Alcoholic Fathers, Alcoholic Sons - Page 2

By Tony O'Neill 08/19/11
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.
Dan and Dad Courtesy of Dan Fante

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His son, however, had no such qualms about identifying his problem. As detailed in this book—and the novels that preceded it—the younger Dan Fante was a hardcore alcoholic. A “black out and wake up having stabbed yourself in the stomach with a steak knife” kind of alcoholic. A man, Fante admits, whose own brain seemed hard-wired to destroy him. In Fante, Dan explores his own darkest moments with a clear eye and wry humor, detailing his booze-sodden adventures as a carny, a private investigator, cab driver and telemarketer. Interspersed with these picaresque adventures were hard won periods of sobriety. Describing one memorable cold-turkey detox, Fante writes:

I began to see snakes entering from under my room’s door. First one, then several. Little snakes, not big ones, but with large heads. I began opening and closing my room’s door. Slamming it shut again and again. The manager came to my room and threatened to throw me out. Finally I locked myself in the bathroom and the snakes gave up and went away.

While alcohol would go on to destroy John Fante’s health (he died blind, and with both legs amputated due to his severe diabetes), Dan Fante dodged that bullet and embraced sobriety. The story of Dan’s recovery is told very powerfully in Fante, which offers a way more complex view of Alcoholics Anonymous and the struggle for sobriety than is typical for “recovery lit.” One fascinating aspect of his story is how Fante admits that even after years of sobriety and regular AA meetings, he was still as miserable as when he was drinking. This is something that very few authors will admit to in a culture that demands happy, neat endings.

"What I experienced in those months of sober insanity drove me back to my roots in recovery. I was desperate and desperate people who try God will often find that there's another side to madness.” 

“I have the conviction that a man who is a drunk is the furthest thing from God,” Dan says. “And a man who is sober without a way out of the madness that is left over from drinking is a truly pitiless wretch. He must drink again or face death.”

Dan explains to me that after years of failed attempts to clean up, and prolonged periods of sober depression, he finally had what he described as “a Vital Spiritual Experience. A kind of zapping that is produced after intense and prolonged psychic pain. For several months when I was four years sober I was suicidal, what people in recovery call ‘stark raving sober.’ I had taken my own sobriety for granted for several years and my life was suddenly and irrevocably in the crapper. I had a gun in my mouth. What I experienced in those months of sober insanity drove me back to my roots in recovery. I was desperate and desperate people who try God will often find that there's another side to madness.” 

Sobriety finally crystallized something inside of Fante, and this hard won peace of mind had a dramatic effect on his ability to write. In just over a decade, Dan has produced a body of work that many authors would be happy to have created over an entire career. This latest addition is of course essential reading for anyone with an interest in John Fante’s work. Fante is also one of the finest and truest memoirs of addiction and recovery that I have ever encountered.

Of course the cliché of the booze soaked author is nothing new. But in Dan Fante, we have a new archetype—the hard living, tortured artist who was finally able to unleash his creativity by getting sober.

I ask Dan why he thinks alcohol has such a pervasive hold on literary culture.

“Writers, by nature, are internal,” Dan muses. “I think loneliness plays a great part in many artists lives. And failed relationships. I know quite a few artists, writers and painters and poets who rely on their art to sustain themselves emotionally. I know that I did for a long time. Many artists appear to have a simple and relatively solitary life.”  He sighs, and then adds with a wry smile, “It apparently comes with the territory.”

Tony O'Neill is the author of several novels, including Digging the Vein and Down and Out on Murder Mile and Sick City. He is the co-author of the New York Times bestseller Hero of the Underground (with Jason Peter) and the Los Angeles Times bestseller Neon Angel (with Cherie Currie) and a regular contributor to The Fix who has interviewed Jerry Stahl and argued against abstinence, among many other topics.

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