowski, Fante appears to have courted obscurity. First as an impoverished novelist who searched, often in vain, for a publisher- this despite his stories appearing, from 1932 when Fante was just twenty-three years old, in Mencken’s American Mercury and Whit Burnett and Martha Foley’s Story magazine- then as a moderately successful screenwriter whose credits include Jeanne Eagels (with Daniel Fuchs), Walk on the Wild Side The Reluctant Saint and Full of Life (adapted from his 1952 novel).

Seeking work in the studios was, in many ways, an unfortunate career move. For Fante had only recently taken his first steps towards producing a brand of populist fiction which revels in the urban diversity and chaos of what, these days, is a barely recognisable Los Angeles. Writing about such perennials as love, sex, drunkenness, writing, rejection and survival, his fiction, Fante’s writing, even in its earliest incarnation, moves between depictions of Italian-American culture and portrayals of fallen Angelinos, whether Mexican waitresses, Filipinos dishwashers, Greek wrestlers, Black itinerants, Jewish merchants, and movie industry hacks.

After decades of literary neglect, Fante’s resuscitation began in the 1980s thanks partly to Bukowski who, as an avid Fante reader, penned an introduction to an edition of Ask the Dust. So devoted was Bukowski that, for a time, he took residence in what he believed to be Fante’s old Bunker Hill hotel, visited the ailing writer in the hospital, and, in the end, was one of the few who attended Fante’s funeral. At Bukowski’s urging, Black Sparrow Press, from the early 1980s onwards, would reprint virtually the entire Fante catalogue, including two unpublished novels, The Road to Los Angeles, from the 1930s, and 1933 Was a Bad Year, from the 1950s. Around the same time, screenwriter-director Robert Towne helped convince Houghton Miflin to buy Fante’s Brotherhood of the Grape. In Britain, Granada would reprint Wait Until Spring, Bandini and Ask the Dust, both of which have recently gone through another print cycle courtesy of Canongate in Edinburgh, which, along with San Francisco’s North Point Press, have published Stephen Cooper’s biography of Fante, Full of Life.

Unfortunately, Fante did not live to witness the revival of his work. Diabetic since the mid-1950s, he lost his sight in 1975 and a leg in 1977. Still he managed to write, dictating his work to his wife, Joyce. Painstaking though the process of dictation must have been, Fante, during that time, produced Dreams from Bunker Hill, a classic tale concerning the ordeals of a young writer, and one of the great novels about Hollywood during the 1930s.

For a cult writer, Fante’s books have fared well, with hundreds of thousands of copies having been sold in the U.S. since 1980. In France, his sales have exceeded half a million, with much of his work having gone through a recent reprinting thanks to publishers 10/18. Over the years, articles on Fante have appeared in magazines like Rolling Stone, American Film and Life. The latter would call Fante a national treasure. By the late 1980s, according to Joyce Fante, all of her husband’s work but one had been optioned to film companies.

And no wonder. Fante’s thinly veiled autobiographical fiction, from Journey to Los Angeles to Dreams from Bunker Hill, constitutes a history of the city in an era when Bunker Hill rooming houses were populated by writers, actors, winos, and prostitutes, and when, during the depression and war years, taxi-dance halls could be found along Main Street. Now that geography has faded into the past. For, in 1964, Fante’s beloved Bunker Hill was cleared to make way for the Music Center, an event that heralded the arrival of the new Los Angeles. By the time the Fante revival was under way, Los Angeles had been completely overhauled, which had the effect of making Fante’s fiction an artifact of a past era.

Not only was Fante one of the more interesting writers to come out of the Depression, ranking alongside Steinbeck, Fitzgerald and Nathaniel West, but he was also one of a handful of regional writers who appeared on the literary scene during the 1930s. While the likes of Sherwood Anderson, Dreiser and Sinclair Lewis were lionised, and modernists- Dos Passos, Farrell, and Fitzgerald- were the rage, Mencken in his magazine American Mercury and Burnett and Foley in their journal Story went out of their way to promote and publish writers with a more hardboiled attitude towards their subject matter and the world in general.

Though many still seek out writers from under-represented areas- whether James Lee Burke, John Carlos Blake or Sharyn McCrumb- these days, due to globalisation, mass communication and the information superhighway, the world has grown smaller and more homogeneous, resulting in regionalism having lost its cutting edge. However, the regionalists of the 1930s- A.I. Bezzerides writing about Fresno; Edward Anderson and George Milburn writing about Texas; James Ross writing about North Carolina, and John Fante writing about Los Angeles- came from the geographical and cultural margins. These writers were not so much a literary movement as a manifestation of Foley and Burnett’s literary inquisitiveness, as well as Mencken’s anti-bourgeois liberalism, and his interest in language and all things proletariat.

Surprisingly, Fante and Mencken would never meet Though Fante, like a number of other young writers during that period, was, at least early on, Mencken’s protege, and, having carried on a twenty year correspondence with the “sage of Baltimore,” would dedicate two novels to him. It was on Mencken’s advice that Fante, to subsidise his “real writing,” became a studio screenwriter. Working in Hollywood may have earned Fante a great deal of money, but scriptwriting, contrary to Mencken’s belief, would prevent him from doing all that much “real writing.”

It was through Mencken that Fante met the notorious Jim Tully. Fante phoned and mentioned Mencken’s name, and was invited to Tully’s mansion in Toluca Lake situated across the street from W.C. Fields’ house. Though he wrote back to Mencken that he found Tully likable, he, in fact, regarded Tully as humourless, overly dramatic and filled with self-importance. Of course, his reaction might have had something to do with Tully’s response to a short story that Fante had asked him to read. Having looked it over, Tully suggested the story would be better if it were not so bitter, adding that stories criticising Catholicism were difficult to place in most magazines.

Caught in the studio treadmill, Fante, as early as 1935, admitted, in a letter to his mother, that working in the film industry might have been a mistake: “In many ways I wish I had never worked for the movies. They have a tendency to spoil a good writer- particularly if he has not already published his first novel.” As one can see, Fante never abandoned his literary aspirations, nor his attempts at self-promotion. When future head of the writer’s department at MGM, Ross B. Wills, upon meeting him, said, “So you’re another of those guys who are going to write the Great American Novel, are you?”, Fante, having only recently arrived in Los Angeles, clenched his fists to the sky and mockingly proclaimed, “Ten! Twenty! Why I got forty great books in me! All I want is time, a typewriter, and a sandwich now and then.” However, once ensconced in the studios, Fante, from the 1940s to the 1960s, would produce little in the way of fiction.

After arriving in California from Boulder Colorado in 1929, Fante, influenced by Norwegian writer Knut Hamsun, was determined to become a writer. By 1932, thanks to fellow Italian-Americans Jo and Ernest Pagano, Fante was already on the fringe of Hollywood film and literary culture, working first at MGM, followed by stints at Warner, RKO, Columbia and Paramount. The Paganos played an important role in Fante’s life, particularly Jo, who was part of Nathaniel West’s circle and the author of, amongst other books, Golden Wedding and The Condemned, an excellent Leopold and Loeb-type thriller (adapted for the screen by Cyril Endfield in 1950 and, with a script by Pagano, retitled Try and Get Me). Fante’s first screenwriting success came in 1944, with the release of Youth Runs Wild, which critic James Agee singled out as one of the year’s best films. Yet, by the end of the war, Fante’s position at Paramount studios was that of a factory worker employed on a literary assembly line.

It was also through Mencken that Fante secured a contract at Knopf for his first novel, The Road to Los Angeles. But, after much deliberation, Knopf rejected the manuscript (as did, amongst others, Viking where a humourless reader wrote that the book “Compensates for its feeling of inferiority and self-disgust induced by the habit of parade of an undigested mass of fragments of Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Spengler..., together with self-advertisement as important writer in quest of material for a magnum opus.”), thus condemning an evocative and moving novel of 1930s Los Angeles to fifty years of obscurity. Four years after the latter’s rejection, Fante was finally able to publish his first novel, when Stackpole and Sons, a small press that would eventually be sued out of existence for printing an unauthorised edition of Mein Kampf, brought out Wait Until Spring, Bandini. The same company, in 1939, also published Ask the Dust. The following year, Fante broke into mainstream publishing time when Viking brought out a collection of stories, entitled Dago Red.

Ask the Dust forms part of the Bandini series: four novels concerning Arturo Bandini, a young romantic trapped within the confines of an immigrant Italian-American family and cultural tradition. Bandini’s stone mason father is forever unemployed, behind on bills and on the verge of losing his temper: “Dio cane. Dio cane. It means God is a dog and Svevo Bandini was saying it to the snow. Why did Svevo lose ten dollars in a poker game tonight at the Imperial Poolhall? He was such a poor man, and he had three children, and the macaroni was not paid , nor was the house in which the three children and the macaroni were kept. God is a dog.”
While his mother offsets her husband’s violence with an oppressive and stubborn Catholicism (significantly, Fante would eventually return to the Church), Fante’s alter ego, Arturo, dreams of becoming a writer and is not beyond using the confessional as a testing-ground for his future literary activities.

With the same raw honesty and vulnerability, Ask the Dust portrays Arturo as drunk, libidinous, brash, ambitious, and swept away by the freedom that Los Angeles offers. The critical response was generally favourable, though Fante was perturbed to read that some critics were saying that Arturo seemed to come right out of the pages of a William Saroyan novel. Still, the book did not receive the attention it deserved. Perhaps this was because it was published in 1939, the same year as West’s Day of the Locust, Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath and Chandler’s The Big Sleep. Nevertheless, it was lauded by the likes of McWilliams, Louis Adamic, Saroyan and Gene Fowler. There was even talk that Metro, and then Paramount, might turn the novel into a film, but, in the end, no adaptation was forthcoming, and the book would have to take a back seat to other novels of the era.

Like the protagonist in Ask the Dust, Fante would never be able to fully extricate himself from the studios. The result was long periods when he could not write any fiction at all. Yet neither his film work nor his eventual illness could keep Fante from his favourite medium, nor alter his writing style and subject matter, which, despite the ups and downs of his career, remained unchanged throughout his life.