John Fante’s Ask The Dust is one of the finest American novels of the Twentieth Century. It was also basically lost for 40 years after its 1939 publication. In fact, it may have remained forgotten forever had it not been for a drunken poet by the name of Charles Bukowski.
The Bukowski connection is telling, because the legacy of alcohol runs deep in the Fante family. Fante: A Memoir is the autobiography of Dan Fante, John’s son. His recollections of growing up with a hard-drinking father who abandoned his art for decades to write for Hollywood are both heartbreaking and hilarious.
John Fante was an old-school Italian, a man for who wine, friends, and gambling always came before family. Reading Dan’s account of those years is fascinating. He describes a Southern California that is gone forever, and sounds idyllic, from the outside at least. It also sounds like he went through hell.
Dan Fante got out of the house as quickly as possible, first by working as a carny at Pacific Ocean Park. As he describes it, POP was the sleaziest carnival show in town. The fresh paint and ocean beach initially worked to mask the true identity of the place, but it came through anyway.
The bulk of the book is taken up with Dan’s experiences in New York. He left to put as much distance as he could between him and his unhappy childhood home, and wound up spending 18 years there. Fante’s vivid recollections of what the city was like during the sixties and seventies are powerfully evocative. His time there reads like an extended version of Midnight Cowboy, in all of its down and out glory.
There are flashes of insight throughout. Fante occasionally gives himself “the cure,” with dire results. This was in the years before much was known about alcoholism, and the various ways the author tries to deal with his problem are harrowing.
When he finally returns to California in the late seventies, John Fante’s diabetes has him pretty debilitated. It is heartwarming to find the two making up all those years later. John encourages Dan with his writing, and Dan comes to understand just how incredibly talented his father always was.
John Fante lived to finally get some recognition for books such as Ask The Dust and Wait Until Spring, Bandini. But he would not live long enough to see John Fante Square in Los Angeles’ old Bunker Hill neighborhood.
Dan Fante definitely has inherited his father’s talent for a well turned phrase, and Fante is bittersweet remembrance of days gone by.