John Fante: The Man Who Made Bukowski

“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!”

In Charles Bukowski’s book Women, there is a scene where an elderly dignified woman introduces herself as an English teacher doing a school paper. She asks Bukowski who his favourite author is. His single word reply: “Fante.”
“Who?” She asks.
“John F—a—n—t—e.”

Who is John Fante? How is it that one of America’s greatest early 20th century novelists became largely unknown? The first time I read John Fante’s Ask the Dust, I knew I was reading something incredible that I could not put down. There wasn’t an English class that I’d ever been in that could teach you how to write like this. Such intimacy and total raw emotion on every single line as if the untapped unconscious of writer flowed flawlessly on the page.

Bukowski, in an introduction to Fante’s novel, goes on to say:

“I was a young man, starving and drinking and trying to be a writer. I did most of my reading at the downtown L.A. Public Library, and nothing that I read related to me or to the streets or to the people about me.”

“Then one day I pulled a book down and opened it, and there it was. I stood for a moment, reading. Then like a man who had found gold in the city dump, I carried the book to a table. The lines rolled easily across the page, there was a flow. Each line had its own energy and was followed by another like it. The very substance of each line gave the page a form, a feeling of something carved into it. And here, at last, was a man who was not afraid of emotion. The humour and the pain were intermixed with a superb simplicity. The beginning of that book was a wild and enormous miracle to me.”

The book had a similar effect on Robert Towne, who had struggled while doing research for the film Chinatown to find any real voices for LA during the 1930’s Great Depression. All the dialogue he read sounded unbelievable and lacked authenticity. That was until he found Fante’s distinctive voice and knew instantly he had found someone that captured the time in a deeply honest light.

A struggling American writer of Italian descent, Fante’s novels followed his protagonist Arturo Bandini, much like Bukowski’s influenced protagonist Henry Chinaski. In both cases, the author and protagonist are one and the same, each book an autobiography to the writer’s soul.

Charles Bukowski

Ask the Dust not only captured the dreams and desires of a struggling drifter, but also the social prejudices that came along with being a poor peasant of Italian decent not accepted by the society at large. These feelings of not fitting in are further compounded when he falls in love with Camilla Lopez, who equally struggles with her Mexican heritage. Outsiders in a city built on celluloid dreams, wrestling with conflicting identities, both fiercely proud but also deeply ashamed of whom they are, a great chasm separating both their worlds.

“I have vomited at their newspapers, read their literature, observed their customs, eaten their food, desired their women, gaped at their art. But I am poor, and my name ends with a soft vowel, and they hate me and my father, and my father’s father, and they would have my blood and put me down, but they are old now, dying in the sun and in the hot dust of the road, and I am young and full of hope and love for my country and my times, and when I say Greaser to you it is not my heart that speaks, but the quivering of an old wound, and I am ashamed of the terrible thing I have done.”

Ask the Dust was poised at its release in 1939 to propel Fante to being one of the all-time greats. Unfortunately, due to an immensely tragic string of bad luck and poor timing, the book came out as his publisher Stackpole and Sons was being sued by the German government and Hitler for the unauthorised publication of Mein Kampf. Due to the lawsuit, the novel failed to receive the financial backing to promote it and was buried under the success of books like the Grapes of Wrath and The Big Sleep.

Bitterly disappointed, Fante faded into obscurity, his failure forcing him to start grinding out the unrewarding work of a hack Hollywood screenwriter. This, he described in a letter, as “a nerve wrecking jittery existence and in the last analysis not worthwhile, Hollywood is a bad place it kills writers.”

After decades of working a job he despised, in 1975 he lost his sight to diabetes and later had to have both his legs removed. It was around this time that Bukowski, with the help from his editor, managed to get in contact with his literary hero and together helped republish all of Fante’s major novels through his publishing arm Black Sparrow Press. This incredible act renewed interest and pushed Fante, despite his ill health, to write his last and final book in the Arturo Bandini saga before he passed away.

“There came over me a terrifying sense of understanding about the meaning and the pathetic destiny of men. The desert was always there, a patient white animal, waiting for men to die, for civilizations to flicker and pass into the darkness. Then men seemed brave to me, and I was proud to be numbered among them. All the evil of the world seemed not evil at all, but inevitable and good and part of that endless struggle to keep the desert down.”

Fante’s writing found a new resurgence in popularity only after his death thanks to Bukowski. It’s amazing to think that the immense legacy they both leave behind was built off each other’s as it’s hard to say if either would be relevant today if it wasn’t for the other.

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