Cooper's selection starts with accounts of Fante's childhood in Colorado, replete with Jesuit schools and a hardworking, hard-drinking, son-of-a-bitch father, and continues on to his escape to Los Angeles in the mid-'30s. That's when he began to write, and what came out was so beautiful and so allusive that the French high modernists of the time would have celebrated it. But the Nouvelle Revue Franšaise wasn't reading West Coast writersˇwhy should they? No one else was, and despite the best efforts of H.L. Mencken, who published some stories in the American Mercury, the sad old story was reenacted: Fante missed his audience and found instead a lucrative screenwriting career, a taste for gambling, and a place among the legion of successful Hollywood writers who sit up nights drinking to the immortal contribution to literature they did not make.
Cutaway to the mid-'40s: Charles Bukowski, reading through the shelves of the Los Angeles Public Libraryˇone sees patrons edging away from the guy, who was drinking heroically and had nowhere else to goˇencounters Fante's autobiographical novel about getting to Los Angeles, Ask the Dust (1939), and is transformed. "He was alone and starving and trying to be a writer in a tiny room," Bukowski told me before his death. "That was the very thing I was doing when I picked up his book." It's easy to hear what Bukowski heard Fante saying in Ask the Dust: "Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town." Here's the disheartening part: It wasn't until three decades later that Bukowski had the confidence to confess his debt to Fante and so encourage his publisher, John Martin of Black Sparrow, to find these books and bring them back into print, along with some half-dozen new volumes.
Fante, by then rich in screen credits and poor in ISBNs, had survived the '50s as a screenwriter, the '60s as a father, andˇbarely, missing his vision and a legˇthe '70s as a diabetic. Martin followed Bukowski's advice, brought him back into print, and Fante, who died in 1983, left us with his powerfully beautiful cycle of Los Angeles books and a few more besides. It's a perfectly realized life work that could have come to us sooner but couldn't have been accomplished better.
The John Fante Reader allows us a fine taste of Fante's enormous range, from the high modernist Dreams from Bunker Hill to the Thurberesque and sweet Full of Life. Cooper's choices take us from the first writing about Fante's fatherˇ"Dio cane. It means God is a dog, and Svevo Bandini was saying it to the snow. Why did Svevo lose ten dollars in a poker game tonight at the Imperial Poolhall? He was such a poor man, and he had three children, and the macaroni was not paid for, nor was the house in which the three children and the macaroni were kept. God is a dog"ˇto the degree zero of his screenwriting careerˇ"I could feel the blow in my gut and kidneys, sheer panic, creeping up my back and riffling the hair on my scalp. It wasn't a novel at all. It was conceived as a novel but the wretched thing was actually a detailed screen treatment, a flat, sterile one-dimensional blueprint of a movie."
Fante's an astonishingly immediate writer, at last getting the respect accorded that profound American archetype, the maverick, though it took some seventy years. It makes you wonder: What's the matter with people, are they stupid or something?Neil Gordon's third novel, The Sea of Green, is forthcoming from Viking. He is literary editor of the Boston Review.