The John Fante Reader, edited by Stephen Cooper. New York: William Morrow. 324 pages. $25.95. BUY NOW

     
 

The late California writer John Fante has been mentioned twice in the New York Times. The first time was in a 1993 letter to the editor. The second was Janet Maslin's recent arts-section-front-page review of The John Fante Reader, newly published by William Morrow.

It's strange that the twenty-odd year span of Times issues archived on Nexis covers the exact period during which California's eminent Black Sparrow Press published twelve volumes of Fante's work, not a single one of which was reviewed in the Times. In light of this, Maslin's article was most notable for what it didn't say. Nowhere did it mention Black Sparrow's sole responsibility for the fact that we know Fante's hilarious and bitter universe at all, a body of writing as raw, original, and lyrical as that of Nathanael West or William Saroyan. Nor did it give this publisher credit for bringing Fante back to life, allowing the old man to write a couple of his finest books before his death, and ensuring that when he did die it was as an established, respected novelist rather than a bitter Hollywood hack.

A decade ago I sat with the legendary noir novelist and screenwriter Al Bezzerides in his kitchenóin the precise kitchen chair, he told me, where Faulkner used to sit in his cups. I asked him, Was his old friend Fante bitter about his long obscurity and late revival? "No," Bezzerides answered. "I think he was disappointed, 'cause he wrote these things with all these feelings and nobody responded to him. And that they're responding to him today, like he wouldn't believe, is fantastic. But why so fucking late? What's the matter with people, are they stupid or something?"

Maslin, William Morrow, and particularly Stephen Cooperóa Fante scholar of decades standingódeserve much praise for getting Fante the mainstream attention of the Times. And the writing included in this volume is exemplary: Following his excellent biography of Fante, published in 2000, Cooper has put together a thorough tour of the published work, as well as a couple of new letters and stories that show Fante in all his voices, from the tortured altar boy remembering how he crucified a rat on a Good Friday in the '30s to the beat-up Vietnam-era father complaining to a friend that "after living with half a dozen Afro-American females, [his son] finally took one for his bride." Fante is always wrestling with the working-class Italian American identity that both fed and defined his writing, with its heavy weight of Catholicism and the particular web of guilt, envy, fear, and mad holiness such an inheritance can bestow.

The John Fante Reader gives an apt introduction to the life and work of this daunting talent, from his early days stealing oranges in Los Angeles to his maturity in a cliffside dwelling above the Pacific in Malibu; from the sweet good humor evident in his family comedies to the raging, battling personality that Joyce Fante once described to me as "like a buzz saw."

 
     
     
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