This is a monthly column on the writing process. Topics will range from books and authors to writing conferences and workshops to the writing process itself.
Fante: A Family's Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving. by Dan Fante. Harper Perennial. $14.99.
Every once in a while - a great, long while - a book comes along that profoundly chronicles the impact that life has on the writing process and vice versa. That's exactly the case with Dan Fante's memoir of himself and his father, John Fante.
Dan Fante is a writer in his own right, as his memoir attests. Beyond that, though, the younger Fante authored a number of other works, including 86'd, Chump Change, Mooch, Spitting Off Tall Buildings, Short Dog: Cab Driver Stories from the L.A. Street, Don Giovanni: A Play, Kissed by a Fat Waitress: New Poems and a collection of poetry with a title that we can't print.
Dan Fante is a wonderful writer - as wonderful as was his father. However, both suffered from the hereditary disease of alcoholism - a disease that unfortunately seems to target many writers. Dan Fante's grandfather and great-grandfather were alcoholics as well. As he said at the beginning of chapter 41, "My grandfather's and his father's before him and my own father's lives were ravaged by booze. And of course my brother's life was destroyed too."
For a good part of his life, Dan Fante had a love/hate relationship with his father, mainly hate when he was younger. It was a hate though that was born from his feeling that his father neither loved nor respected him. And when John Fante finally did acknowledge that, yes, maybe his son Dan had what it took for his son to become a writer, Dan's life did a 180.
Dan Fante's memoir is just the tip of the iceberg, though. To truly appreciate it, you have to understand John Fante.
Like his son Dan, John Fante's work was highly autobiographical. Writers particularly like him because he offers a very realistic portrayal of what it takes to become a writer.
The republication of Ask the Dust, heralded with a particularly significant introduction by Charles Bukowski, was probably the most important factor in the resurrection of John Fante's work. A contemporary of Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck, he actually had a far longer career, writing clear into the 1980s, dictating his last work to his wife Joyce after he had been blinded by diabetes.
Ask the Dust contains what is probably one of the most moving passages that John Fante ever wrote. His character, Arturo Bandini, desperately pursues his lost-love Camilla (actually based on a real girl who in fact pursued Fante), follows her trail to a shack in a desert where he finds the dying and abusive man with whom she was living. Finally, though, Arturo has something to show her - his first novel. Sammy, the man Camilla was living with, had written him a postcard and asked him to come take her off his hands.
Arturo gets there, only to find that Camilla had walked off into the desert three days before with nothing but her dog and a bottle of milk. He searches for her fruitlessly, then comes back to Sammy's shack.
I found a pencil, opened the book to the fly leaf, and wrote:
I carried the book a hundred yards into the desolation, toward the southeast. With all my might I threw it far out in the direction she had gone. Then I got into the car, started the engine, and drove back to Los Angeles.
Like his son, John Fante wrote about his own father's alcoholism, perhaps best chronicled in The Brotherhood of the Grape, when he struggles with his father's alcoholism as the elderly Italian-American insists that John help with a masonry project. John Fante's father was in fact a master mason who was responsible for building many of the brick and stone structures that stand in Boulder, Colo. to this day - and probably will for the next hundred years.
In 1933 Was a Bad Year, John Fante tells how he stole his father's cement mixer - something he actually did - to raise the money to go to California and try out for major league baseball. After guilt strikes him as he drives past his grandfather's grave, he returns the cement mixer and his father hits him, then asks why he did it, that he knew his son was not a thief. In the end, his father sells the cement mixer himself and gives him the money - a poignant demonstration of unequivocal love of a father for his son. But he buys the mixer back for his father - for more than twice as much as he had sold it.
John Fante's other works include The Big Hunger, West or Rome, Full of Life, The Wine of Youth, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, Dreams From Bunker Hill (the book he dictated to his wife Joyce after he had been blinded by diabetes after a lifetime of drinking) and John Fante: Selected Letters 1932-1981.
Dan Fante's memoir is not a book for the squeamish. He writes about the seedy side of the seedy side. But it's a hard-hitting book, one that's impossible to put down. And it's a wonderful key to John Fante's work.