In 1939, the year John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath” came out, three other novels about the downside of the California dream were also published: Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep,” Nathanael West’s “The Day of the Locust,” and John Fante’s “Ask the Dust.” Though all four are now justly held up as American classics, it is Fante’s book (and literary reputation) that has had the most catching up to do.
“Ask the Dust” is a sweet, crazy, arresting lyric poem of a novel, chronicling the Depression years in Los Angeles from the highly subjective, largely autobiographical viewpoint of one Arturo Bandini, an impoverished young writer holed up in a fleabag hotel on Bunker Hill. The awkward but endearing Bandini’s desperate hankering after literary fame and his love of a Mexican waitress make for a book of great charm, yet, almost as if in proof of the futility of Bandini’s romantic dreams, “Dust” fared poorly back in 1939.
Its 29-year-old Colorado-born author was the son of an immigrant Italian bricklayer. As a boy, John Fante had dreamed of becoming a baseball star, but once having followed the great wave of ‘30s drifters to Southern California, he ended up swinging away at fame with a pen instead of a bat--and striking out with his best effort. “Dust” received almost no attention, partly because its publisher, Stackpole, was caught up at the time with a lawsuit filed by Hitler over an unauthorized edition of “Mein Kampf.” Unpromoted, Fante’s novel slipped quietly into oblivion.
It took until the present decade for Word-of-Mouth, that kindly goddess of lost books and forgotten authors, to come to the rescue. Fate’s unlikely agent was Charles Bukowski, Los Angeles’ legendary rough beast slouching toward serious literature. Bukowski generously gave credit to Fante and “Ask the Dust” for making him a writer. Finding that book in the public library, he said, had been like discovering gold in the city dump: “Here at last was a man who was not afraid of emotion,” Bukowski said. “The humor and the pain were intermixed with a superb simplicity. The beginning of that book was a wild and enormous miracle to me.”
It was Bukowski’s support that led indirectly to a Fante revival that’s been one of the more surprising stories of belated success in recent publishing. A reference to “Ask the Dust” and to two of Fante’s other books, “Dago Red” and “Wait Until Spring, Bandini,” in the manuscript of one of Bukowski’s own novels caught the eye of his publisher, John Martin of Black Sparrow Press. “Bandini was the name of a well-known brand of fertilizer,” says Martin. “I thought it was Bukowski’s idea of a joke.” That was in 1978. Not until a year later did the publisher get around to inquiring, and learn from his author that John Fante was no joke.
In 1980, Martin reissued “Ask the Dust.” This time it caught fire and was soon followed by an explosion of Fante from Black Sparrow, which now offers no fewer than nine of the late California writer’s books. These include reprints of several novels--"Wait Until Spring, Bandini,” “The Brotherhood of the Grape,” “Full of Life"--and of the early short-story collection “Dago Red” (Black Sparrow’s expanded edition was retitled “The Wine of Youth”), as well as offerings of much previously unseen material. In the latter category are Fante’s first youthful work, “The Road to Los Angeles,” originally contracted by Knopf in 1933 but unpublished until the 1985 Black Sparrow edition; and his very last one, “Dreams From Bunker Hill,” dictated by the writer to his wife Joyce from a hospital bed and released within months of his death in 1983. And later this year Black Sparrow will be bringing out Fante’s correspondence with culture critic and American Mercury editor H. L. Mencken, the aspiring writer’s first important literary contact.
Unknown beyond a tiny English-speaking audience before 1980, Fante’s work now can be read in French, German, Italian, Dutch, Swedish, Norwegian, and Portuguese. Seven of his novels have been optioned for movies. Currently an international co-production of “Wait Until Spring, Bandini,” starring Faye Dunaway, Joe Mantegna and Ornella Muti, is being shot in Utah, while “The Brotherhood of the Grape” is under way as a Robert Towne/Zoetrope project, and “Ask the Dust,” originally also optioned to Towne, is now being developed by Mel Brooks as an Emilio Estevez vehicle.
It’s a shame that Fante is not around to taste a little of the gravy. His end came before his new fame, after a long and difficult battle with diabetes that cost him his sight and legs. “Bitterness is the one thing a writer must fight,” he told an interviewer a few years before his death. “I fought it all my life.”
It was Fante’s enormous self- belief that enabled him to persevere through years of neglect. Like Arturo Bandini, his fictional alter ego, Fante the man was equal parts bravado and sensitivity. He possessed, as one friend put it, “a whopping appetite . . . for whatever this poor-rich earth produces,” yet as he once told his writer friend Carey McWilliams, underneath his passion and avidity for life he felt “softer than a babe’s skull.”
The sensitive side of his nature came through in his big-hearted stories, their open sentimentality redeemed by a self-deflating honesty and sense of humor. Notwithstanding the resemblances to his comic-populist contemporary William Saroyan, Fante’s work probably comes closest to that of his main writing idol, Sherwood Anderson, whose simplicity and innocence he consciously set out to emulate.
That was back in the early Depression times, when he was one of those restless “poor young men, touched with magic, lucky in America” whom he would write about in his novel “1933 Was a Bad Year.” By 1933, Fante had dropped out of the University of Colorado and hitchhiked to Los Angeles. He immediately fell in love with this city of broken dreams and forever vanishing muses, which he invoked longingly in “Ask the Dust": “You sad flower in the sand, you pretty town. . . .” But his own existence in Lotusland, as he later told McWilliams, added up to no more than “a driveling sort of life . . . whores, hostesses, Plymouths, Pontiacs, and then hamburgers.” Pickup jobs on the docks and in the fish canneries paid for precious free hours, which he devoted to writing, spinning out stories about his Catholic childhood and the poor people among whom he lived and worked.
The longed-for lucky break came in 1932, when Mencken accepted Fante’s tale “Altar Boy” for the American Mercury, and adopted him as protege. Before long there came that ill-fated Knopf contract, arranged by Mencken. The 24-year-old Fante, then employed as a busboy in an L.A. barbecue joint, became a 15-second celebrity in his new hometown. His photo appeared in the Los Angeles Examiner for Aug. 7, 1933, captioned “Literary Dish Juggler.”
But his season in the limelight proved all too brief. After the debacle at Knopf and with his several Stackpole books not selling, Fante turned away from fiction to a career in screenwriting in the 1940s. He put in time at Warner Bros., where he became a drinking partner of fellow script hack William Faulkner. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, he moved from studio to studio as a contract writer, picking up credits on such pictures as “Jeanne Eagels,” “A Walk on the Wild Side,” “My Six Loves,” and “The Reluctant Saint.”
Movie work paid the bills but brought great personal frustration for Fante the stifled artist. “That I worked as a screenwriter is treated as if I had had a bout with the clap,” Fante complained to McWilliams in 1972. “If, on the other hand, I had pumped gas instead, or been a bricklayer, the ensuing glamor would have immortalized me.”
He couldn’t have known it at the time, but the thing that will immortalize John Fante is the thing he cared most about, his “real” writing.