by Dan Fante
"My dad, the man I loved the most in the world, a man who refused to compromise himself for anyone, the man who had shown me by example what it was like to be a true artist, was gone. We had become a loving father and son after a rocky thirty-year start. John Fante's gift to me was his ambition, his brilliance, and his pure writer's heart. He had begun life with a drunken, self-hating father, backing out of the hell of poverty and prejudice. Now he was ending it as the best example of courage and humility I had ever known. John Fante was my hero."
Part biography, part memoir, and part love letter, Dan Fante's captivating book interweaves his father's history with his own. We all have our troubles and our passions, he seems to say, but here is how we dove into ours. Father and son, driving, failing, trying again, perhaps a little more bitterly this time. Both writers, both alcoholics, both prone to explosions of emotion. Here is how we managed existence.
I've meant to read John Fante's Ask the Dusk ever since I saw the Colin Farrell/Salma Hayek movie — a movie Dan Fante says doesn't do the book justice, but then that's often true. Yes, it was that particular combination of beautiful faces that drew me into the film, I will admit, but I enjoy reading or watching things regarding that era of Los Angeles. It makes me believe that it is possible to love that city, beyond the endless traffic-celebrity-pleasepleaseme state we see now. 1930s California, in some ways, still had the whiff of warm possibility, rather than hopeless desperation alone. Load up the Joad-mobile and head West. If we can make it in California, perhaps everything will be fine.
Some of the best writing talent in America had migrated to the City of Angels, chasing a fast Hollywood buck. Men of great talent neglected their own writing careers in order to cash in. Almost all his life John Fante would be torn between these two masters.
Though it received good reviews, Ask the Dusk sold less than 3000 copies in 1939. The book's publisher "made the dumb and costly blunder of publishing Hitler's Mein Kampf without the author's permission." Any money the publisher had for marketing or anything else for Ask the Dust went straight to court fees instead. The novel was not "discovered" really until the 1970s, less than a decade before John Fante's death. For most of his life, he cashed screenplay checks. It was a living, and in those days, it was a clock-in-at-the-office job. He would make his connections and feed his booze, golf and gambling habits there. The novels still came, but they never got as much attention as he would have liked.
"It has been written that bad luck played a major part in the demise of my father's literary career," Dan Fante says. "Certainly that is true, but his bad temper, intolerance and nasty tongue didn't help either."
Dan Fante was not immune to his own alcoholic rages, though "rage" for him did not manifest itself as violence so often as it did with an "intense sex drive," and an all-or-nothing attitude. Once he started, he needed more, and as addict stories often go, there was plenty of self-hate involved too.
Still, Dan had skills, particularly with anything that involved hustle. He worked as a beachside carny for awhile, followed by a gig selling Kirby vacuums, and then multiple sales and temp jobs thereafter. He moved to New York City with a friend, thinking maybe he could study acting, after having some success with it in college. But then, he started to get into poetry, both writing it and attending readings, and of course, meeting girls at these readings. Slowly, literature began to creep back into his life. Occasionally, a decent job or girl would get him to cut his drinking for awhile, but it took decades to finally stick. Fante isn't all depressive alcoholism though — there's plenty of humor in the witty ways John Fante could tell off a man, or his obsessive interest in cars and cranky pets. Dan Fante also describes the people he's met along the way, the sort of people one might call "characters." The ebullient and over-the-top men and women who are as much, if not more, of a hustler than he is.
His mother, Joyce, is a rock of a woman with her own great moments. When Dan started writing fiction, he needed a trusted opinion on its worth, so he asked his mother to read his manuscript. She had helped his father, and she was not one to tread softly. After criticizing his spelling, she tells him he's a good writer. Then:
"If I were you, I'd look over the notes I've made and fix what needs fixing, then I'll do a retyping for you. Then you can send it out."
"Yes, no kidding."
"On second thought, I'll do the corrections myself. Presentation is too important. I don't want this novel rejected because you're illiterate. I'd better write the submission letter too."
Several days later Mom handed me a spotless finished copy with a cover letter. I had titled the book Chump Change.
I'm not yet familiar with his father's writing style, but Dan Fante writes in a very straightforward way. He's not concerned with being "profound." He just wants to talk about his life. Talking about it helps keep the craziness at bay, sure, but he also enjoys it. He knows that he was shaped by the shadow of his father, good and bad, and he achieves a fairly decent balance between triumph and flaw. He's prone to overusing certain phrases within a short page-span — "marching orders" being one I noticed while flipping back through — but caring about that feels a little nit-picky. This is a good, entertaining book. I reread many chapters while writing this review, and I find the included family photos interesting. Now, would his siblings have a different version of events or say he is glossing over some of his own issues? Maybe, but what he presented was compelling. Repeatedly I've said that I like knowing the life stories of people. I like knowing what shaped their character, and Fante is a 2-for-1 deal. Well played, salesman.
I don't know that I'm too terribly interested in Dan Fante's novels, however. They sound fine enough and heavily based on his life, but I feel like I've already read the unfiltered version (or less filtered, as is the case with memoir), and perhaps the novelization isn't for me. I could be wrong, but I don't know. When it comes to John Fante though, my curiosity is intensified. If Fante is partially an attempt to preserve John's legacy and to reignite interest in the man's work, consider the book successful. I want to track down Ask the Dust, and if I like that, his other books too. And what screenplays ended up with his name? Maybe he considered it just another paycheck, but is there anything we might know? Some gem beloved by film students? I'd like to find out.
Full Disclosure: Harper Perennial sent me this book. I thank them for the gesture and I will continue to be fair in all my reviews.
This review is part of Pajiba's Cannonball Read, in which participants aim to read and review 13, 26 or 52 books within one year.