John Fante is the author of two novels which have achieved almost cult status since they were reprinted by Santa Barbara’s Black Sparrow Press in the 1980’s: Ask the Dust (1939/1980) andWait Until Spring, Bandini (1938/1983). For many readers, these two novels rank with the fiction of Raymond Chandler or Nathanael West in uncovering the gritty life of Depression-era Los Angeles. The poet and novelist Charles Bukowski has called Ask the Dust “the finest novel written in all time,” and Robert Towne (screenwriter of the 1974 film Chinatown) claims that “[i]f there’s a better piece of fiction written about L.A., I don’t know about it.”
Yet neither novel sold well when first published, and it was not until half a century later and after Fante’s death that his reputation would be established. During his lifetime, his best-known work was probably the warmhearted Full of Life (a 1952 novel and 1956 film starring Judy Holliday and Richard Conte). Fante would not write his next novel, My Dog, Stupid (1985) for almost twenty years, and it would see only posthumous publication. His next novel, The Brotherhood of the Grape (1977), received “exceptionally warm” reviews, but it was “the first new book of his own that he had held in his hands in twenty-five years,” and it arrived as Fante entered Santa Monica Hospital for treatment of his worsening diabetes which would lead, a few months later, to a gruesome series of amputations and, still later, to blindness and death. The bulk of his writing career was devoted for decades to disposable film projects such as Satin Dolls, The Rialto Kid, The Ballad of Whistler’s Mother, and The Great Diamond Hoax. His best-known screenplay in all that time was probably Walk on the Wild Side, written in 1962 with Edmund Morris and based on Nelson Algren’s 1956 novel.
The question that Stephen Cooper’s biography sets out to answer is: “Can anyone charge that Fante denied the world masterpieces because he poured so much of his life into the sinkhole of Hollywood spec writing?” Did Hollywood screenwriting corrupt a potentially great novelist, or did that talent find its natural niche writing B-movie scripts? It was certainly a question that obsessed Fante himself; in 1963 he wondered, “what would have happened if I hadn’t gone to work writing for pictures. . . . I know for sure that I would probably have a dozen novels published, instead of four.” Cooper’s biography, in addition to being a compelling study of the life and fiction of one important but neglected American writer, raises the complex issue for students of twentieth century American literature of the codependent relationship between Hollywood and its writers. In the end it is clear that while Hollywood was an agent in Fante’s self-destruction, he was the lead actor in his own tragedy.
John Fante was born in Denver in 1909, but moved to Wilmington, California, as a twenty-year-old, and within three years had his first story accepted by the influential American Mercury, edited by H. L. Mencken. (“Altar Boy” and twelve other stories, most of them from American Mercury, would be collected in Dago Red in 1940.) Mencken was an important early force in Fante’s career, as was Florence Carpenter, the writing teacher who discovered and encouraged the young writer in his brief semesters at Long Beach City College. Other influences were literary, like the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun, author of Sult, 1890 (Hunger, 1899). The greatest impact on Fante’s fiction, however, was the lean period of the early 1930’s when he lived in various locations in Los Angeles, including Bunker Hill and Terminal Island, working odd jobs and struggling to become a writer. It was the atmosphere and desperation of those years at the bottom of the Depression—featuring what Cooper calls “the dingy half-world of downtown bars, taxi dance halls and smoky nightclubs”—which Fante would pour into his best novels, particularlyAsk the Dust and Wait Until Spring, Bandini.
An early symptom of Fante’s peculiar problems manifested itself in February of 1933 when, on the basis of his first...
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