Mining the gold in the city dump

Kate Kordich Fante bookAsher Brauner interviews Catherine J. Kordich

One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the very middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life, because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I got out: that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed. (opening sentence of Ask the Dust, 1939)

John Fante (1909-1983) was a brilliant, ground-breaking novelist, short story writer and screenwriter, an American treasure ranking with Kerouac or Fitzgerald. But his works long languished in obscurity. Late in his life, his long out-of-print novels were reissued, and a cult following soon blossomed. Today, his growing renown is evident in the critical attention paid to his work. This past year has seen the publication of a literary biography, an anthology of essays, and a critical examination of Fante’s work.

Santa Cruz author Kate Kordich has just published a fascinating Fante study that combines biography with critical analysis–as well as a wide array of amusing anecdotes. I interviewed her recently to learn why Fante (rhymes with Dante) has such a devoted following.

Asher Brauner: In City of Quartz, a social history of Los Angeles, John Fante is described as head of a “one-man school of wino writing“.

Kate Kordich: The worst description of John Fante extant. I think it reflects a confusion between Fante and Charles Bukowski, a true wino writer, who was an outspoken and long-time admirer of Fante’s. When Bukowski was a young man, he came across a Fante novel in the L.A. library. He said it was like “finding gold in the city dump.” Bukowski got his publisher to republish the novel, forty years after it had gone out of print. Joyce Fante, John’s widow, tells me that the Bukowskis came over to the Fante’s for dinner a couple of times and that Charles Bukowski was a well-mannered guy. I find that terribly disappointing.

AB: So Fante’s not a “wino writer”?
KK: I do think his best work is set in wino-rich areas–principally downtown L.A. during the Depression. Fante’s characters search for themselves and their art amidst other lost souls: taxi-hall dancers, winos, prostitutes, hard–working Filipino laborers, Midwesterners in the thrall of evangelists. Fante’s protagonists have a lot of pitfalls, but wino-ism is the least of their problems.

AB: What’s your favorite line from a Fante novel?
KK: It’s an Arturo Bandini reverie, from Ask the Dust: “Los Angeles, give me some of you, come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town”.

AB: Sounds sentimental.

KK: That’s the part of Fante that I think is moving. While he is not afraid to let characters show their most brutal aspects–they’re rampant racial-epithet hurlers–they also reveal more sentimental, loving sides, as evident in their reveries. He’s an emotional, funny, candid, obnoxious writer.

AB: The few people I know who’ve read Fante don’t just like him–they revere him. Why isn’t Fante better known?

KK: Fante had weird luck, the bad cancelling out the good. When he was just starting to write in the early thirties, he boldly sent stories and very personal notes directly to H.L. Mencken of the American Mercury, one of the country’s most prestigious literary magazines. Mencken eventually started publishing Fante’s stories. Publishing contracts and a well–received first novel followed–Wait Until Spring, Bandini. The next year he wrote Ask the Dust, which most consider his greatest novel. The publishing house was set to promote the hell out of it when they were sued by–of all people–Adolf Hitler, for publishing an unauthorized version of Mein Kampf. Within a year the house was out of business. Ask the Dust bit the dust for forty years.

AB: Did Fante stop writing after that?

KK: He didn’t publish a novel again until 1952 (Full of Life) and then there was a twenty–five year gap until 1977 when he published The Brotherhood of the Grape. All through those years he started and gave up on novels, some of which have been published posthumously. Late in life he said that he “pissed away those years” (raising a family). According to his wife Joyce, who’s still around, mostly he golfed and gambled. Fante and William Saroyan were good friends and gambling partners–Joyce Fante has a framed, never–cashed check from Saroyan, a gambling debt for $10,000, dated from the ’50s.

AB: So how did Fante pay the mortgage?

KK: Screenwriting. It made him well-off on the first of each month and broke, thanks to gambling, by the last. Wealthy but bitter–it’s an extension of the dualities that preoccupied Fante during his entire life. He grew up in a very Anglo town, the poor son of an Italian immigrant, forever having to prove himself, always on the verge of fisticuffs. He wanted to live the American Dream, but detested Middle American exclusion. In his writing his sympathies are with the ethnic and economic outsiders, but in life he became as bourgeois as he ever hoped/dreaded. But as a screenwriter he did get to carouse with luminaries like Saroyan, Faulkner, and Nathanael West. Fante met F. Scott Fitzgerald and later could only recall extreme disappoinment at Fitzgerald’s sickly handshake. Fante was one of many writers who felt they had sold their souls to the devil writing tacky screenplays. One thing I admire about Fante the early novelist is that he knew how marketable books about Hollywood were, but wrote instead about the real Los Angeles. Too many writers collapse the two, making the whole region one big movie set and everything that takes place within it an illusion.

AB: Fante’s work is categorized as “biography/literature”. Does one aspect predominate?

KK: No, because Fante’s life was never far from his work. His stories and novels are told in the first person and his protagonists are Italian-American authors struggling for success or to maintain their art or make peace with their allegiances.

AB: Why is Fante’s reputation growing now?

KK: Fante’s novels address very comtemporary questions of ethnic identity, place, the urban experience. And we small band of zealots are finally getting word out into the more general readership. He’s a truly gifted novelist with a particular flair for character and place sketches, but also vigorous dramatic action. Any attention he is now receiving is long overdue.

Asher Brauner is a staff member at Bookshop Santa Cruz.

Catherine J. Kordich is the author of John Fante (Twayne’s United States Authors Series)

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