Monday, January 17, 2011

Collecting John Fante

Amplify’d from
Undie Press

Collecting John Fante

by Mark Cashion

This month I’m featuring an author you’ve probably never read but who deserves your attention.

Neither of my parents were very literary. They weren’t illiterate, but there weren’t many books in the house. I don’t recall ever seeing my father read a book. Not once!

There was a 20-year lapse when I didn’t see or hear from dear old dad. Towards the end of his life my sister took me to visit him. He was gravely ill and she insisted that if I didn’t talk to him, I would regret it. That was—I don’t know—about 15 years ago and in hindsight, if I hadn’t gone to see him that day, I doubt it would have made much of a difference. I wouldn’t have any regrets, but at that time it sounded plausible.

He was monstrously overweight and quite sick. When we arrived he was sitting shirtless in his backyard in a lawn chair hooked up to a portable oxygen tank. There was the ever-present Pall Mall straight burning between his two fingers. At one point in the conversation, I mentioned that smoking near an oxygen tank could be quite dangerous. He could blow up. He threw his hands up and said, “Look at me. Do I look like I care?” A prince among men.

I am only a second-generation American. My dad’s parents immigrated from Poland and my mom’s from Italy. (Italy and Poland; the two most inept armies in World War II. Perhaps that contributed to the self esteem issues I had when I was younger.) Because of my father’s indifference, I felt nothing for the Polish side of my family. But I did bond with the Italians.

We have an Anthony, a Vito, a Francis and my grandfather was Rocco. I remember seeing my uncles and grandfather occasionally embrace and kiss each cheek. A crop of authentic old world Dagos! Early in my relationship with my wife, I, on complete autopilot, leaned in to kiss my staunch Irish-Catholic father-in-law on the cheeks. He recoiled back. I’ll never forget the look of abject horror and disgust on his face. It wasn’t my fault! I was a victim of my culture!

There’s a family story that in the 1930s, one of our relatives was rubbed out by the Steubenville, PA mob. He was sitting in a barber chair. The barber wrapped a hot towel around his head, stepped out, and a couple of wise guys walked in and shot him dead. I can’t confirm if it’s true, but my Grandma Lucy would never discuss the matter, so I choose to believe it happened.

* * *

John Fante’s second coming would likely never have occurred if it hadn’t been for Charles Bukowski. Fante is the guy who inspired Bukowski. On Buk’s suggestion (insistence?), John Martin, editor/owner of Black Sparrow Press, reprinted Fante’s titles and introduced him to a new audience. Fante is considered by some to be even more of a Los Angeles writer than Raymond Chandler or Bukowski, himself.

Fante’s first book is Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938). This marks the first appearance of the character Arturo Bandini, who is Fante’s doppelganger. He would appear in three more novels. Personally, I believe this is where the Bukowski/Henry Chinaski character is derived.

Wait Until Spring, Bandini a great, funny read, but what really hooked me in to Arturo Bandini’s world—into all of Fante’s books—is that he writes about the Italian immigration experience. I saw my grandfather and uncles in these stories. There are common threads that run though Fante’s stories and the stories my uncles told me; Catholicism, Italian-American families, the working class experience, eating, Catholicism, Italian immigrants and, finally, Catholicism.

Because I had already been collecting Bukowski rarities for years, collecting Fante seemed like a natural progression. Collecting Fante can be a pretty dicey and expensive affair. Frankly, aside from the first editions that were published by Black Sparrow starting in 1982 (most of them posthumously), his true first editions are almost impossible to come by, particularly in collectible condition. The first editions were printed in small runs of, perhaps, 3,000 copies. The copies you do find on the market are almost always beat to shit. I’m particularly fond of my copy of Wait Until Spring, Bandini. The jacket is clean and undamaged. The design is simple and elegant.

His next book, Ask the Dust (1939), is arguably his best-known novel. It’s considered to be one of the touchstones of L.A. literature. In 2006 they filmed it with Colin Farrel as Bandini. My first edition is, perhaps, the best brag of my entire book empire. I’ve never seen a copy that didn’t have a badly faded spine and damaged dust jacket. But after years of searching I found a perfect copy.

Additionally, my copy is inscribed by Fante in the year of publication to Milton Melin, who was a book reviewer for the Los Angeles Times. There is also a black and white publicity photo laid in.

Ask the Dust was to be Fante’s breakout novel but his publisher, Stackpole Sons, had to use all the publicity money allocated for this book to defend themselves in a lawsuit over the unauthorized printing of Hitler’s Mein Kampf. The novel went largely unnoticed. (Fante’s. Not Hitler’s.)

A collections of short stories, Dago Red (1940), followed. Fante’s short stories had been published in H.L. Mencken’s The American Mercury. Mencken was Fante’s literary mentor.

Fante adapted his novel Full of Life (1952) for the screen. It was the start of his career as a screenwriter. He was mostly dissatisfied with his work for the movies, freely admitting that he did it for the paycheck. His adaptation of Nelson Algren’s Walk on the Wild Side for the screen is considered a wasted opportunity.

Here’s one of the Black Sparrow issues. Dreams of Bunker Hill was the last novel published in Fante’s lifetime.

There was a signed limited edition. Fante, blind and gravely ill, signed the pages from his hospital bed.
[Editor's note: Inscribed copies of the first edition of Ask The Dust in fine condition currently command between $6,000-$8,000. Source:]

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