Alcoholic Fathers, Alcoholic Sons
Dan Fante watched his writer father John Fante descend into alcoholism before succumbing himself. Tony O’Neill asks him about his new memoir, Fante, which explores fathers, sons, and the drink that first fueled and then foiled them.
When you first meet Dan Fante, one thing you will notice immediately about him is that tattoo. It doesn’t mess around—a far cry from the kind of pretty skin art that has become trendy over the last decade or so. This one harkens back to the days when a tattoo carried a hint of a threat. The legend is emblazoned across Dan’s right forearm in thick, heavy letters, the kind of unfussy calligraphy that can be easily read from across the room. It reads: “NICK FANTE—DEAD FROM ALCOHOL— 1-31-42 TO 2-21-91”.
Unless you are an aficionado of Dan’s writing, this might be the first clue you get about the long shadow that alcoholism has cast over his family. The gene not only manifested itself in Dan’s father, the legendary author John Fante, but also in Dan and his brother Nick, whose untimely death is referenced in the ink on Fante’s forearm. Unlike his late brother, Dan was able to overcome his demons and is now coming up on 25 years sober. In his new memoir, Fante: A Family's Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving (Harper Perennial), Dan explores both alcoholism and another form of madness than runs through the Fante DNA—a ferocious love of the written word. And like his father before him, Dan Fante is one hell of a writer.
Like his father, he has not yet penetrated the mainstream—it will probably be a cold day in hell before any of his novels get an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey—but his profane and brilliant work has spawned a fanatical and fast growing cult.
It took a long time, but in the years since his death in 1983, it’s finally become accepted wisdom that John Fante—author of (among others) Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938), Ask the Dust (1939), and Full of Life (1952), was one of the most important names in 20th century American literature. In his lifetime, however, the pugnacious and tremendously gifted Los Angeles novelist went unrecognized by the mainstream, largely due to a string of calamitous luck. Unable to survive on the earnings of his literary work, Fante drifted into a successful career as a Hollywood screenwriter. Despite the fact that screenwriting afforded him a lifestyle that many would be envious of, Fante’s stalled literary ambition was a longtime source of frustration and rancor for a man who was already born with what could best be described as a fiery temper. In Fante, Dan recalls how his father once punched famed Hollywood director Val Lewton on the set of his 1944 movie Youth Runs Wild because Lewton had made a snide remark about John’s screenwriting abilities.
It wasn’t until his rediscovery by none other that the poet laureate of American lowlife Charles Bukowski in the late 1970’s that Fante’s novels would find their way back into bookstores via Black Sparrow Press, and the long, rocky road toward literary recognition would begin. Bukowski said of Ask the Dust: “Each line had its own energy and was followed by another like it. The very substance of each line gave the page a form, a feeling of something carved into it. And here, at last, was a man who was not afraid of emotion.”
There is something of a tradition of father-son authors—Kingsley and Martin Amis, Arthur and Evelyn Waugh (and Evelyn’s sibling Alec was no slouch either) and Stephen King and Joe Hill being some of the better-known examples. But for me, there is no greater proof that the writing gene can be passed down bloodlines than the example of John and Dan Fante.
Dan Fante is the author of several important American novels—Chump Change (1998), Mooch (2001), Spitting Off Tall Buildings (2002) and 86’d (2009)—as well as volumes of poetry, a collection of short stories, and two plays. Like his father, he has not yet penetrated the mainstream—it will probably be a cold day in hell before any of his novels get an endorsement from Oprah Winfrey—but his profane and brilliant work has spawned a fanatical and fast growing cult. The author’s literary alter ego Bruno Dante narrates all four books. Bruno is Dan’s alcohol-fuelled id—a raging, drunk, self-abusing, yet strangely likeable resurrection of the pre-sobriety Dan Fante. They are novels that seem destined to shock and repel those with a faint heart, yet intrepid readers willing to venture into literature’s murkier waters are rewarded with some of the most important post-modern writing being produced in America today. “It was my hope that telling Bruno's story would help people identify with the madness—and sometimes humor—in his life…the out-of-control-ness about the guy,” Dan tells me. “I think he's a great character.”
In Fante, Dan intimately details the life and times of his father, and explores the difficult relationship that the two men had. Fante is an unflinching exploration of a strained yet loving father-son relationship; a tale of frustrated talent, alcoholism, and salvation through literature that is hands down my favorite book of 2011 thus far. The ghost of Dan’s father has always loomed large in Dan’s work—Chump Change presents a fictionalized retelling of Dan’s reaction to the news of his father’s death—but Fante is the first time that Dan has tackled the subject of his father’s legacy head on. While an excellent biography of John Fante was released in 2000 (Stephen Cooper’s Full of Life), Dan’s book is a much richer reading experience. Told from the intimate point of view of a talented but troubled son who inherited both his father’s talent and propensity for drunkenness and bouts of rage, Fante is an often brutal read. It is also full of pathos and heart, a book that pitilessly examines the unlucky breaks and twists of fate that often served to handicap John Fante’s career. His best-known novel, Ask the Dust, was a critical success and should have made the author a household name. Instead, in 1939, the book’s publisher, Stackpole Sons, published Adolph Hitler’s Mein Kampf without the author’s permission. The money that should have gone to promoting Fante’s book was frittered away fighting a long, drawn out lawsuit with none other than the Fuhrer himself. Ask the Dust sold less than 3,000 copies, and then—in the words of Dan Fante—“went to sleep for 40 years.”
But to characterize the demise of Fante’s literary career as something caused solely by bad luck is a mistake, Dan tells me. “My father's rotten luck with his books and film career had a direct relationship to his ability to alienate people, “ Dan explains. “He could not stop himself. If he didn't like someone—and there were many he didn't like—he told them directly. This was hardly the best way to win friends and influence people. Especially publishers and film producers and directors. Fortunately, for pop, his words on paper ultimately supplanted his living temperament.”
As detailed in Fante, Dan’s father was a prodigious drinker, a drinker who was able to keep pace with his peers—such well-known literary boozehounds as William Saroyan (who had a long though rocky friendship with Fante) and William Faulkner. But he did not consider himself an alcoholic. “My father came from a time in America—call it the Freud-Thomas Mann-Ayn Rand period, for lack of a better term—where brilliance, education, literary sophistication and self-propulsion were held in the highest esteem,” says Dan. “The mind was king. Artists like Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Edna St. Vincent Millay were the literary examples people followed. Drinking was part of all that. A big part. The artist was quirky and volatile. John Fante fit right in. He was a heavy drinker.” But was he an alcoholic? “Probably, at times, he drank alcoholically,” Dan says. “His father was alcoholic and many of his friends were serious drinkers and some died from booze but I don't think my dad considered himself a drunk, just a heavy drinker.”