Through All the Lousy Luck: Robert Towne's 'Ask the Dust' and the Saga of John Fante

by Mike Ferraro

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I.

It is with more than a little irony that director Robert Towne's new film, Ask the Dust, adapted from L.A. novelist John Fante's 1939 book of the same name, is poised to thrust Fante and his work into the limelight, a feat that proved so elusive to the writer during his long career. Ironic indeed that Hollywood, that celluloid town where John Fante spent nearly fifty years as a screenwriter, may finally — ultimately — be responsible for garnering his work the recognition and acclaim that Fante dreamed of his entire life.

Towne's film, from Paramount Pictures, released in the US March of 2006, marks the final chapter in a production saga that spans almost thirty years. Since the late Seventies, Robert Towne has been trying to tell this story, to make this film, but something, usually money, kept getting in the way.

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The film that finally got made has all the earmarks of an American classic: an Academy Award winning screenwriter adapts a timeless love story, set in Depression Era downtown Los Angeles, with some of Hollywood's biggest names on the roll call: Colin Farrell plays the tormented young anti-hero, Arturo Bandini, and Salma Hayek is the love interest, Camilla Lopez, a fiery Mexican beauty. Donald Sutherland, Eileen Atkins and Idina Menzel round out the rest of the all-star cast. The film is executively produced by Tom Cruise.

John Fante would be pleased.

But Ask the Dust isn't your typical Hollywood love story. It is an intoxicating account of a young man in love, yes; but it is a young man in love with a woman, in love with a city and in love with writing, and it has been touted as the greatest novel ever written about Los Angeles from the likes of Charles Bukowski to Towne himself.

To get a sense of the manic exuberance and lyrical dexterity on display throughout this Bildungsroman, revel in this bit from the opening pages of the novel: "Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town." [1] Certainly it is John Fante himself beseeching this apostrophe of love in unison alongside his young alter-ego protagonist for this, his city of dreams.

According to Dan Fante [2], the late novelist's son, Towne's adaptation of his father's 1939 novel is accurate and faithful to the spirit of the story; a story that Dan believes continues to resonate with audiences through the years because of the complete self-honesty of its protagonist, Fante's wonderfully-realized alter-ego, Arturo Bandini. "I liked Towne's film," Dan said in a recent interview, "What he's done with my father's book works. Arturo's struggle is timeless. Because of the self-honesty of the character, the novel could have been written yesterday."

When asked to consider what John Fante's opinion of the film would be, the novelist's son replied: "He would have liked it for the same reasons I do. Robert Towne is a good filmmaker. The film works. Hopefully people will be driven to buy the book and experience the real thing."

Dan agreed that this film represents the culmination of events, thus far, in regards to John Fante's literary revival, a restoration from the brink of obscurity that began over twenty-five years ago: "My father would be pleased. His books sell. That's all he really ever cared about. He wanted people to read his stuff. That's what he wanted, what he really cared about in prayer and in the pain of creation. He was an artist. He wanted to live in people's heads…He always said he was the best writer in America. Now he's smiling back and laughing his ass off from a hole in the ground."

The candor and directness of tone evinced here, equal parts braggadocio intermixed with wry humor and honesty, is the essence of John Fante's work. And the work of his son. Dan Fante is an accomplished and internationally celebrated author of a trilogy of novels, a book of short stories, two plays, and a collection of poems. In typical Fante fashion, Dan deadpans on his own career: "People read my books in England. I'm actually a successful writer in Europe, believe it or not…well, sort of."

But Dan's self-deprecating modesty isn't fooling anyway. Like his father before him, Dan Fante is an American original, telling tales of the underside of the American Dream in a hard-boiled, direct style reminiscent of Hubert Selby, Jr., Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, and, of course, John Fante. And also like his father, Dan's star is on the rise.

While being acutely aware of his father's legacy and people's eagerness to compare the son to the father, Dan keeps an eye and ear to the past as he barrels on into the present. Further, Dan's work is vital and fresh and timeless in its own right, in a similar but markedly different way as his father's work continues to be. In fact, when asked to compare his fictional alter-ego, Bruno Dante, with that of his father's, Arturo Bandini, Dan had this to say: "Two alter egos of two first-person novelists. Different men in different times with very different objectives."

Elaborating on the influence of John Fante on his life and his work, and on the different literary aims between father and son, Dan remarked: "I loved my old man but he was a son-of-a-bitch. Difficult, moody, explosive. It was like living at the foot of Mt. Vesuvius. Pop had the personality of a misanthropic Jesuit. Only after his death did I develop the compassion I have for him now. But because we did not get along while he was alive does not mean that we did not love each other. We loved each other very much."

"He was my ideal as a writer," Dan muses on his father. "Uncompromising, honest, and always from the heart…My father and I had — have — different goals as writers. My objective through my work has been to change the way people think. To challenge people and make them uncomfortable. To change the way people think about literature and themselves. I believe that John Fante wanted recognition and praise from his peers and that was enough…His greatest disappointment was that he never achieved true recognition in his lifetime."

In order to fully appreciate the passion of John Fante — his early literary success, his many years as a screenwriter in Hollywood, his disappointments and bitterness — we must start at the beginning, before all the stuff of his life unfolded, when his future lie waiting, spread out like a "patient white animal" [3] in the desert sand.

To uncover a life, that, to quote Bukowski, is "a story of terrible luck and a terrible fate and of a rare and natural courage." [4]

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II.

The son of an Italian bricklayer, John Fante hitchhiked to California from Boulder, Colorado with three dollars in his pocket at age twenty-one. Upon arriving in Wilmington, California in 1930, he worked odd jobs where he could — as a busboy, as a stevedore, or in the fish cannery — all the while writing stories and harboring huge literary ambitions. Soon Fante began a correspondence with the great iconoclast H.L. Mencken and published his first story in the Mencken edited American Mercury in 1932. Successive stories were sold to The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, Collier's and The Saturday Evening Post, where Fante's best story, 'Helen Thy Beauty Is to Me — ' first appeared.

The young man's career as a fiction writer looked promising as Fante continued to place stories in the magazine market and saw the publication of his first novel, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, in 1938, followed the following year by a second novel, Ask the Dust, published in late 1939.

It is here that John Fante's luck took a nose dive. In a bizarre twist of fate, just as Ask the Dust was getting ready to hit the shelves, Fante’s publishers, Stackpole & Sons, found themselves embroiled in a lawsuit with Adolph Hitler over an unauthorized American pressing of Mein Kampf. Tied up in litigation for several years, and ultimately losing to Hitler in the American courts, Fante's publishers spent the publicity money for Ask the Dust on lawyers in a costly legal battle. And, unfortunately for John Fante, despite excellent reviews, Ask the Dust managed to sell less than three thousand copies in its first printing. A respectable run, perhaps, but far from a best seller. The novel that was supposed to cement John Fante's literary career and give him the recognition he felt he deserved fell flat.

Chronically broke and a newlywed, John Fante took his mentor Mencken's advice and began to look elsewhere for a steady income from writing. As Dan Fante tells it in the introduction to a UK reprint of Wait Until Spring, Bandidi, John Fante began his screenwriting career in Hollywood almost by accident:

"These were the days of The Great Depression and times were tough. Damn tough. One night in 1934 at Musso/Frank's Restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard, John Fante's drinking buddy and fellow pinball addict, Frank Fenton, came up with a money-making scheme; an idea for a story the two of them could write and sell to the movies — a gangster rip off of a John Dillinger theme. Fenton knew a guy at one of the studios. A story editor named Ross Wills. Pop was broke, as usual, and so was willing to try anything to hustle a buck. In a few days the two finished the nonsense and submitted it to Warner Brothers. Schazaam! By the end of the week John Fante had his first job as a screenwriter. Two hundred and fifty bucks a week. A fortune! From then on, for the remainder of his best writing years, my father would squeeze the udders of this fat financial sow for every buck he could get." [5]

Putting his literary pursuits aside, Fante soon began making big money as a studio-contracted screenwriter in Hollywood, working and carousing with a rotating set of writers that included, at different times, William Faulkner, Nathanael West, and William Saroyan.

Meanwhile John Fante's literary reputation began to dwindle as his early books went out of print and the relentless demands of Hollywood and family life clamped down on him. Here Dan is adamant on how these early years in the film business affected his father: "He hated writing movies. Every minute. Hated agents and directors and producers. He wanted to go back to novels but felt trapped by the big money…The easy money was in movies and Pop loved the easy life. He and Saroyan and Fenton and his crazy screenwriter pals…When, in the early Forties, his first few chapters of The Little Brown Brothers [Fante's ill-fated follow up to Ask the Dust] were flatly rejected by his publisher, John Fante threw in the towel for about eight years. He played poker and golf and had babies. Booze and depression kicked his ass for years."

"And let's not forget his delightful personality," the son continues, "His friends were scared to cross him. He had a tongue like a razor and used it freely and without discrimination on producers, agents, and anyone who could be helpful. People did not cross John Fante. If they did he got right in their face…Anyway, that's my synopsis of the John Fante career up to 1950."

The maverick Fante was always an outsider in a town of insiders according to his son, even to the detriment of his career: "One of his best friends, Carey McWilliams, who edited The Nation Magazine for years, wanted Pop to come to several Hollywood parties in the Forties as liberalism was sweeping tinsel town. Pop wouldn't go ever to help his screenwriting career. Maybe it was Mencken's influence, but he refused to join anything, left or right. And, interestingly, not joining cost him dearly because he was passed over for film work by the 'in' crowd."

As the Fifties rolled into the Sixties Fante became increasingly occupied in screenwriting, turning further and further away from his beloved fiction writing. In Dan Fante's first novel, Chump Change, he perfectly captures the divisiveness of his father's life through the recollections of his alter-ego, Bruno Dante, as rendered in the following excerpt:

"The house was paid for entirely by Dante's movie salary earnings. The old man had finally stopped turning down lucrative film assignments and had completely given up being a novelist. After years of writing straight fiction and nearly starving, it was an easy decision.

We moved to Malibu when I was still young, but I could still remember this house and his rages here. It was here that, day in and day out, he rewrote stacks of scripts and reworked scenes on shooting deadlines. Here he had begun to earn the big money. Success and rage stuck to every wall of the place like black jam.

In this house, I was to experience what happens when a passionate artist gives up what he loves and comes to detest himself. Here, I had witnessed my father’s drunkenness and seen him treat those closest to him with contempt and bitterness, while he’d watched his pay checks get bigger and bigger." [6]

Still, despite the mounting frustrations and bitterness, there were several big film scores and literary triumphs during the intervening decades from when Fante first transitioned from fiction writing to screenwriting and the beginning of the resurgence of interest in his early work towards the end of his life. His family comedy novel, Full of Life (1952), was adapted into a successful film which Fante also penned the screenplay. Some other notable film credits include Jeanne Eagels, My Man and I, The Reluctant Saint, Something for a Lonely Man, My Six Loves and Walk on the Wild Side. Fante's wisest and most mature novel, The Brotherhood of the Grape, originally appeared in 1977 right as renewed interest in his early work was building.

John Fante's literary restoration began in earnest during the fall of 1978 when a young L.A. Times book critic named Ben Pleasants showed up at the Fante Malibu home on Point Dume to conduct the first in a series of interviews with the aging and ailing writer. Over the course of the next year and a half, Pleasants and Fante met a half dozen times, tape recording their conversations on topics as far ranging and disparate as Los Angeles in the Thirties to the mechanics of Fante's prose. Pleasants article, 'Stories of Irony from the Hand of John Fante', published in the Los Angeles Times Book Review on July 9th, 1979, generated the first wave of interest in the nearly forgotten novelist.

Through Pleasants, Charles Bukowski brought his self-professed God's work to the attention of his publishers at Black Sparrow Press and the reprint edition of Ask the Dust appeared in 1980 after being out of print for close to thirty years. Reprints of Wait Until Spring, Bandini and Fante's collection of short fiction, republished, with previously uncollected stories, as The Wine of Youth: Selected Stories, quickly followed.

Tragically, by this time John Fante was blind with both legs amputated due to complications from advanced diabetes, yet the renewed interest in his work invigorated him with the confidence and inspiration necessary to complete his last novel, Dreams from Bunker Hill, composed by dictation to his wife, Joyce. Finding Fante at his literary and comedic best, this novel revisits those early years in downtown Los Angeles once more, and for the last time, through the eyes of young Arturo Bandini.

Subsequently all of John Fante's books have been republished, first by Black Sparrow Press, now by Ecco Press, including previously unpublished works like The Road to Los Angeles (1985), 1933 Was a Bad Year (1985), West of Rome (1986), and The Big Hunger: Stories 1932-1959 (2000), along with two volumes of letters, John Fante & H. L. Mencken: A Personal Correspondence 1930-1952 (1989) and Selected Letters 1932-1981 (1991), and The John Fante Reader (William Morrow, 2002). Most recently The Bandini Quartet was published in 2004 by Edinburgh's Canongate Books, marking the first time the four installments of 'The Saga of Arturo Bandini' have been published together as one volume.

Posthumously recognized in 1987 with a Lifetime Achievement Award by PEN, Los Angeles, John Fante died at the age of 74 on May 8, 1983.

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III.

The myriad complications and conflicts of John Fante's life — the lousy luck, the allure of Hollywood, the struggle between commerce and art — are all given voice in Dan’s new play, Don Giovanni (Burning Shore Press, 2006), an operatic, tragicomic homage to his family and late father. Fante says he wanted to write something that captured his father's personality and the way John Fante related to his family. It would appear that he achieved his goal. "After my mother read the play she telephoned me," recalled Dan, "She said, 'It was like your father was in the room with me. Like a haunting.'"

The two act play dramatizes a Dante family reunion on the eve of frail patriarch Jonathan Dante's seventieth birthday. The play depicts Jonathan, the aged and sick screenwriter and forgotten novelist, in the midst of great family upheaval and discontent. Like most families, age-old wounds fester and lingering resentments abound. What is unique here is how deftly and unflinchingly Dan Fante walks his audience through the wreckage of the Dante family's most intimate and heart-rendingly brutal moments. Spectators will wince as razor-sharp dialogue lacerates the players throughout as the scenes devolve to illuminate the carnage of the dysfunctions, scandals and bruised and bruising egos of the entire Dante family as they grapple with the reality of the looming demise and agonizing physical decline of Jonathan Dante. But the play, ultimately, is one of reconciliation, of the healing and lasting strength of family bonds in the face of insurmountable loss and adversity. In a word, the play is tremendous. And with any luck, will find its way to the stage in productions on both coasts in 2006.

It is about time. The Fantes, father and son, have waited a long time for this moment, to be on the precipice of mainstream success and recognition that proved so elusive these many years.

Now on the eve of the theatrical release of Ask the Dust, when asked how he would like his and his father's work to be remembered, Dan surmised: "My father's work has found its place. He'd be delighted with what has happened. As for my work, my novel Chump Change is the best novel written in the last thirty years. A seminal novel. I'm waiting for someone somewhere to recognize that. I don't care about the rest."

Ah, that old Fante bravado, it is, as ever, a joy to behold.

Endnotes
[1] Fante, John. Ask the Dust. Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1980: 13.
[2] Unless cited otherwise all quotes from Dan Fante are taken from email correspondence (October 21 and 31, 2005) and an interview Q & A done in three parts (I: November 2, 2005, II: November 4, 2005, III: November 9, 2005).
[3] Fante, John. Ask the Dust: 120.
[4] Bukowski, Charles. Preface. Ask the Dust. By John Fante. Santa Barbara, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1980: 7.
[5] Fante, Dan. Introduction. Wait Until Spring, Bandini. By John Fante. Edinburgh, UK: Canongate Books, 1999.
[6] Fante, Dan. Chump Change. Northville, Michigan: Sun Dog Press, 1998: 83-84.

© Mike Ferraro 2006

[This article first appeared on Laura Hird and is reproduced with permission of the author.]


Mike Ferraro is a writer and musician, and completed an honors thesis at Rutgers University entitled 'The Only Freckle-Faced Wop on Earth: Identity, Anger and Shame in the Early Novels of John Fante' in 2001. He is currently at work on his first novel, Due Diligence. He also paints.