Reviewed by Declan Tan
Opening with the familiar visions of snow from the likes of Wait Until Spring, Bandini and Dago Red (‘Bricklayer in the Snow’), Dan Fante kicks off, like Svevo and Arturo of his father’s novels, buried in an image of purest white. But this is a damned and dark tale, swirling in sweat and alcohol, of depression and addiction, with some genuine pain and angst behind it.
And instead of the cold winters of John Fante’s Colorado, we open with Dan’s grandfather, Nicola, struggling to make a living in the Abruzzi mountains where the only way to make it is with one’s hands, mostly laying brick. Nicola’s father escapes to America, where eventually he’s tracked down by his son, discovered in the back of a bar drunk and broke. “Gimme a buck, kid. I need a drink.” These are the first words he hears out of his father’s lips in ten years. So begins a cycle of misery fuelled by alcohol that Nicola Fante visits on his son John, and that John pays forward to his son, Dan, earning the book the subtitle: ‘A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving’.
Dan recounts in his own uncomplicated, straight-talking (occasionally repetitive) language his father John’s rise to literary fame, his encounters and friendships with the literati of his time, exchanging correspondence with H.L. Mencken and William Saroyan, before being dragged down by a lust for the good life becoming a hack screenwriter in Hollywood. This is the source of John Fante’s bitterness, his disgust with himself for ‘selling out’, putting this dedication on his short story collection Dago Red:
From that Hollywood whore, that stinking sell-out artist, that sublime literary pervert, that thwarted lyricist – that stinking scene artist, that Paramount cunt-lapper who gets paid for the sweet scented vomit whispered by Dorothy Lamour – Dedicated with the hope that someday soon he can write some less bitter inscription on the flyleaf of a really great book.
Meanwhile, Dan was growing up. And the opening of this autobiography, which reads a lot livelier, perhaps refreshed with some choice tweaking of events, tells of his dyslexia, his troubles with his older academically gifted brother, Nick, and his first experience with alcohol at the age of four:
Many years later, when I got sober, I would remember the event vividly and mark it as a major transition in my life. Alcohol had become a life-changing elixir.
Finding it difficult under the same roof as his father, Dan begins moving around a lot, leaving LA and getting involved in the New York political scene in the 1960s while paying the rent by driving a cab, before eventually squandering a playwriting deal on the radio that could have seen him become a big name, like his father, a lot earlier on. Depression, insomnia and several suicide attempts follow:
Because sleep was impossible, I began walking again at night to exhaust myself. Forty or fifty blocks. The East River to the Hudson River and back again. Sometimes I would stop to get a blow job from whatever Times Square guy was handy, then return to my hotel and drink myself to the point where I could pass out.
A darkness had come to my life, a despair that only those who have known the unendingness and bottomlessness of their own psyche can understand. No matter what I did or what female hostage I took in a relationship, I knew that sooner or later I would die from suicide. And, as it turned out, I would continue to drink for at least another fifteen years.
It’s anecdotes like these, admittedly even with the disclaimer (“bearing in mind that I suffered from active alcoholism for years”), that make this a mildly enlightening, though often numbing, read. We get a decent insight into the family life of a frequently bitter but always mercurial writer, and the understanding that the father and son come to toward the end of John’s life.
You may find yourself skimming through some of the latter chapters about Dan’s time working as a carnie, or as a limousine driver, or a telemarketing exec, as sections of ‘Fante’ are rehashed from material he’s covered thoroughly in previous books, almost word-for-word.
Nevertheless, his recollections blended in throughout on the rough relationships of the Fantes are always strong, emotive and honestly written which makes it a shame that it tapers off toward the end, though it would be easy to understand. Some of these experiences must have been painful to recall. But catharsis through words has always been Dan’s way. To him, writing is vital. And both John and Dan’s stories are vital ones, certainly worth telling, and certainly worth reading.