My pal Jon turned me onto the books of JOHN FANTE over two decades ago. I read “Ask The Dust” – and loved it so much I read it again. Then I read the other books in the “Bandini Trilogy”, all concerning a red-blooded, hard-drinking Italian-American man’s experiences growing up in Colorado, and later learning to be a writer in Los Angeles. Loved those two as well. They were more than “loosely” based on the life of John Fante – they were the life of the real John Fante, with loads of embellishment and dramatic tall tales around the edges. Funny, poignant and amazingly well-written, these books are among my favorites in the pantheon of great twentieth century writing.
So imagine my surprise when I learn that the old man had a son named Dan Fante who’s a hard-boiled, hard-living sort of guy as well, with a number of works of fiction to his name. I stumbled on this new one of his – his first autobiographical novel – in paperback a couple of months ago, and after thumbing through a chapter, knew this was a memoir I needed to read. See, John Fante was one of those “classic” inattentive drinking dads of his era – the 40s, 50s and 60s. You know, the kind who got out the belt when it was time to mete out punishment for transgressions both major and minor. Dan Fante bore the literal and figurative scars of this sort of parenting to deleterious effect; he also had an older brother who hounded him so severely that he ended up injuring young Dan on multiple occasions as well. Save for the love of a good but silent mom, Dan’s childhood was a rough one. He was actually considered “the stupid one” in the family, and wore this mantle like a crown of thorns in a series of teenage and young-adult blunders than nearly killed him, often by his own hand.
Though there are elements of this book that are a “tell all” about what it was like to be John Fante’s son, there’s no doubt that this book is about the life of Dan Fante, a huge percentage of which had very little to do with his father. Dan moved to New York City from his native Malibu fairly early on, after a first two decades of life that call to mind the Dolly Parton song “I’ve Lived My Life” (“…and I’m only eighteen…”). He was a carny. He dated black women in the early 60s (to his father’s, uh, “chagrin”). He drank to blackout excess. He took drugs. He got in bloody, beatdown, near-death fights. He sold vacuum cleaners door to door, and nearly got murdered in the process. He indulged in prostitutes, both female and male. Once in New York, he worked as a cabbie for a long stretch, but at one point was hounded by Black Panthers, who actually came to kill him over the course of months for a dumb bar transgression.
This is not a man, lineage aside, that you’d have pegged for a guy who’d end up as a self-sustaining writer or to even make it out of his thirties alive. Yet he did, and his writing style has some of the same short, clipped and to-the-point sentence construction of his father’s. Dan Fante basically lays it all out of the page – what happened, how it happened, and what it might have led to – without hyperbole or exaggeration. This is one guy who had so many opportunities to completely destroy himself, it’s a wonder that he’s still among us. The book often returns to his relationship with his dad, who hovers over the book like the proverbial ghost, judging his son’s early stabs at writing with both pointed criticism and praise. Of course, being criticism or praise from “John Fante”, every word has immense, outsized meaning for young and then middle-aged Dan, and when the elder Fante passes, the torch essentially passes, and Dan picks up the mantle in his own unique manner.
Man, I thought “CARDBOARD GODS” was a tough memoir of early-in-life trouble. This is far more bleak (to be fair, it’s a totally different sort of memoir as well – not so much funny and touching as it is tragic and touching), and just as rewarding. Great read whether you’re a Fante lover or have never heard of the big guy until just now.