Sound, Fury, Waste

John Fantes journey from promising writer to aging reactionary

The last third of Cooper's biography recounts Fante's screenwriting life, and though it's spiced up with events such as Fante's drunken night with William Faulkner at Musso & Frank's (Fante should've asked Faulkner—who knew—how to use Hollywood rather than let Hollywood use him) or his work as a scenarist for Orson Welles, mostly it's a depressing grind through the movie factory's machinery. Fante got some writing credit on 12 movies, but none of them is memorable today. It all adds up to a colossal waste, and Fante knew it. In the long intervals between jobs, Fante would often do nothing but drink, gamble, brawl and—odd development here —golf, ignoring his family and growing cryptically into his own father's skin. The fiction he did write was published by the most masscult of markets: Good Housekeeping, Reader's Digest—he became an apologist for postwar reactionary culture, the early rebel in him sucked out by his desire for success.

In the 1970s, he not only went blind but also had to have both his legs amputated due to complications from a diabetes condition he'd neglected for years. Cooper's narrative through this pathetic period is responsibly thorough but not particularly evocative emotionally: he can't seem to decide whether Fante's later years have any of the real makings of tragedy. That indecisiveness haunts the book in the end: How are we supposed to look at Fante now? Cooper's warts-and-all objectivity about the waste of Fante's life and more crucially about Fante's neglect of his talent while scamming for Hollywood coin jars with Cooper's obvious love for Fante's work.

But it's only the work that justifies the biography, and precious little of that will endure: Ask the Dust, maybe his frenzied letters to Mencken. Cooper says Fante's work deserves "a place among the finest achievements of 20th-century American writing," but aside from a few quotations from scattered critics, Cooper does little to justify the claim. I have no doubt that Full of Life will be the "definitive" biography, as they say, but that may be because after reading this, who will be inspired to say much more? Fante doesn't come off as "full of life" for more than the few years that led up to his one good novel. After that, it was sound and fury, one more American life without a second act.

Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante by Stephen Cooper; North Point Press. 496 pages. $30 hardcover.

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