As in life, he seems forever on the brink of eclipse, so finding his work comes as a revelation to successive generations of readers. How did you find him?
I came upon John Fante‘s Ask the Dust by the window on the first floor of Waterstone’s Piccadilly. It wasn’t a very cool way to discover him – he was there as part of a half-table promotion on cult writers and renegades, alongside James Joyce, Richard Brautigan, William Burroughs and Irvine Welsh – but it still felt like an epiphany.
“Los Angeles, give me some of you!” pleads aspiring writer Arturo Bandini in the opening chapter. “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 …”
As I read I forgot to breathe. Fante’s sentences ran into a dark wilderness; a winded substratum of 30s LA. I felt dared and defiled and improved; like I’d joined a secret club consisting of everyone in the universe who wants to write:
“Only two words written over and over across the page, up and down, the same words: palm tree, palm tree, palm tree, a battle to the death between the palm tree and me, and the palm tree won: see it out there swaying in the blue air, creaking sweetly in the blue air.“
The frankness, the spare and open description, was shaming and expansive all at once. I couldn’t believe no one had ever told me that Holden Caulfield, that neurotic miracle, had this wild older brother:
“They say it’s a dollar, they say it’s two dollars in the swell places, but down on the Plaza it’s a dollar; swell, only you haven’t got a dollar, and another thing, you coward, even if you had a dollar you wouldn’t go, because you had a chance to go once in Denver and you didn’t.“
Today, at 11am the Los Angeles Visionaries Association invites you to the corner of 5th & Grand, next to the library in downtown LA. This is the library where Charles Bukowski took Ask the Dust back to his desk “like a man who had found gold in the city dump”. He spent years attempting to rescue Fante, whom he called “a God” of energy and form, but Fante remained an outsider, buried under Raymond Chandler, then Hollywood, then Depression-era reading lists partial to Steinbeck and Harper Lee. Now, though, on the 101st anniversary of his birth, the city is renaming that intersection John Fante Square.
Like his Square, Fante-the-author is generally happened upon; never really finding his own audience but always surviving another curve. His writing, though, is so clean and clear that it speaks plainly and entirely for itself. “The book,” writes Bukowski, “is yours”.
So let’s get this 101st birthday party started. How did you discover John Fante?