I’ve read my third straight novel by miraculous Los Angeles novelist John Fante. Man alive, that guy’s fiction just cooks. He has this style that propels itself forward like a small rocket. For proof of this, I offer the fact that I have just read one of his novels in two days; this was a novel that bore a remarkable resemblance to some of Fante’s past work, and yet, more startling than all its other qualities, I found myself so engrossed with the text that I was showing up late for work because I was so busy reading. That, friends, is storytelling.
The novel that I read was Dreams From Bunker Hill. I purchased it from a bookstore located in no lesser an L.A. neighborhood than Bunker Hill itself. It was fantastic (both the novel and the bookstore).
The story is pulled from Fante’s early days in Los Angeles, when he was a busboy/screenwriter/novelist/reckless lover. His narrative takes place during the mid-1930s, the time when a younger Fante first set up stakes in L.A. and started in on his vocation. In the course of the novel, Fante’s fictional stand-in tries to write, then fails, then falls in and out with a couple of friends, then earns and rejects a lucrative screenwriting career, then, most importantly, falls violently in love with a woman before ultimately dooming the relationship by virtue of, well…being John Fante.
This story is almost synonymous with that of an earlier novel of Fante’s: Ask the Dust. Like Dreams From Bunker Hill, Ask the Dust has for its subject the formative days of Fante himself—or, more accurately, the author’s stand in: Arturo Bandini. In both novels, Fante/Bandini struggles with his formation as a novelist, falls inadvisably in love and, eventually, succeeds in writing fiction, but achieves an empty victory for he at the same time fails in love.
That both novels surpass their similarity to breathe venomously with life is one of the many examples of the sheer amazement engendered by Fante’s prose.
As I mentioned earlier, the time it took me to get through Dreams From Bunker Hill was a little under two days. Granted, it’s a pretty short novel, clocking in at something like 150 pages. However, I’ve been chipping away at my 400-page copy of The Red and the Black for about a month, and still haven’t managed to become very engaged by it. Fante, on the other hand, has a way of grabbing my attention that I still can’t entirely comprehend.
The book begins:
My first collision with fame was hardly memorable. I was a busboy at Marx’s Deli.
Even the in the gentle rhythm of these two sentences Fante’s magic is at work. His prose is narcotic. I dare you to read the first paragraph and not be smitten:
My first collision with fame was hardly memorable. I was a busboy at Marx’s Deli. The year was 1934. The place was Third and Hill, Los Angeles. I was twenty-one years old, living in a world bounded on the west by Bunker Hill, on the east by Los Angeles Street, on the south by Pershing Square, and on the north by Civic Center. I was a busboy nonpareil, with great verve and style for the profession, and though I was dreadfully underpaid (one dollar a day plus meals) I attracted considerable attention as I whirled from table to table, balancing a tray on one hand, and eliciting smile from my costumers. I had something else beside a waiter’s skill to offer my patrons, for I was also a writer.
The sentences are simple; they’re to the point and they move with a subterranean momentum. Like so much of Fante’s writing, I can’t really tell what’s driving it—I just know that it is very certainly being driven. The novel functions like this in its entirety. There really isn’t much in the way of a plot, yet it moves with a rapid pulse. There’s a central problem in that Fante wants to write, but he isn’t struggling against any consistent protagonist. Characters appear, take center stage for a chapter and then are gone. There’s the “literary agent” whose office is choked with cats, the Catholic beauty whose buttocks commands Bandini’s ardor, and the Duke of Sardinia, a hapless wrestling villain exhausting himself with beachside workouts and hopeless dreams of glory.
Bandini passes dervish-like through the lives of all these characters, and more. By the end of the novel our protagonist has hobnobbed with movie stars and literary greats, fallen madly in love with landladies, made more money than he knows what to do with, and retreated across half the United States in search of simple comfort. But even after all this, he winds up pretty much back where he started. And this doesn’t feel tragic or cheap or even particularly illuminating; it just feels like the end of a story. What provides it that cohesion, I think, is simply the character of Bandini (and therefore the character of Fante) himself.
Fante’s Arturo Bandini is a man of irrepressible forward momentum. The book begins with him living in a tenement, throwing himself mercilessly at the task of writing. Bandini seems incapable of approaching life on any terms other than those of the most extreme emotional involvement. When he sees a woman that he desires (there are many a delectable “buttocks” in this novel) he tries to seduce her without so much as a second thought. This same attitude is espoused in regards to his screenwriting career, where he casts aside a monumentally well-paying position simply because it bores him. When he becomes lonely he buys a bus ticket and heads back toward Colorado and his family—simple as that, no hesitation or forethought.
It seems that this immediacy is the prevailing condition of Fante’s life, and in an age when such engagement with the world is rare, even the banal recounting of such adventures takes on an epic tint. Hand wringing has no place in Fante’s world; he would scoff at such indolence.
Fante was the stylistic hero of Charles Bukowski, who embraced this same determination in his own life and work. Both men faintly fictionalized their own lives, and both lived according to an unspoken and merciless conviction in what they were doing. Whereas in Bukowski’s case this became seedy, alcoholic and desperate, Fante recounts a life ruled by passions, but also by love and a sense of religious excitement. The Catholicism that pops up in Fante’s fiction is genuine; his belief in salvation was real in a way that helped color his most basic interactions with the world.
Dreams From Bunker Hill was written at the end of Fante’s life, after he had lost his sight and both his legs to diabetes. The novel’s ability to recount the optimism and excitement of youth is fascinating, and nearly baffling, in this context. Had I not checked the date of publication on the jacket, I’d have thought Fante had dictated the events of the novel as they were occurring. Remarkably, this was not at all the case. He dictated the book to his wife, Joyce, who set down this fearless testament to her husband’s conviction, even as he was passing out of the physical world.
Bukowski wrote that Fante was possessed of, “a rare and natural courage.” Based on the fact that Fante could recall such excitement even at the end of his days—and more importantly, that he could know the simple, unapologetic passion that was its source—I think that yes, courage is very much what he possessed. It’s a rare and spectacular phenomenon, and one about which I am all too happy to read.