Obscure Malibu novelist John Fante celebrated

Novelist John Fante at his desk in his Point Dume home. Although Fante's work inspired the likes of Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac, he never gained recognition until 60 years after his first novel was published. This year he would have been 100. Photo courtesy of Victoria Fante Cohen

The novelist, who would have turned 100 this year, was highly admired by his contemporaries, but did not receive recognition for his work until after his death.

By Melonie Magruder / Special to The Malibu Times

American novelist John Fante, whose novels celebrating the grittier side of Los Angeles are credited for inspiring the works of Charles Bukowski and Jack Kerouac, would have been 100 years old this year. He lived the last part of his writing life in Malibu and, with his centennial, the UCLA Library recently acquired Fante's papers, taken from his Point Dume home, for its Charles E. Young Research Library Department of Special Collections.

Fante's daughter, Victoria Fante Cohen (who still lives in Malibu), said she is pleased her father's papers are being preserved for future scholars, who will have the chance to discover the breadth of Fante's literary vision.

Born into poverty in Boulder, Colorado, Fante came to Los Angeles as a young man in 1930.

"He actually hopped a freight train to come search for his own father who had left his mother," Cohen said. "He wanted to get them back together."

Fante succeeded in reuniting his parents, fell in love with the city and began to write about it, often including autobiographical aspects of his life, such as incarnations of his as a less-than-perfect, Italian workingman.

Fante's characters inhabited the tough, poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Depression-era Los Angeles and his style reflected a brutally honest, emotional reality. His work received immediate critical praise, including that of American satirist and editor H.L. Mencken, who accepted one of Fante's short stories for the literary magazine, The American Mercury, on the condition that he learn how to use a typewriter (Fante's earliest existing manuscripts are hand-written).

But Fante's commercial success lagged behind the raves and he ended up writing for the silver screen to pay bills, a task he found distastefully inartistic. His 1939 novel "Ask the Dust," which was made into a film by Robert Towne, starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek, found its way to The New York Times' bestseller's list 60 years after it was published. Fante was awarded the PEN USA President's Award posthumously in 1987.

"Both 'Wait Until Spring, Bandini' and 'Ask the Dust' were well received by the press," Cohen said. "But dad's publisher, Stackpole Sons, had just published an unauthorized version of 'Mein Kampf' and Hitler sued them. So there was no money to put toward promotion of dad's books. Years later, when Robert Towne was researching his movie 'Chinatown,' Dad gave him a first edition of 'Ask the Dust' and Towne wanted to make a movie out of it right away."

Two of Fante's novels, "Dreams From Bunker Hill" and "Road to Los Angeles," were written during his prolific period of the 1930s, but weren't published until 50 years later. Cohen is bemused by the late public recognition of her father's talent.

"Dad was Bukowski's favorite author and Robert Towne called 'Ask the Dust' the best novel ever written about Los Angeles," Cohen said. "He was compared to Steinbeck and Hemingway. He was even a ghostwriter for William Faulkner at the studios and would hang out with Faulkner at the Stanley Rose Bookstore in Hollywood.

"I think dad was able to really capture the heart and soul of Los Angeles," Cohen continued. "He would use few words, but they were precise and poetic. Towne said he was able to really 'hear' how people of 1930s L.A. talked when he read dad's books."

After Fante died in 1983, his wife Joyce worked with their children (Cohen had three brothers, two surviving, with one, Dan Fante, being an accomplished novelist himself) to organize the voluminous papers left behind. They discovered several unfinished works, including a novel, short stories and collected letters between Fante and some of the brightest literary talents of the last century. One novella, "My Dog Stupid," was written while the Fantes lived in Point Dume and talks about life in Malibu.

Dan Fante, whose new novel "86'd: A Bruno Dante Novel" (Harper Perennial) is coming out later this year, characterized his father as "a post-modern writer in a modern literary era."

"Dad wasn't successful as a writer while we were growing up," Dan said. "No one was genuflecting as they passed our house. So he was sort of cantankerous and unhappy at having to write for television to make ends meet. But he always had time for young writers."

When John Fante's widow left her Point Dume home in 1999, Cohen donated the entire 3,000-volume private library of her parents to the Malibu Public Library, which may be read there today.

"Dad loved Malibu," Cohen said. "He used to hang out at The Malibu Inn. He would have poker parties with his friends Bill Asher (director on "I Love Lucy") and [novelist and playwright] William Saroyan, who lived on old Malibu Road."

Stephen Cooper, an English professor at California State University, Long Beach and biographer of Fante, was instrumental in getting the author's papers housed at UCLA. He said he found a "second-hand copy" of "Ask the Dust" back in 1974 and was hooked.

"It's a bit of a mystery why Fante didn't see greater recognition for his fiction during his lifetime," Cooper said. "But he was ahead of his time in fundamental ways. Editors just didn't get it, so Fante wrote a lot of stuff that was far from guaranteed published. Back then, the literary world was centered in New York. And he spent a lot of energy writing for Hollywood, which didn't do his literary reputation any good."

Thirty-five years ago, Cooper wrote a fan letter to the writer, which Fante answered and which Cooper posted above his desk. It reads, "Writing is a great joy. But the profession of writing is horrible. I wish you all the luck in the world."

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