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 masturbation...in 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.

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