Literary outlaw, novelist, playwright and poet Dan Fante (1944-2015) was born and raised in Los Angeles. At 20, he quit school and hit the road, eventually ending up as a New York City resident for 12 years. Fante worked at dozens of crummy jobs including: door to door salesman, taxi driver, window washer, telemarketer, private investigator, night hotel manager, chauffeur, mailroom clerk, deck hand, dishwasher, carnival barker, envelope stuffer, dating service counselor, furniture salesman, and parking attendant. Wrecking Ball Press published his poetry collection A Gin Pissing, Raw Meat, Dual Carburettor, V-8 Son-of-a-Bitch from Los Angeles in 2001 and novella Corksuckerfour years later. We miss Dan a lot.
On the day of the publication of A Gin Pissing, Raw Meat, Dual Carburettor, V-8 Son-of-a-Bitch from Los Angeles, Fante was in Hull for a reading and book launch. Wrecking Ball assistant editor Dave Windass, then a freelance journalist, recalls meeting Fante in the city’s Peaberry’s Coffee House to interview him for The Big Issue.
“It was a just a few weeks after 9/11 so it was an odd time to be talking to an American, never mind one so unapologetically loud. I walked in and Dan, wearing a ridiculous jacket, stood up and thrust out his work-worn hand and knocked something off the table in front of him. He really was an unstoppable whirlwind and I was only in his company for a few seconds before I realised he was a complete force of nature and that I liked everything about him. He never really stopped talking, which is how I like interviewees, and he gesticulated wildly throughout, spitting out bits of his sandwich and spraying me with coffee. I just sat back and let him go and he covered a lot of ground in a relatively short space of time. I’d crammed in his first three novels before meeting him so I didn’t feel well prepared and the whole 9/11 thing made me anxious about the interview but it didn’t really matter because I hardly got a word in. This was my first real encounter with any Wrecking Ball writer and I loved it. 19 years on and I realise what a privilege it was to spend some time with Dan and then remain in touch with him on and off for the next few years. His voice remains one of the most authentic I’ve ever read. He wrote the way he lived.”
Dan Fante had been to the printers with Wrecking Ball Press editor Shane Rhodes the day before the interview to pick up copies of his collection. The inscription he wrote in Shane’s treasured copy reads: “One of the best days of my life was yesterday, when we picked up this book from the printers – a great moment. Thanks is all I can say. Your pal, Dan Fante.” (10-27-01).
In the interview below, originally published in 2001, Fante talks about the shadow cast by his father John Fante, suicide, alcoholism, his home country, surviving via the written word and his approach to writing.
If this is a game of spot the American then Dan Fante has made it far too easy for me. He’ll be the one sat in the corner of the Hull coffee shop with a rather ridiculous Tom Cruise Top Gun style US Air Force jacket on.
“If you don’t mind me saying, you look every inch the crazy American writer,” I tell him during the obligatory handshake.
“Why thanks man,” he shouts back. I’m not sure I meant it as a compliment, but still. The jacket, it turns out, is Fante’s tribute to those that lost their lives on September 11. Having just read the man’s three autobiographical novels – Chump Change, Mooch and the recently released Spitting Off Tall Buildings – a gesture like this seems totally out of character.
In his fiction, Fante – or rather alter-ego Bruno Dante – is a low life, self interested, suicidal sleazeball writer only interested in fuelling his alcohol dependency and getting laid. He hates everything. EVERYTHING. So you don’t expect an act of kindness. You don’t expect to like Fante. Not one bit. But for two hours of caffeine fuelled chat, he has me mesmerised.
Like his fiction, LA-born Fante leaps out at you. He’s so LOUD. Christ knows what a busy coffee shop thought of this American and his litany of filth. How many times can one man use the words hooker, cocaine and cocksucker? This conversational technique was obviously learnt during the 12 years he lived in New York. Fante certainly has a tale to tell. Unlike Bruno Dante, he’s cleaned up his act. If he hadn’t, he would never have become a writer.
“I’m 57 now. I got sober when I was 42. I started writing when I was 45.
“I was completely broke and I had my last suicide attempt and I was in the most miserable depression.”
But this is only part of the start of the story. Fante’s father is John Fante. John Fante’s writing career began with a book called Wait Until Spring, Bandini. During his lifetime, Fante failed to receive the acclaim that many thought he deserved. He ‘sold out’ his talent by working as a screenwriter in Hollywood.
Fante Sr died of diabetes-related complications at the age of 74. By this time, Charles Bukowski was singing his praises and claiming Fante Sr as a major influence. Understandably, Fante Jr has been influenced too.
“I was obsessed with the failure of my father as a writer and this depression that I’d had for 2-3 years. So I was broke and I was living in the back bedroom of my mother’s house. And it came to me that I had nothing to lose. There were no business opportunities, no jobs, I was sober a couple of years and every job I took was never the right thing. So I would leave jobs. And I finally just sat down to write.
“And what I put down was really a love letter to my father. I felt terrible that at that point he wasn’t nearly as famous as he is now. I felt terrible that his work was undiscovered.”
There’s a blurring of the lines with Fante. Man and myth, truth and fiction, they’re all pretty much the same thing.
“Bruno Dante is me,” he says. “Much of the stuff happened to me personally.”
Fante is as honest as his writing. Bruno’s life is a train-wreck, a disaster that just keeps on happening. He falls in love with the most evil, spiteful women, he cleans windows on the 70th floor of skyscrapers under the influence of huge quantities of alcohol, he goes on binge after binge and hears voices in his head. And this really was Fante’s life.
Now, Fante says, “my greatest fear is to be boring.” There’s no chance of that. In one of his many poems, In Camogli, Fante describes his mile-a-minute writing method: “I can write like a gin-pissing-raw-meat-dual-carburettor-V8-son-of-a-bitch.”
As Fante started writing, in his sober state, he found that his dead father would offer him advice. “I’d have my father’s ghost standing over me saying, ‘take that fucking comma out, put a period there, and when you say a sentence, finish the sentence.’
“I like prose that gets to the point and has punch. I like to be hooked as a reader. Writing should grab you immediately and draw you to it.”
Fante knows that he’s lucky to have lived the life he has – and got out the other side.
“In truth, I should be dead. My older brother drank himself to death three years ago. I just was one of the lucky ones. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve put myself in a position where I should be dead.”
“Writing has replaced alcohol and the terrible mental abhorration. My mind is now fertile and I’m using all of my senses. Alcoholics are always reliving some confrontation, they’re always rewriting and reliving the same moments so that they can get even. And I don’t have to do that any more. I still live in my head but it’s creative, not destructive.”
Anger runs through the sentences that fill the pages of Fante’s work. He says he keeps a lid on this anger now but, listening to him, he’s suffering from the post-modern rage that many of us feel. Despite the patriotic jacket, a lot of this pent up frustration is down to his home country. But this anger fuels his fiction.
“I’m very angry at the pretext of what’s happened to art and literature in America and what television has done. Kids no longer read – and nobody is doing a thing about it. All I have to do is plug into that and I can continue to make comment on and about this American dream that’s not a dream. America can be a horrible place.”
Which is why, despite living in sunny Santa Monica, Fante is considering a move to Europe, where his books sell in bigger numbers.
Several cups of coffee later, Fante and his jacket return to a hotel across the road. I head to the bookshop, anxious, because of what I’ve been told, to get hold of a copy of Fante’s father’s book Ask The Dusk (“that’s the one you should read”). What happens next would make Fante Jr smile.
He’d told me his father’s literary legacy hangs over him. I take the book to the counter. Waterstone’s finest takes my cash and asks, “Read any of his son’s work? It’s very good.” It’s more than good. It’s genius.
This article by Dave Windass was originally published in The Big Issue in the North.
A collection of Dan Fante’s poetry from 1983-2000 – A Gin Pissing, Raw Meat, Dual Carburettor, V-8 Son-of-a-Bitch from Los Angeles, was published by Wrecking Ball Press in 2001. Fante’s novella Corksucker, a framed collection of cab driver stories from the LA streets, was published by Wrecking Ball Press in 2005.