Charles Bukowski once called John Fante's Ask the Dust the "finest novel written in all time." Though it's a good idea to factor out the hype quotient in any of King Charles' blurbations, in this case, there's every reason to think he meant it. It makes perfect sense that Bukowski would champion a book whose central character is more or less a perfect evocation of an up-and-coming Charles Bukowski.
Ask the Dust isn't the finest novel ever written—it's about the 40th-best American novel written in the 1930s—but it has an undeniable archetypal power for young angry male LA writers obsessed with crazy women, being (as it is) about a young angry male LA writer obsessed with crazy women. There are a lot of young writers like that around—check the bars around your local community college—and many of them swear by Ask the Dust, which brings together in Arturo Bandini, Fante's surrogate/protagonist, deep class resentment; even deeper sexual confusion; a blunt, unreflective "honesty"; a lyricism about youthful dreams; a desire that's charming when it isn't irritatingly egotistical; and a wild ambition to be a great writer that he counts on to redeem everything. For all those guy writers sitting in hot studio apartments at night guzzling Coronas and ferociously pounding out novels full of a high passion for sex and art, novels they fantasize will someday make women fall at their feet —and you know who you are—John Fante is the man.
Bukowski is more responsible than anyone else for the John Fante renaissance that began in 1980 and culminates now in Cal State Long Beach professor Stephen Cooper's meticulously researched biography, Full of Life. As Cooper points out, the Fante renaissance was a lark. In his 1981 novel Women, Bukowski made a passing reference hailing Fante's talent. That led Bukowski's publisher, Black Sparrow Press, to republish the long out-of-print Ask the Dust, and when that book was a success, they set out to reprint the rest of Fante's work. Fante fans now have all of his published (and even some of his previously unpublished) fiction to pore over, as well as two volumes of letters. Cooper's biography is the first full-scale attempt to give shape to the man's work and life.
Cooper is a pro with the facts. Fante was not a nice man, and Cooper rarely tries to make him one. Growing up in and around Denver and Boulder, Colorado, in the 1910s and '20s, Fante was the son of Italian immigrants, and he was particularly stamped by his father, a bricklayer by trade, though he was more notable for drinking, cheating, gambling, fighting (at the age of 62, he stabbed a man), and beating up his wife and kids. Fante grew up with a talent for street fighting and the boxing ring (he grew to only 5-foot-3, but photos show he had thick brawler's hands and apparently no fear), as well as the usual Catholic concoction of guilt, fear, and confusion between sexual and spiritual transcendence.
Cooper is very strong on Fante's early years, showing how his rage and resentment came from a violent, claustrophobic family environment as well as the anti-Italian/anti-Catholic sentiments pervasive in Colorado at the time. And he nails down Fante's never-resolved ambivalence toward a father he both hated and romanticized and whom he ended up emulating in ways that were fatal for his life and his writing. "Poverty drove me to California," Fante once said, but Cooper makes it clear that what led Fante in 1929 to hitchhike his way to Wilmington, where he initially got work at a fish cannery, was as much a desire to escape his family as it was the Depression. Cooper's terrific on the sun-scorched, hardscrabble atmosphere of LA Harbor, on Wilmington and on Long Beach, where Fante started writing seriously as a junior college student.
Where young writers get their confidence is always a mystery, but Fante's was surely bolstered when H.L. Mencken accepted a story for The American Mercury. A little encouragement was all it took, and soon Fante rented an apartment near Bunker Hill in downtown LA, all cocked up to write a great novel. It didn't hurt that Fante's fictional turf—downtown LA through the eyes of a struggling writer—was virtually virgin territory in those days. Fante's LA fiction is filled with still-fresh descriptions of cafs, bars and seedy dollar-dance halls, of nutjob apartment dwellers disturbing the writer dreaming over his typewriter, of desert winds, of drives down Wilshire Boulevard or Coast Highway, of midnight ocean swims with nude women, and—of course—earthquakes. (Fante, incidentally, wrote his earthquake scene for Ask the Dust at about the same time F. Scott Fitzgerald was doing his for The Last Tycoon.)
Two novels were published in 1938 and 1939, and though they were critical successes and moderate sellers, Fante was disconsolate he didn't make a bigger splash and more money. Now married and needing to support a family, Fante turned to the movies. He knew well enough what Hollywood did to fiction writers. But one of Fante's Achilles' heels was "his ferocious desire to advance himself" by whatever means necessary, and when literary fame didn't beckon, he settled for the cash.
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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.