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by Ben Pleasants, guest contributor.  [May 7, 2003]




[]  Dan Fante is a short, strong fireplug of a man with close-cropped blonde hair, the shoulders of a halfback, and a powerful stare that nails you to your chair. He is soft spoken but like his prose, he is unflinching and direct; no question throws him.

We are seated for dinner in a house that once belonged to Donald Woods, a famous actor of the 1930s. Here he once entertained Lupe Velez and Ronald Coleman. His neighbors down the block were Rod LeRoc and Vilma Banky. The walls are filled with leather bound volumes: books, books, books. It's my wife's house and my house. I take him on the tour: show him the Malibu tile, the great room with the books and the fireplace, the metal shoe Wood's servant once used to polish his bootery. It's only fair, I tell him. I was a guest in his father's house, and his mother served me lunch and took me through the whole place.

"That was when you had that girlfriend. The one with diabetes. The one my father liked."

"Marlene Sinderman. A long time ago."

Dan is accompanied by a friend from AA. She talks about Mooch, his Santa Monica novel, a wild and crazy look at the AA love, work, confessional scene. I pour myself a cabernet, feeling guilty. "It's bad enough I can't smoke a cigar anywhere. Now I can't drink in my own house?"

They laugh and give off their spiel about how long they've been sober.

Dan tears into his steak, sipping water. I mention Bukowski, the long, drunken nights out in the cold when we walked the streets of Hollywood talking of bad poets, really bad poets, and the great John Fante.

We settle into the living room after coffee and desert. I show him a five page letter Bukowski wrote me about his father when we worked together at the Free Press.

"This part became the preface to Ask the Dust," I say. "How would you like to hear him on tape? I've got hours of it. I was his failed biographer."


I play him a long section on the crazy relationship he had with his girlfriend Jane. How she beat him with her high heeled shoe and then went off in a sexy dress with her latest John. It was vintage Buk: the pool of blood he lay in covered most of the floor. We were both drunk and laughing as he spun his magic tale on his favorite subject: the war between men and women. I hadn't listened to it for quite a while; both women were uncomfortable.

"Bukowski is a man's writer," I say. "Mostly." I turn it off. Bukowski howling at two members of AA seemed surreal. "How would you like to hear a tape of your father?" I enquire. "You were there once when I did them."

"I don't remember meeting you back then."

Except for a session at Starbucks in Santa Monica a few weeks before, the last time I'd seen Dan Fante was at his father's funeral on May 11, 1983 at Our Lady of Malibu Church.

"And before that?" he asks.

"Just once," I say.  "At the place in Malibu when I was taping. 'That's my kid,' said his father from the voice in the hall. 'He's trying to be a writer.'"

I cart out the box of tapes and I ask if he wants to hear a selection from the early ones.

He nods hesitantly. "Maybe a little," he says.

I play a part where John Fante praised his mentor H.L. Mencken: the voice of his father comes up softly. Dan Fante sees him in his mind's eye: the blind man in the wheelchair seated in his living room, beneath the paintings of his four children. As he listens to his father's voice the muscles in his jaw begins to tighten.

I let it play for several minutes. No one utters a word as the blood in his face fades to pale; that tough, boiler room face with the coloring of his mother and the features of his father. Finally he stands up. "Turn it off, please," he says, choking back a sob.

I do. The room is silent. Then he speaks. "That was not my father. My father was imperious, commanding. Sorry, Ben. I know you really...those tapes should never be played.

The four of us sit by the fireplace where Lupe Velez once sat as Dan composes himself. I try to make him laugh. We talk about publishers. About Stackpole and Black Sparrow and Knopf. I show him Ferlinghetti's letter about Ask the Dust. How I mentioned to Bukowski that City Lights was paying him 75% of what he made on "Bukowski Stories." How he wrote back: "I can see what Bukowski saw in this but..." How his father asked about the advance Black Sparrow paid and how I held back my laughter. "He couldn't see me."

"You know how much money I've made from my writing in the last two years?" says Fante. "Two-hundred-eighty-six FUCKING dollars."

We both laugh out loud; it's comforting. How much did Homer make? Real writing is never about the money anyway. Not for Hamsun or Celine or Jeffers or Bukowski or Pound or Ginzberg or John Fante. It is always the fist on the piano keys when they audience wants Mozart. Dan Fante is in that tradition.

A few days later we talk at Starbucks on Wilshire and 26th in Santa Monica, Dan's home away from home. This time it's theatre, playwrights, actors and directors. Dan's favorite playwrights are Eugene O'Neill, William Saroyan, and Tennessee Williams. Saroyan had been a friend of his father's in Hollywood.

"Did you know my dad was a character in Time of Your Life?  He's Willy, the pinball guy. The F on his shirt is for Fante. It was right in the script."

We explore the magical aspects of plays: why they last when novels fade: words alive, not words on the page. It was Eugene O'Neill's Long Day's Journey Into Night, that first ignited wonder in the mind of Dan Fante.

"I began to consider the power of words when I saw that play.  It was the film version with Ralph Richardson, Kate Hepburn and Jason Robarts Jr. There was something about the words those people were saying and their relationships that was just magical. It was so liberating. An enormous moment of import to me because I realized the spoken word  could be a transformation. O'Neill was my first inspiration and I remember thinking THAT is the most important thing anybody could do. Not that I thought I could do it; I think I was twelve or thirteen. His power and his anger and his honesty and his characters really hit me between the eyes and that was the beginning for me."

I wonder aloud if there's anything of O'Neill in Bruno Dante.

Fante thinks a moment. "O'Neill in Bruno Dante?" He sees the connection. "Yeah. Bruno's an O'Neill character of sorts. He's my version of O'Neill."

Writing dialogue is Dan Fante's forte. "The clarity of the playwright for me was more powerful than the clarity of the novel. There's something so obvious and so assertive and so violent about dialogue that it precludes all the trappings of literature. You can't get away with that shit on the stage. What got me was these people could say these things and get away with it."

Dan Fante knows dialogue from instinct, from selling on the phone, living by his wits, living drunk, living alone, carefully listening to what mattered.

Few novelists, we agree have been good playwrights or vice versa. Thornton Wilder comes to mind and Saroyan; Samuel Beckett was brilliant at both. Fante's problem with the novel is its digressions. "I like Henry Miller, but who cares about his fucking riffs. People love that; it turns me off."

Tennessee Williams was a minor short story writer, a mediocre poet, and a failed novelist, but as a playwright, "At his best, Williams was almost Shakespearian. I can sit and listen to his dialogue endlessly. To me it's like a symphony. The other funny thing about Williams is, he wasn't a reader.  He didn't read. He couldn't get through a novel. The same problem plagued my dad and it's plagued me to a certain extent ... Impatience. As a reader. My stuff is absent of digression. My stuff is always linear and it's for a reason. I want people to be able to read my books in three hours!"

In his first produced play, "Boiler Room," performed in Los Angeles, Fante scored a major success.  The play ran for two years at The Actor's Arts Theatre and Don Shirley hailed it under the heading OUTRAGEOUS GIFTS IN THE SMALLEST PACKAGE. He called Fante's play a "ferociously profane comedy about a pack of Southland Telemarkers." It was all about selling. I point out the irony of his situation: a guy who sells photocopy machines and cars and adult film clubs on cold calls to wary businessmen can't find an agent and makes no little money from his writing.

"I don't confuse the two: writing and making money," he says. "I am not a member of any literary canon or accepted mode of literature in America and therefore I am outside … exposed to a great deal of cynicism. I don't fall into any category. People find me offensive. Everybody's used to reading John Updike and Phillip Roth. I'm not like those guys.

"These people [American critics] who read for a living don't like me. The American literary establishment is so incestuous; they have their A-list; everybody agrees what's great so if you review with your PhD. at some Ivy league school, we know the kind of review they write on Updike or Roth. When a Dan Fante comes along and he bites you like a snapping turtle, they don't like it. The opposite is true in Great Britain. In a country that has been so socially repressed, literarily they are very advanced. They're open to new styles."

SCOTLAND ON SUNDAY called Spitting Off Tall Buildings "a truly great American novel." Lesley McDowell in the Herald of London did a full page article on Mooch, praising his literary success while singling out the key to Dan Fante's novels: as "The link between the nostalgic need for a straightforward … hero who does not exist, and the representation of maleness embodied in a generation of fathers…"

"If you read my American reviews," says Fante, "I should be pumping gas."

Malibu, December 29, 2002. We are at Point Dume, in the garden of his father's house, seated by the pool on a warm and sunny afternoon. Dan Fante is in a relaxed mood: the Hollywood calls are coming in on Mooch and Chump Change and the days of Dan Fante, son of John, John Jr., the John Fante clone, are over. Derisive academicians have gone elsewhere to scoff as the buzz on Spitting Off Tall Buildings mounts.

A friend of mine, who writes SF, points out the ironies. He read Chump Change and found it so strong he had to put it down several times: "It was so raw, so stripped of artifice, it stabbed me in the eye. But this one was more human. I could smell those jackets Bruno wore in the dark when he was ushering in one of those decayed movie palaces on Fifth Avenue.  And the window scenes were magic."

The tenant who occupies the estate with her family, takes us graciously through the house to the living room with the fireplace over which the portraits of the four Fante children: Nick, the oldest, then Dan, Jimmy, and Vicki, once hung. It brings back memories for us both.

We peek into the room Dan shared with his older brother Nick when they were boys. He shakes his head and we return to the garden. Dan points out the cactus his father planted that is now six feet high and spreading like topsy. "That was the only thing he planted that ever grew," he laughs, then points to a crack in the drive where he and his brother once played basketball.

He brushes back leaves where nothing grows but weeds. "That was where my father put his trailer. He bought it thinking it might be a place  where he could write, but it didn't work for him, so he left it there and it was all overgrown with vines...."

We take our seats at the pool again and I flash off a few shots of Dan Fante facing the front door of his boyhood home. We speak about Bruno Dante. The postmodern writing. Novels that have no counterpoint to their point. Books that claw to the core of self; fiction without artifice, so hot to the touch you can't put it down.

"Okay. The reason I believe my stuff has received the attention it has in Europe and here, limitedly, is simply because it represents a new kind of American literary edginess ... beyond Bukowski's boozy macho romances.... I'm not Irving Welsh or Jerry Stahl. It's interesting that some folks I know in AA are shocked at my stuff. I mean at AA you hear everything from murders to John Fante's chicken fucking yet those same people are upset at Bruno Dante's bitterness and indiscriminate sexuality and self-mocking rage.

"So many writers today are excised from the plot: they write in the third person at arm's length. I don't do that and my father, in Ask the Dust, didn't do that either! That book and my books are written at a gut level. You can read Ask the Dust today and change the price of bread and you could never tell it was written in 1940! I'm the same. There are no riffs."

It's true. The Bruno Dante trilogy is clear and linear, a road map of Dan Fante's life with only a few pieces missing. Spitting Off Tall Buildings, his funniest book, is a delightful tour of his exiled years from age 19 to 30 spent in New York. Here's Dan Fante's introduction to driving a cab:


    "I started out rounding the block on Twelfth Avenue, then heading east on Fifty-Seventh.  The cab's odometer showed over 130,000 miles. It was an older model Dodge, less than two years old. I found out that most fleet cabs in New York run seven days a week, twenty hours a day.

    The car's front shocks were completely gone. The front bumper, the dash and everything else rattled.  There was a moderate shimmy at twenty miles an hour. I tested the breaks. They pulled to the right.

    My first fare hailed me from the corner of Eleventh and Forty-ninth Street.  A guy going to the Bronx.... I had little practical knowledge of how to get around the streets by car, so I said 'I'm new. Can you direct me?' The guy said, 'Sure. Turn left.' Three months later I was an expert."


That's New York as clear as it gets.



Chump Change dumps Bruno back into the hell of LA; it's his exile returns, a humiliating journey back to his boyhood home where he must come to terms with his now famous dead father and his obdurate, I-told-you-so mother. The book was his first novel; it took him three years to write, and for the reader the pain is worse than a root canal without anesthetic.

"I got out all my rage out in Chump Change," says Fante. "It's an angry book. It freed me from myself."

Mooch, his tightest novel, is Dan Fante's farewell to drink, his loss of ego, and his final restoration of sanity, literary achievement, and social growth.

In a real way these three novels add up to what his father only hoped to write. Dan recalls that Full of Life, John Fante's only commercial success, was a compromised and romanticized look at the relationship between his father and his grandfather. Even Brotherhood of the Grape, a much later work, never penetrated down into the level of rage and mistrust that existed between the two men. I wonder if the old man, as master mason, ever did any work on the Point Dume house.

"I don't think he ever saw it," says Dan. "He died before it was built."

As we look around the grounds, Dan confesses he has two projects burning a hole in him these days. One is a play he wrote about his father in his declining years. "It's called 'Don Giovanni.' It's almost done. It needs just a turn or two on the lathe from a dramaturge." The other is a memoir of his life as a Fante. "So much of what was written was done by writers who never knew my father.  He was something, my old man."

As we get up to leave, he takes one last look at the grounds and laughs. "This property is surrounded by a six foot high wall. It's an acre and a tenth. Within the perimeter and just outside are more than three hundred fir trees. My father, with his diabolical relationship with power tools, once, toward the end of his life, before he lost his sight, though his vision was not very good, got himself a chain saw and climbed that wall over there which is barely eight inches wide. He turned on the chain saw and was just hacking away at the trees. He had a vision of himself in chain mail hacking away at the world with a two handed broad sword; that'll be in my book."

And so it should.

This is the end of Part Two.  Go to Part One.

Copyright 2003 by Ben Pleasants.



Ben Pleasants is a playwright and author of Visceral Bukowski: Inside the Sniper Landscape of L.A. Writers.

His most recent novel is Spearmint Leaves.

He can be contacted at:


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