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DAN FANTE: MAN ON FIRE, Part One

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

 

 

 

[HollywoodInvestigator.com]  He never wanted it that way: the two of them up there together, son and father, Dan Fante and John Fante, squared off against each other, contending for space on the same fiction shelf at  Barnes & Noble, Borders, and Dutton's.

It's a puzzle for the reader: Chump Change rubbing up against Dreams from Bunker Hill; Mooch contending with Ask the Dust; Spitting Off Tall Buildings smack up against Wait Until Spring, Bandini. The rage of self from father to son, passed on over glares and unexpressed thoughts and sad regrets that cannot be reclaimed. It's Bruno Dante and Arturo Bandini, the confessional heroes of each colliding up there on the F shelf.  And there is the father before, John Fante's father and his father before him; and Dan Fante's three sons and their sons. It goes on and on into oblivion.

But the thing is, all Dan Fante ever wanted from the time he was a little boy was the old man's love. The then not so great John Fante. His father. He'd never stopped idolizing him, looking up to him, watching him as he worked at his machine, measuring his own steps against his father's.

Dan recalls when he was nine, writing a story in long hand on composition paper; ten pages or more, reading it aloud to his mother, hoping father was listening.  Instead, the old man cut him off with a rude "Enough of that shit, kid. Finish your homework." In the house of John Fante there was room for only one writer.

Maybe that's why Dan Fante left Malibu when he was nineteen, hit the Beat Scene in Greenwich Village, joined an urban commune, protested the Vietnam War, took whatever shit job he could find, and was in and out of two marriages before he was thirty, with child support and alimony payments, ending up a CO when all the white kids he grew up with got  college draft deferments or served in Vietnam.

When I asked him what he thought of his parents as parents he laughed out loud and said, "They should have traveled, or raised chickens. They never should have had children."

The life he lived in New York City taught him toughness, cynicism, and the hard-assed rap of street survival. In a poem published several years later he wrote:


 

Forty-one years old
checkbook balanced in the high two digits
dozens of failed jobs
and a box with photos of kids and ex-wives.


In New York, where life was hard and money was everything, Dan Fante drank and drank and drank down to the end of his sanity. Spitting Off Tall Buildings vomits it all up: twelve years compressed into a few weeks: a catalogue of crazy jobs from belt peddle to movie usher, from night clerk to high rise window washer; life threatening jobs more out of Kafka than Hamsun, funnier and sharper than Bukowski's Factotum, all with the rawness and reckless truths of Celine's Journey to the End of the Night.

That good, that relevant. The mad landscape of desperate men and women he labored with and loved and watched left for dead in the subway; not the New York of Seinfeld or Scrosese or Woody Allen; but the real New York that's out there like Kafka's Castle every day and night.

Try this on for size. You're fifty stories above the street:

 


    "Window washing was where Flash became an artist. An acrobat.

    First, to get where he'd left off, he had to work himself a quarter of the way around the outside of the building in the frozen air. He glided from window to window with the bucket hanging from the crook of his arm. Like a gymnast he hooked his belt onto the thick spiked nipples protruding from the sides of each window frame and bounced effortlessly along the ledge.

    In less than a minute he'd vaulted his way to the leave off spot. Then he clamped on and pushed backward as far as possible….His body was almost a right angle to the building. A spider on the wall.

    He began cleaning, swaying like the sax player in the old Johnny Otis Blues Band, washing two sets of the up and down panes at a time. For the top sections he used a six foot wood extension.

    He'd squeegee the glass on the left, then unhook and flip himself to the next frame while the panes were still wet, bouncing out and clamping on in one fluid motion.  Window ballet.
 

 

That's writing worthy of Hamsun and Bukowski and even his father.

 

 

And then there's the sad counterpoint, Dan Fante on the ropes, a little hung over, too short for the job, leaving acres of dirty smeared glass behind as Flash looked on laughing until he finally slipped off the ledge on the 76th floor, dangling seven hundred feet over Manhattan as his squeegee and bucket plunged to the street below.

"That really happened," he said. "To me." The surfer kid from a good home in Malibu.

So he looked for something safer to do, driving a cab at night, his favorite job, listening to people's problems, zooming through rain and snow and fog and slush at 2 a.m. as bankers broke up with socialites and  beat up young mothers fled their husbands dragging along kids in pajamas.

He was drinking more than ever, but the montage of life he drove from door to door made him think more and more about writing. At first he wrote poems, just for himself, and when they appeared in print, there was no pay. "No one but Robert Frost made money writing poetry in those days," Dan said. He knew from the beginning that writing was no way to make money.

"I had no illusions about wanting to be a writer. To me it was only about money. It was only about success and it was only about power. I got that from my father. The subliminal message was: 'If you have enough money, nobody could tell you what to do.' I managed to get myself into the position as a telemarketer where I made so much money and I was so successful, I could do what I wanted; but all that stopped when I got sober. I couldn't lie over the phone anymore. It was no longer a life and death errand."

A few years before, to make money, he reinvented himself as CLOSER DAN, the supersalesman.  Closer Dan would show the world. Closer Dan would show his father. Closer Dan bought muscle cars and houses in rich neighborhoods; and he drank the best gin down to the bottom of the bottle.  Closer Dan was not a nice man; he was all about money. He was the best at what he did and what America told him he should be, and nobody could tell him what to do. It was a vicious circle: the gin and cocaine pumped him up and made him into a super selling machine; but deep in the nighttime of his soul there was a screaming kid who'd wake up in the middle of the night and yell "enough."

His thoughts turned back to Malibu, back to the house on Point Dume. Thoughts of his father, long dead, came swimming into his consciousness: JOHN FANTE the legend, his reputation growing around the world, first in France, then Italy, then Spain, Holland, Germany, Russia; last in his own country.

With everything gone, even his ability to sell, Dan Fante finally woke up. He gave up booze and quit telemarketing. That was the end of the beginning. In a poem he wrote in his new book, A Gin-Pissing-Raw-Meat-Dual-Carburator-V8-Son-of-a-Bitch from Los Angeles: Collected Poems 1983-2002, Dan Fante recalls arriving home at his mother's house...


 

with all I own in a plastic bag …
Mom opened the door
and smiled when she saw me … 
and I went off to the spare bedroom
sad for my old man's fading ghost…


Without drink, at 46, unemployed and disgusted with life, he was forced to attend AA. Forced by the courts. At first it meant nothing; just another scam. He sat and listened to the others share their horror stories; cynical, angry, not wanting to be there, unable to admit his rage, his failures: the demolished marriages and busted families, the DUIs, the jail time and the insatiable curiosity of the IRS.

He recalls one AA meeting where a member was given a birthday cake for being sober twenty years and Closer Dan opened up on the whole assemblage spraying venom. "I've never heard such bullshit and I don't believe a word of it," he shouted. But the AA faithful had heard it before and they listened to his rage with empathy. He was speaking their language, but with genius, with magical fires.

"All drunks are poets in some ways," a famous friend once told me. "They lay out in the freezing air at night and see the moon in a way the rest cannot."

"You should write it down," his sponsor told him. "Lots of drunks are writers. Write it all out. It's the best way to see what's inside." That's how it started: poems and plays and stories and novels.  Fante went three times a week to AA and Dan the Closer, Dan the Pitchman, slowly began to die.

As his head began to clear, things came back to him: the first teacher who ever told him he should become a writer; Mrs. Ahern the names of faces of the kids he grew up with in Malibu; the surfing revolution of the Sixties.

They were just thoughts at first, but he wrote them down on scraps of paper and then in notebooks.  And it got easier. The talk and the writing came together. He had always been a good talker, a convincer, a pitchman. The thoughts became sentences, then paragraphs, then pages of what he'd kept trapped inside himself for more than thirty years; it all came spilling out like poison: the all night drunks, the DUIs, the love-hate marriages, the selling of stuff, the selling of self, the selling of love.

At first it was just one title,Chump Change, the opening novel in the Bruno Dante trilogy. John Martin, John Fante's publisher at Black Sparrow, was the first editor to read it. "He kicked it right back to me, saying it was too close to what he had. There was an implication it wasn't very good.  He's since eaten his words and told Al Berlinski (editor of Sun Dog Press who first published Chump Change in America), "he is 'pleased' with my success. I've inquired about other stuff -- my poems -- by email; but he never even returned the query."

When Chump Change arrived in print on her doorstep, Joyce Fante, Dan's mother, wrote John Martin, his father's publisher at Black Sparrow, and Stephen Cooper, author of Full of Life, the standard Fante biography, excoriating the novel.

"She would in no way have my 'garbage' associated with the name of John Fante." That was a shock.

Chump Change has been hailed in Europe as "absolutely tremendous; as funny, sad, angry and human as it gets." (Charlie Hill, Birmingham Post). Anthony Reynolds of London's Beat Scene wrote: "It's grotesquely readable, full of quiet horror and broad melancholy. It'd make a good film."  The French journal Soud Ouest called it "sublime."

The novel was published first in Paris; no editor in America would read it until it was translated into French and published by Fixot Seghers. It was Jean Claude Zylberstein, John Fante's champion in France, who discovered the book, passing it on to Robert Laffont, who accepted the book two weeks after he received it .

So it goes in America for father and son.

There is an amazing tribute to his father in Chump Change, but his son notes without bitterness, "Chump Change never got a real American review."

Joyce Fante has since come around with praise, calling his new book of poetry "more akin to surgery or the body shop than to the techniques of music and painting … Pain and self-mocking humor are the writer's tools…."

But for Dan Fante it's always been about his father, the writer he could never please, the man he loved and emulated and still hungers for; the tough John Fante who taught him not to be a writer. "The fact that he was a writer probably dissuaded me from wanting to be a writer. The question is often asked: 'What is it like to be the son of a successful writer?'

"My father wasn't a successful writer when I was a kid!  He wasn't any kind of a literary model. He was a screenwriter and I knew he was terrific at that. Only after he died, when I'd lost everything and you get to the place where you can only see sky....  I had this passion, this love for my father that transcended my relationship with him. And...

It was the late 80's. He was just beginning to get some notoriety.

Some of his stuff had been republished and people were beginning to talk about him. "Then I really wanted to write a book that would point people to my father. That was the reason I wrote Chump Change. It was for my father. It was a love letter. All these jerk-offs who never met him were writing stuff about him as though they'd known him all his life and they got so much of it wrong."

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

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: benpleasants@msn.com.

 

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