Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving
By Dan Fante
(Harper Perennial, $14.99, paperback; $9.99, Kindle)
Italian-American novelist and screenwriter John Fante wanted his son Dan to become a plumber or electrician, not a writer or worse, an actor.
He had strong and bitter reasons behind that desire, as Dan Fante movingly notes in this dark and painful, yet ultimately uplifting and triumphant family memoir.
One of John Fante’s novels, Ask the Dust, had been published in 1939 with great expectations and is still respected as a classic look at life in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. Yet it was not a commercial success at the time, largely because the publisher, Stackpole Sons, could not afford to publicize it.
Weirdly, the publisher had “made the dumb and costly blunder of publishing Hitler’s Mein Kampf without the author’s permission,” Dan Fante writes. “The promo money that should have gone to publicize Ask the Dust was spent in New York City courtrooms fighting a protracted lawsuit with the Führer.”
So, to support his family, John Fante returned to writing Hollywood screenplays, including, nearly three decades later, Walk on the Wild Side, and “considered himself a failure as an artist.” His other outlets included too much drinking, too much golf and too much gambling, often in the company of novelist and short story writer William Saroyan, “a loose cannon,” particularly around dice games, Dan Fante notes.
Also: “Pop’s nasty mouth and rages were taking a toll on his life,” to the point that he sometimes punched out movie producers for whom he had been writing or rewriting scripts.
In his brief attempt at college, young Dan Fante had discovered that he was “a fairly decent actor.” But: “…John Fante had utter contempt for the profession, as he did for agents and TV writers and film directors and almost all movie people.” He’d tell his son: “You’re no genius, kid….Get yourself an honest career. Work with your hands.”
Much of the rest of this memoir focuses on Dan Fante’s strained relationship with his father and other family members and on Dan’s attempts to find himself after leaving home and hitchhiking to New York City, hoping to study theater.
Once there, he descends, instead, into a dark, urban hell relentlessly driven and wrecked – over and over again –by alcoholism, drugs, an often uncontrolled sex drive and numerous moments where he goes right up to the edge of committing suicide.
Dan Fante recounts how he tried many different schemes to survive, and some of them, such as working in the limousine business, briefly made him rich and brought him into the company of famous and powerful clients — but only when he was able to sober up and stay focused.
Ultimately, he hits bottom too many times and finally can’t get up again. In the meantime, he loses his father and older brother to alcoholism, as well.
But he does, at least, reconcile with his father shortly before John Fante’s death: “We had become a loving father and son after a rocky thirty-year start. John Fante’s gift to me was his ambition, his brilliance, and his pure writer’s heart.”
At age 47, Dan Fante finally went home again in utter defeat, lugging three garbage bags “filled with all that I owned up the front walkway of my mom’s house.”
What happens next is a tough but inspiring true story of how a writer finally was able to find his voice, his focus, his legacy and his stability in life. It is a story rich with lessons and messages for almost anyone currently struggling to succeed as a novelist, screenwriter, writer of nonfiction or practitioner of virtually any other creative endeavor.
– Si Dunn