John Fante was a writer in Los Angeles in the 1930s but don’t hold that against him because he doesn’t need it. He doesn’t need that kind of crap. Not John. John is the writer who wrote the great character Arturo Bandini, the likes of whom the world may never see again.
You see, Arturo Bandini was a young broke writer making his way for no money in downtown LA, long before downtown became the enclave of cool that it is now. He wrote about the poor neighborhood, Bunker Hill, and Angels Flight, the tram that went from the bottom of the poor neighborhood to the top of the poor neighborhood. He wrote about Arturo spending what little money he had on women, women he didn’t want, just someone to love, when he couldn’t get the woman he wanted.
John Fante wrote the Arturo Bandini character as a fictionalized version of his young self when he was trying to make his own way in the world. Fante wrote a trilogy of books about the Bandini character for little money in his late 20s, before making most of his money in screenwriting. He wrote “Walk On The Wild Side” and other movies. Nothing, though, truly matched up to the level of pure honesty of his literary characters.
The books portray Los Angeles not as a city of hope but as a city of people THAT hope – an important distinction that few writers rarely make when writing about LA. The Bunker Hill neighborhood that Fante so loved was razed in the late 1950s to make way for office buildings and condos; what remains is Angels Flight and little else. But the stories are touching and painfully comical; many have said that even though Fante wrote these novels in the 1930s they read as if they were written just a year or two ago: proving that a true voice can span time. Apologies if I’m rambling a little. Fante’s “Ask The Dust” is one of my favorite books of all time, if not my all time favorite. To say that they guy “changed my life” would be an understatement – he gave me a perspective on my own times as a broke writer living in Los Angeles.
Whether he knew it at the time he gave hope to five generations of us who moved there and tried to make it – the books were passed around and passed around since publication. None of them ever became runaway successes in their own time – a cryin’ shame if you ask em – but perhaps one that proves that sometimes genius is rarely understood in its own time. In the late 1970s poet and miscreant Charles Bukowski suggested to his publishers at Black Sparrow Press that they reissue Fante’s book. By this time, Fante was blind and wheelchair bound from decades of diabetes, but he and Bukowski formed a somewhat unlikely bond in their shared stories of being broke and unlucky in the city made of gold by the sea.
His son, Dan Fante, writes crime fiction. He wrote his first novel on the same typewriter his father used to write his last novel:
Fante’s influence may never hit the same rough-and-tumble level of Bukowski’s vast reach amongst angsty young men looking to write; but Fante’s writing was never angry. There was always a glimmer of hope. Bandini, for all his hubris, was a spectacular character steeped in the want and love of writing. Even if Bandini never quite made it, it proved to the rest of us that if you try hard enough perhaps you’ll have the stories to tell at the end. Bandini stood for hope. He may have talked about giving up, but he kept forging ahead. And that, I think, lends him a place of the mantle of great American characters.
A winsome portrait of a character, sure, but there’s more of Fante/Bandini in all of us than we care to admit.
Main image: Deviant Art