Bandini to Hackmuth
- Ask the Dust by John Fante
Rebel Inc, 198 pp, £6.99, September 1999, ISBN 0 86241 987 5
- Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante by Stephen Cooper
Rebel Inc, 406 pp, £16.99, May 2000, ISBN 1 84195 022 X
Between 1938 and 1940, the Italian-American writer John Fante published three books. The first two – Wait until Spring, Bandini (1938) and Ask the Dust (1939) – were novels; the third, Dago Red (1940), was a collection of short stories. All three were well received. Ask the Dust disconcerted some of its reviewers, but Bandini was admired by James Farrell and Steinbeck praised Dago Red. Italian and Norwegian translations were commissioned, Bandini was published in London, and Hollywood optioned both novels. Then, for various reasons, nothing happened. Distracted by a lawsuit brought against them by the German Government for an unauthorised publication of Mein Kampf, his publishers were unable to promote his work. After drinking and gambling away the money he had earned from his books, he took to the Hollywood treadmill as a screenwriter and scenarist. As a serious writer, he was effectively forgotten for almost forty years.
Fante did not publish another novel until 1952, by which time he had returned to the Church. Full of Life, a story about parenthood and religious reawakening, sold well and was made into a sentimental movie starring Judy Holliday and Richard Conte. Backed by a reasonably lavish promotional campaign (‘In a CHANGING world, this motion picture is joyously dedicated to the heartwarming fact that BABIES still come in the same old, wonderfully old-fashioned way!’), the film was profitable and earned Fante a Writers Guild nomination for Best Written American Comedy of 1956. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this did not revive his literary reputation.
Fante’s early novels began to be rediscovered in the 1970s. While researching his screenplay for Chinatown, Robert Towne came across Ask the Dust and took up Fante’s cause. He optioned the novel and persuaded Francis Ford Coppola to do the same for the book Fante was then working on, The Brotherhood of the Grape (1977). In 1978, the poet Charles Bukowski mentioned his debt to Fante in his novel Women; Bukowski’s publisher, John Martin of the Black Sparrow Press, set about reprinting Fante’s books. Bukowski, who had been devoted to both books ‘like a man who had found gold in the city dump’ since discovering them by chance in the early 1950s, contributed an autobiographical preface to Ask the Dust.
Fante’s satisfaction in all this was offset by the fact that, due to diabetic complications exacerbated by his heavy drinking, he was by now both blind and well on the way to losing both his legs. He did, however, manage to dictate a last novel – Dreams from Bunker Hill (1982) – before his death in 1983. Since then, Black Sparrow has continued to print and reprint his writings, including novels and short stories unpublished in his lifetime. Two volumes of his letters had appeared by 1991, and the publication of Stephen Cooper’s biography more or less completes the picture, at least for the time being. Much of the credit for this must go to Fante’s indefatigable widow, whose stewardship of his reputation has played a very large part in the continuing campaign for his induction into the American canon.
Given the devotion his novels inspired in their occasional readers during Fante’s long period in the wilderness, it’s hardly surprising that large claims have been made for his work. Fante has been compared to Dostoevsky, Knut Hamsun, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe, Steinbeck, James Farrell, William Saroyan and Nathanael West. In 1977, a Washington Post reviewer compared The Brotherhood of the Grape to The Brothers Karamazov and King Lear. Hyperbole aside, both Fante’s early novels are excellent – especially Ask the Dust, which does indeed make good on at least some of the comparisons listed above.
The narrator is Arturo Bandini, a young man from a poor Italian family who has moved to Los Angeles to become a writer. He had previously been seen as a boy in Wait until Spring, Bandini; he had also been the protagonist of the then unpublished The Road to Los Angeles, and was later to appear again in Dreams from Bunker Hill as a washed up Hollywood screenwriter. At the start of Ask the Dust he has only published one short story in a magazine edited by the great J.C. Hackmuth, to whom he addresses long and rambling letters whenever he cannot write, which is often. When money arrives, he squanders it. In his seedy hotel room in Bunker Hill, Bandini lives mainly on oranges and infrequent cheques from his mother in Colorado. His room was inhabited by a mouse, Pedro, which Bandini, ‘lover of man and beast alike’, fed on bread and cheese. But he is already so broke in the opening stages of the novel that Pedro has deserted him. Unable to write another story, he composes further letters to Hackmuth on the subject of women and his feeling that he is a great writer.
The heart of the novel deals with Bandini’s romance with a Mexican waitress called Camilla Lopez. He meets her by chance in the bar where she works, and their first conversation sets the tenor of their subsequent relationship. Unreasonably, Bandini has just been abusing her shoes: