Bold, unruly-looking, unfinished, a work in progress…
Those words could describe UCLA’s Charles E. Young Research Library, currently going through some renovation. They can also apply to one , the late Italian-American novelist (proudly) and screenwriter (winced at the idea) whose manuscripts, letters, family photos, and even the very Underwood typewriter he crafted his beloved novels on—such as Ask the Dust and Full of Life—is now on display at the Young Library, through late June, when the entire exhibit will go online, courtesy of UCLA Library Special Collections.
Better late than never, a fitting tribute has finally arrived for the great Fante (1909-83), a writer championed by Charles Bukowski (he called him “God”) and Robert Towne (who referred to Ask the Dust while crafting his greatest screenplay, Chinatown).
On the afternoon of March 10, a group of about 100 Fante loyalists, including family members, convened at the library’s archival area where official Fante biographer Stephen Cooper delivered a lecture to launch the exhibit. Among the relatives and friends in attendance: Fante's only daughter, Victoria Fante Cohen, and her husband, Michael Cohen; Fante's son, Jim Fante, his wife Jennifer, his mother-in-law, and Jim and Jennifer's son, Damian; Victoria's sons, Robert and Scott Gardner; Giovanna Dilello, a cousin of Victoria and Jim who recently made a documentary film about Fante; and Bukowski's widow, Linda Bukowski. The room was adorned with posters of movies either written by Fante or based on Fante’s books.
The Bonnie Cashin Lecture, a celebration of the creative process endowed by the eponymous fashion designer’s estate, invited Cooper to not only recap the trajectory of Fante’s life and career, from poor-selling novelist to successful screenwriter who grabbed studio money in order to continue to author the books that were his true passion. Often called "the Father of L.A. Lit" who in his books waxed a romantic love/hate for the City of Angels (particularly downtown) and embedded autobiographical scenes with acerbic sardonic wit, Fante burnished his own legend as if it were a magic lamp, and the genie that sprung from it outlived him, granting his greatest wish—critical acclaim for his work as a novelist—almost exclusively posthumously.
He would have been proud of all of the Fante fanfare proliferating in the last few years, from a 2009 centennial commemoration at the Hammer Museum to the recent naming of John Fante Square just northeast of the Central Library downtown, to, as Cooper said, artists such as Sheryl Crow and the Red Hot Chili Peppers “singing Fante’s praises,” and now the Fante-phemera now on display on the Westwood campus. Everything from correspondence with his Ask the Dust editor, H.L. Mencken, and writer friend William Saroyan, to financial papers related to the film Full of Life, his biggest commercial hit which he penned based on his own best-selling book, is part of the display, as is Curtis Hanson’s unproduced screenplay based on Fante’s late masterpiece, 1978’s Brotherhood of the Grape.
With giant photos of a young Fante looming behind him, Cooper, a professor of English at California State University, Long Beach, who has been at the forefront of a Fante revival throughout the 2000s, recalled in his speech (officially titled The Road to John Fante's Los Angeles: A Biographer Reflects) how it took many tries to win the trust of Fante’s widow, the late Joyce Fante. He remembered how Joyce would only meet with him on the patio of the Fante family home in Malibu until she finally gave him access to four cabinets worth of Fante’s papers.
Cooper said Bukowski stumbled onto Ask the Dust in downtown’s Central Library and proclaimed it was akin to "finding a nugget of gold in a dumpster." (Cooper himself, at age 24, had discovered a copy of the novel at a long-gone Westwood book store and profoundly connected with the book.) Bukowski’s passion for Fante ultimately led Santa Barbara-based publisher Black Sparrow to re-release Fante’s out-of-print novels shortly before the author died in 1983.
Cooper said that upon finding a treasure trove of unpublished manuscripts, screenplays and letters, the professor felt as if he had “hit the gold mine.” He said he rented a Xerox machine and had it brought to the Fante residence to make copies of all the papers, many of which are now on display. He was able to discover all kinds of lost works which Cooper fathoms he was often the first to read, from Fante’s rejected epic of Filipino migrant workers in L.A., The Little Brown Brothers, to “a melodramatic movie script” he had been working on near the end of his life, “a murder-mystery he called The Long Nightmare,” an unproduced screenplay about a magician on a quest for the secret of how to raise the dead.
In recalling how immersed and obsessed he was in his diligent scholarship and research on the deceased author, Cooper felt haunted by Fante. Yet for writer and biographer alike, Cooper said, what is curious “is their stubborn resistance to reality.”
“As if I wasn’t haunted enough,” Cooper continued, “among these manuscripts I found a ghost story: The Case of the Haunted Writer, which eerily re-enforced the feelings he was experiencing while wallowing in Fante-sia.
A writer who inhabits the home of its previous owner, a man named Coffin and “slides into paranoia,” Haunted Writer addressed one of Fante’s recurring subject: writer’s block and anxiety.
“He discovers he could no longer find the words,” Cooper said of what he deemed “one of the strangest stories Fante ever wrote.”
During the question and answer period, Cooper addressed a query of where Fante found the name of his literary stand-in, the brash young writer Arturo Bandini. Cooper posed three theories, the simplest one being that Fante purposely borrowed the surname from a famous brand of fertilizer.
According to Cooper, Fante, in his public face, said that he loved to fail; that failure was a healthy part of the process for the artist, serving as a motivator to create better works.
“’Failure is good…it’s a challenge, it’s healthy…I like to fail,’” Cooper quoted Fante as saying.
“We should all fail so beautifully,” Cooper concluded.