Shanghaied in Tinseltown–A great American Writer-JR
John Fante was one of America’s great writers, encountering equal measures of victory and defeat during a decades-long career. But did Hollywood strangle his talent, or did he do it himself?
Los Angeles, give me some of you! 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.
–”Ask the Dust,” 1939
In the company of writers, when the conversation turns to the serendipity of literary fame — great writers unpublished; lousy ones celebrated — sooner or later the name John Fante will come up. Not everyone will know of him — not on the East Coast, anyway — but those who do will respond with feeling. To them, he’ll be one of the precious proofs of literary justice: a moral story illustrating all the ills of Hollywood and the immortality of talent; a rare and precious illustration that talent, no matter what the odds, will out.
As always with these stories of virtue rewarded, it’s a three-act morality play. In Fante’s case, it starts in 1930 when an impoverished young Italian-American man escapes his suffocating home in Colorado, armed only with a Jesuit high school education and the insane desire to write novels, and challenges Depression-era Los Angeles to deny him his glory. Flash forward to 1978, and Act 2: The aged hero sits in a wheelchair in his luxurious Malibu, Calif., house, having lost limb and eyesight to diabetes. Between the two scenes lies a lifetime of forgotten novels, buried by a career of soul-destroying screenwriting and a half-century of dedicated drinking and gambling, a brilliant talent wasted and forgotten. And then comes the last act.
In a throwaway line in his 1978 novel, “Women,” the iconic Charles Bukowski — the best-selling cult poet whose wild readings are the stuff of beat legends and whose epic drinking, fucking and writing were captured by Mickey Rourke in the movie “Barfly” — mentions two utterly forgotten Fante novels, published respectively in 1939 and 1938: “Ask the Dust,” and “Wait Until Spring, Bandini.” These novels, it turns out, had sustained Bukowski 25 years before when, in the depths of his half-mad drinking days, he found them in the Los Angeles public library.