Dreams From Bunker Hill
“Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles, come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.” So intones Arturo Bandini, the hero of John Fante’s “Ask the Dust.” Holed up in his cheap room, subsisting on oranges and stubborn determination, he is the quintessential starving artist, his base not a romantic garret in Paris, or even a drafty loft in Manhattan, but a rooming house on Bunker Hill, Los Angeles. He has come, like his creator, from a poor Italian family in Colorado, left his religion and his family to become that great thing, a writer. Arturo’s success seems both imminent and highly unlikely. But succeed he does.
Fante’s fame, however, was transitory. Only a few years after publication, “Ask the Dust,” the book many call the Los Angeles novel, was out of print. It stayed out of print (except for a cheap paperback version issued in 1954) until Charles Bukowski alerted his publisher to the man he called “a lifetime influence.” Black Sparrow Press reprinted “Ask the Dust” in 1980, only three years before John Fante died of complications caused by diabetes.
Fante continues to be appreciated; his name was invoked repeatedly in the pages of the Literary L.A. issue of Book Review (April 25, 1999) as one of the most influential L.A. writers. Now, finally, the publication of a full-length biography is testimony to his renewed popularity.
Fante’s inauspicious beginnings are mirrored by those of his protagonist, Bandini. His father was an immigrant Italian stonemason; his mother Italian American and frustratingly pious. Born in Denver, he survived a childhood shaped by poverty and prejudice, as well as by the sorry clash between his mother’s meekness and his father’s drinking, brawling, gambling and macho posturing. Fante was educated in the local Catholic primary school and a Jesuit secondary school; he considered a career in the priesthood until he began to question Catholic teachings. Thereafter his relationship with his family religion grew more complex and antagonistic.
Though he dropped out of the University of Colorado at 18, he had, according to Stephen Cooper, already shown some talent for writing. He spent his nights drinking and carousing; by day Fante became something of an autodidact, reading avidly in literature and philosophy and becoming obsessed with Nietzsche. He also discovered the American Mercury and was so inspired by the ironic social commentary of its editor, H.L. Mencken, that he wrote to Mencken expressing his great satisfaction with the critic’s views.
As Cooper describes it, Fante absorbed both the sharp irony and wit of the Mercury and started sending “missive after missive,” “assailing Mencken with letters and stories . . . and the great man had been reservedly encouraging.” Their correspondence lasted until Mencken’s death in 1956.
In 1929, Fante left Colorado for Los Angeles, striking out on his own soon after his father left the family for another woman. Though Fante later claimed that "[p]overty drove me out to California,” Cooper asserts that "[h]e was going to become a writer.” He settled in Wilmington and a job in the fish canneries. He began writing between shifts, and his experiences working in the canneries and the docks, the hard men, the racial divides, all found their way into his exquisite fiction. It was, however, his family, alternately cast as the Bandinis, the Toscanas, the Molises, that preoccupied the majority of Fante’s work.
Fante soon left Wilmington for Long Beach, where he resumed his education at Long Beach City College and encountered an English teacher who, along with his mentor, Mencken, would prove instrumental in bringing his work to print. As Fante later wrote, Florence Carpenter showed “a deep respect for a talent I did not even know I had. . . . I suddenly discovered the English language and the pleasures of manipulating it.” With Carpenter’s encouragement, Fante sent his story “Altar Boy” to Mencken, who accepted it immediately for publication in the American Mercury in 1932.
After Mencken had published two of Fante’s short stories, the young author presented a third, a sequel to the story “Home Sweet Home,” which glimmers among the many gems of Fante’s oeuvre for its description of a tense father-and-son relationship. When the young man narrator of the story sees his unemployed father in the street, he is unable to meet him and unsure how to keep his distance: “We smother the music of kinship under brazen skins while we avoid each other’s eyes and speak not in soft terms lest the beauty of affinity burst forth and make stuttering fools of us.” The narrator goes on to describe his father’s life as “a big scab of kicks and tears and frustrations” that cannot be easily approached by anyone, let alone his son. It is a startlingly eloquent portrait of a father who preferred to vent emotion with his fists rather than words.
The publication of Fante’s stories allowed him to leave a precarious existence in Long Beach--where, Cooper says, he had been “driving himself mercilessly” trying to write and was by his own account “crazy with poverty and worry and practically starving.” By 1933 he had not only a contract for a novel with Alfred A. Knopf but also a job writing a vehicle for Dolores Del Rio for MGM with his new friend, screenwriter Ross Wills.
In the course of his life, Fante often returned to screenwriting for financial boosts, producing a dozen stories and screenplays that made it to film and countless others that didn’t. Still, with his incessant thirst for booze and gambling, he managed to be often penniless and dependent on the help of friends like historian and social activist Carey McWilliams and Wills. (McWilliams’ later classic, “Southern California: An Island on the Land” would name “Ask the Dust” as one of the few works of fiction “that suggest what Southern California is really like.”)
In 1937, while spending time with his reunited family in Roseville, north of Sacramento, Fante met Joyce Smart, a recent graduate of Stanford University and budding poet. “He is short, darkly handsome, street smart, tough,” she later wrote in her diary. " . . . [H]e looks poor, there is an almost visible chip on his shoulder--and yet somehow all these negatives add up to a man of vitality and presence.”
Although Joyce’s well-heeled mother, appalled by Fante’s brash demeanor and social class and by what she had read of his manuscript, “The Road to Los Angeles,” forbade her daughter to continue the relationship, they married in a secret ceremony later that year.
In the midst of further rejections of “The Road to Los Angeles,” Fante’s synopsis for “Wait Until Spring, Bandini” was accepted by the small publishing firm of Stackpole Sons. The success made it easier for Joyce to make her marriage public, and she joined her husband in Los Angeles.
Joyce took a job compiling a guide to the city of Los Angeles for the WPA Federal Writers’ Project to support them, while John worked on his novel and wasted household funds on drinking and gambling. Like Fante’s mother before her, Joyce seemed to embody the term “long-suffering wife,” but she did so with a belief in her husband’s singular talent and continues to be devoted to the publication of his life’s work.
Cooper’s biography benefits greatly from her cooperation and candor. Joyce does not shirk from delivering an honest portrait of her husband. Cooper was given access to Joyce’s diaries and in other instances, though she is not quoted directly, her voice is discernible. One particularly disturbing passage recounts her husband’s reaction when she informed him that she was pregnant for the fourth time. Fante was troubled at the time by a dry spell in his career and responded to the news by shouting obscenities at his wife, demanding that she have an abortion and threatening to leave. He did not leave but was harsh with Joyce throughout the pregnancy, “staying out night after night” and often coming home in a stupor. What Joyce felt at the time is hardly imaginable, but even now, Cooper claims, “Joyce would resort to the third person in relating her experiences of this time.” As “savage and poetic, violent and full of love” as Fante’s books may be, so was the man who conceived of them.
Cooper, who reveals a youthful idolatry of Fante in the epilogue to the book, can be more of an apologist when reporting some of Fante’s harsher moments, though he records such moments faithfully. His conclusion with regard to the episode above is more sanguine than Joyce’s probably was, since it ultimately resulted in Fante writing his most commercially successful novel, “Full of Life.” Cooper adds that “it was an impossible situation . . . but it was also the catalyst [Fante] needed.”
In “Wait Until Spring, Bandini,” Fante begins the saga of Arturo Bandini. “The Road to Los Angeles” (published only posthumously) followed Bandini’s journey from his hometown to this metropolis; it finds him living at home under the shadow of his parents’ marital discord and forming the self-determination that will carry him away from his family. Arturo, at 14, sees his mother nearly destroyed by his father’s affair with a wealthy widow, and he experiences his own personal bitterness when he is spurned by the girl he loves. It is Arturo who must wait until spring, when he can redeem himself from the cold and misery of winter, when he can prove himself a hero on the baseball field, untouched by the poverty and despair of his family. On publication, the novel garnered comparisons with the fiction of John Steinbeck and William Saroyan and made Fante, in Cooper’s words, “a literary celebrity.”
Soon Fante was focusing his energies on the novel “of a girl I once loved.” “Ask the Dust,” the title a reference to Knut Hamsun’s novel, “Pan,” is the third Arturo Bandini story and is considered Fante’s masterpiece. Arturo’s disarmingly clear voice (and Fante’s limpid prose) speaks with the fervent immediacy of someone for whom life is a daily struggle to survive and maintain a sense of a worthier self, the self of the artist. The book is a luminescent rendering of 1930s Los Angeles, the sunny clime contrasting with Depression-era malaise. Arturo dwells in an underworld of seedy cafes and marijuana dens, of rooming-house drunks and embittered lovers, and emerges triumphantly from the post-temblor dust of the 1933 Long Beach earthquake with “an idea, my first sound idea. The first in my entire life.”
After the book’s publication in 1939, Fante returned to the unsatisfying world of film writing. He once described himself to a friend as “that Hollywood whore, that stinking sell-out artist . . . that stinking scenarist.” Cooper scrupulously follows the meandering trail of his film achievements, where projects are proposed, dropped, taken up again and changed irrevocably, according to the mercurial nature of film writing. Fante collaborated with writers such as Edmund Morris, Frank Fenton and Wills mostly on B movies. Films produced include “Dinky” (1935), “East of the River” (1940), “The Golden Fleecing” (1940), “Youth Runs Wild” (1944), “Full of Life” (1956), “Jeanne Eagels” (1957), “Walk on the Wild Side” (1962) and “Maya” (1966).
Yet as Hollywood became embroiled in the anti-Communist movement that culminated in the notorious blacklist, Fante remained aloof, writing to McWilliams that “If America went Soviet tomorrow I’d still read Nietzsche, long for beauty, seek the turmoil of women, and dream of the greatest novel ever written. . . . I’ll go fascist if they leave me alone and let me write what I please. I’ll go red for the same reason.” Cooper argues that this attitude is indicative of Fante’s “skepticism of all things political.” Given Fante’s self-interested character, however, it also signals a general indifference. Cooper introduces historical milestones throughout the book--Nazi invasion, the developing war in Vietnam--that only serve to emphasize how very much apart from these events Fante held himself; his vision, trained so precisely on his own circumstances, was rarely concerned with the world at large.
In 1952, Fante published “Full of Life,” a comic, life-affirming version of a particularly difficult period in his life and marriage. It became a popular film and brought Fante financial stability. In 1977, long after his diabetes (diagnosed in 1955) had become debilitating, he wrote the lyrical “Brotherhood of the Grape.” Then, in a Bandini-like feat of literary heroism, he followed in 1979 with “Dreams From Bunker Hill.” He was, at the time, a dying man. Blinded and having lost one leg to disease, Fante dictated the novel to Joyce. Meanwhile, the Black Sparrow Press edition of “Ask the Dust” containing a reverential introduction by Bukowski, who called the book “a wild and enormous miracle to me,” was being printed.
Whether listing the many film ventures, the arguments between John and Joyce or the symptoms of Fante’s worsening diabetes, Cooper is a studious and enthusiastic chronicler of the minutiae of Fante’s life. It is an admirable practice but at times overwrought, as when he transcribes a video made of Fante when he was hospitalized, near death and obviously pitifully confused. Here and in a few other places, Cooper’s well-informed summary would suffice. There are also passages of seeming conjecture from Cooper, such as when he states that Fante left Colorado intending to become a writer or when he sketches what Fante’s early days in Wilmington must have been like.
Though Cooper has done his own thorough historical research, the description of these potent scenes lacks Fante’s own distinct voice. This may be due to the unfortunate fact that Fante’s earliest surviving letters date from 1932, well after he had settled on the West Coast. Similarly, some of the accounts of the Fantes’ married life, and when they first met, which I assume come from Joyce, would resonate more if Cooper provided clearer attribution. Still, “Full of Life” offers a large share of fascinating material by and about Fante, and by bringing together his life and work for the first time with such clarity of purpose, Cooper presents a remarkable gift to innumerable fans of Fante’s work. Long live Arturo Bandini.