A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving
Harper Perennial: 416 pp., $14.99 paper
When 45-year-old Dan Fante first sat down at his father’s typewriter, the result was typical. He felt great banging out a manuscript, but after one less-than-stellar response, he immediately trashed it. Success and destruction: That had been Dan’s cycle for decades until it was interrupted, finally, by luck and grace and the desire to write.
Of course, Fante’s typewriter came with a heavier legacy than most: His father, John Fante, wrote “Ask the Dust,” the 1939 novel of a striving writer that has become a Los Angeles classic. Acclaim for John’s work came late, after that novel was reissued in 1980 with the support of a new chronicler of the L.A. underground, Charles Bukowski. In the intervening decades, John was a moderately successful screenwriter, a hard drinker with a tough disposition and a propensity toward violence. He was not easy on his family.
So Dan writes in the cheerful, down-and-dirty memoir “Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving.” The book, Dan’s tenth, begins with grandfather Fante’s immigration to the U.S. from Italy — as the story goes, he prevented his name from becoming Americanized with his fists. Storytelling ran in the family, as did fighting, drinking and other bad habits. “Pop was spending most of his time on outside activities — golf and all-night gambling — but he somehow managed to squeeze in a few minutes at home in the sack, enough to impregnate his wife,” he writes. Dan, the second of four children, was born in 1944. The bulk of this book is his own story, sandwiched between that of his more famous father.
The book is frank and funny. Dan does not lionize or demonize his father, nor does he indulge in the self-pitying or self-gratifying aspects of memoir. It’s an achievement in tone and delightful to read. That is, delightful for those comfortable with the sordid details of a blackout alcoholic and occasional big spender who more than once tried to kill himself.
Eager to be independent, Dan Fante went to work as a teenager, beginning a long string of jobs that often relied on hustle and jive. He started as a carny at Pacific Ocean Park in Santa Monica in the 1960s; there, he had access to booze, drugs and all kinds of sex. He went on to sell vacuum cleaners door to door, drive a New York cab, work as a private investigator and make big bucks in a call center near LAX. “For the sake of brevity, I have not included every marriage, girlfriend, arrest, job, and beating,” he writes in the author’s note. “Just the more interesting ones.”
For years he worked for a limousine company, first in New York City, then in Los Angeles. His company, where he was a driver and then manager, was used by entertainment clients in the 1970s and ‘80s. He drove Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, John Lennon, Kiss, Carly Simon and Elton John and other wealthy clients. He also did a brisk cocaine business on the side.
But while he sometimes lived well, he often lived too much, drinking until he blacked out or hurt himself or messed the bed, doing his own drugs, going without sleep, getting into really bad shape. He was mugged twice while driving a cab, and he learned to carry a baseball bat or a gun. He got threatening phone calls after a mix-up with some Black Panthers — luckily, he had friends in the mafia. He indulged in prostitutes, getting involved with one teenager in Hollywood and her pimp. He abandoned apartments, chose liquor over girlfriends, dried himself out solo and then fell off the wagon, hard. His survival was against the odds. But survive he did, eventually staying clean with the help of Alcoholics Anonymous, a regimen that he had to try more than once before it stuck. He stops his own story there, with his recovery.
John Fante is remembered as an ambitious young writer who, after getting nowhere with his novels, turned to an unspectacular but relatively lucrative career in Hollywood. Toward the end of his life, Fante’s books were rediscovered by the literary world. That’s the structure of this book — John prominent at the beginning and end. Part of that is by necessity: For many years, Dan was estranged from his father, and he writes what he knows. He was there when his father, who had lost a leg and his sight to diabetes, died in the Motion Picture Hospital in Woodland Hills; the passage marks the book’s one indulgence in sentiment.
In some ways, Dan’s story mirrors his father’s: So much of his youthful energy was wasted. For his father, that was in writing midlevel screenplays; for Dan, it was riding into the gutter and working his way out again and again. Both were deeply dependent on and damaged by alcohol. Yet they differ significantly: John Fante’s best writing was done when he was young, while Dan is proving, in his 60s, to be a ruthless, entertaining chronicler of his own exploits, and of his father’s legacy.