TWO YEARS AGO, Dan Fante and I shared war stories in the bowels of skid-row Los Angeles as part of another Esotouric™ guided bus adventure into the depths of secret L.A. The tour was dedicated to Dan’s father, John Fante (1909–1983), a novelist who made his living as a screenwriter in the heyday of Hollywood.
Fante the elder was the author of Ask the Dust, Dago Red, Dreams From Bunker Hill and several others that inspired Charles Bukowski to do his thing. With brutal uncompromising style, Fante wrote about his life, his family, the Italian-American experience, booze, baseball and the frustration of the aspiring literary writer’s existence—all with the underbelly of old Los Angeles as the backdrop.
Dan Fante, himself a novelist, and a sober one for more than 20 years, joined the Esotouric tour to provide insight into his father’s old haunts and neighborhoods. Dan’s own writing is likewise the brutal, confessional-from-the-gutter-type of stuff that, thankfully, will never be an Oprah’s Book Club selection. His novel Chump Change makes Bukowski look like Mary Poppins.
That morning in 2009, as we talked, I noticed a tattoo on Dan’s forearm, dedicated to his brother: NICK FANTE. DEAD FROM ALCOHOL, 1-31-42 TO 2-21-97. Normally I enjoy learning of someone I share a birthday with (Jan. 31), but in Nick’s case, I wasn’t so sure.
Now, in 2011, Dan’s memoir is out on Harper Perennial. Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving provides a schizo-slodgepodge of destroyed perspectives from life’s urinals, barroom floors, drivers’ seats of taxicabs, junkie hotels, mob drops, broken careers and family arguments—all directly from the lives of the Fantes, father and son. It is not for the weak, nor are any punches pulled, at least not from what I can tell.
Especially authentic are the dead-on descriptions of what it’s like going through alcohol withdrawals when quitting cold turkey after years of being hammered every day. While trying to detox by himself in a hotel room, Dan’s whole body shakes, he bangs his head against a wall, he thinks the TV is talking directly to him, he hallucinates and he can’t force any food down without vomiting. He later returns to the practicing alcoholic life and repeats the cycle all over again.
The book also portrays with precisionlike accuracy the frustrations felt by John Fante, who knew he had literary talent but could barely sell novels and was forced to ply his trade penning B-grade screenplays and dealing with the backstabbing, jealousy and rage intrinsic to Hollywood.
It was only toward the end of his life that his novels were rediscovered and republished. It was only after his death that his work received the worldwide recognition it deserved. Many an aspiring writer can empathize with the sufferings of not being recognized enough.
And that is the framework of the story—the frustrations and resentments of both the father and son, played against each other. Throughout major portions of his life, Dan did not get along with his dad, but the two did eventually reconcile.
After his father’s death, Dan came to the realization that his dad was a true hero, in that he never gave a shit if his work was commercial or not. In one scene, he gives Dan writing advice: “If what I write is good,” said the elder Fante, “then people will read it. That’s why literature exists. An author puts his heart and his guts on the page. É A good novel can change the world. Keep that in mind before you attempt to sit down at a typewriter. Never waste time on something you don’t believe in yourself.”
In the epilogue, Dan explains he inherited his father’s passion for writing, which, in addition to sobriety, has helped save his life: “I don’t write clever tales or make up disposable yarns that lend themselves to rehashed TV plots; I write about myself. The reason I write is not to change you but to let you know that you can change. I write about living and dying and falling in love and throwing it all away—then surviving it. I write about madness and death. I write for the survival of my heart. I am swallowed by, and in love with, the miracle of the human condition. My heroes are real people struggling to find their place on a planet. A planet where fitting in has become a disease as powerful as cancer.”
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