||Dan Fante in Old London Town
An Interview by Anthony Reynolds
A rainy Monday afternoon in Soho, London.
I'm looking for the 'Groucho club', a fading 21st Century Frank & Musso's.
I'm looking for Dan Fante, author, survivor and second son of John.
John Fante was a writer. In my opinion, one of the truest that ever wrote. He's written lines that make you stop right there, place the book on your chest, and say 'Fuck' to an empty room.... some of John Fante's lines have brought me closer to the essence of true beauty.
But then, by God... you know that...
In doing so, I've met the essence but not the man.
Today I'll forge a tangible link with one of my heroes, through his son. Someone who will turn out to be a strikingly rare and real man in himself. I don't use that term; 'man' often. maybe you'll see what I mean later...
But right now I'm late... dying for a drink...I don't want to fuck the guy about.. this place... looks like the reception of some evil skyscraper... maybe it's here... smells like Keith Allen...
There are a lot of good pubs in Soho and Dan Fante hasn't been to any of 'em.
He also hasn't drunk for 14 years, which is 6 years longer than I have been drinking... I'm having large Scotch and Coke, Dan's having soda with a twist. The pub is the 'French House', a place that's survived while it's most famous patrons have died... (Francis Bacon, Jeffrey Bernard)...
They are dead but we're not. We're at the back, the place where people meet to have affairs, invisible from the street.
Dan is slightly distant and very polite, largely avoiding eye contact.
His face has an almost 'Hollywood' sheen to it. I mean... he looks like someone playing 'Dan Fante'. Something of the Bulldog about him... White Hair cropped, he appears youthful rather than young... this is accentuated by the stud in the left nostril.
He's in the middle of a promotional tour for his latest (second) novel; 'Mooch'. For all he knows, I'm some just some young hack, with nothing but brief notes from the editor as prior knowledge of him and his legacy. He isn't aware, yet of the deep and profound Love I have for his Father's work... I've read it all, the recent Biography included. I've also read Dan's first published novel; 'Chump Change'. Maybe you're familiar with it. It'd make a good film. It's grotesquely readable, full of quiet horror and broad melancholy. It falls short of a 'masterpiece', in my opinion but the seeds are there. I can't help comparing it to his dad's stuff... c'mon... but we'll get to John later, I hope.
When my scotch has kicked in. I feel good and loose now and Dan has opened up too...
He has one of the realest faces I've ever seen.
Who was it that said 'by the time he is fifty, a man has the face he deserves'? Dan looks like he's lived a tough life but a life that was his own...
We skip through the usual subjects; coke abuse, downer abuse, sawn off baseball bats, crack and anal sex, booze, of course... how all of the afore mentioned seem to go so well together...
I turn the tape recorder on around my third double.
We are talking about limo driving in the early/mid seventies..(later Dan tells me that he drove Bowie in this period..imagine those two fuck-ups in the same car! beautiful!) as you do...
Dan: '...Because I didn't have a life, if I wasn't driving a limo, I was drunk at home... I was in and out of marriages, relationships... living in a real dump... my boss knew that... after several warnings I stopped drinking while I was working. I was working a 78 hour week and wearing suits that were so stiff, they stood up on their own... My boss said..(an' he lived to regret it)... he said 'let's open a limo service in LA, together, 50/50'...so I opened this Limousine company with this bitch who had a propensity for a drug called 'black beauties'... pure meth speed...'
Listening to the tape in retrospect, it strikes me that when Dan drawls the words;' black beauties', it is, actually, Iggy Pop speaking.
Seems Dan was hitting the mood wizards himself at this point...
There's something about mixing uppers and downers with inbetweens. Try it. It'll stop you doing anything and make you not mind at all. You'll feel like you're doing... everything. And nothing. You've never felt so good about doggypaddling/sleepwalking. Heh... It'll also take you into other spheres... unjust spheres.
Much of the cassette is taken up at this point of talk of Crabs, (genital), celibacy, wearing your best friends Jeans, whilst not wearing pants... (it improves the Sperm count)... oh, all sorts. But what of writing?
Well... I.. We.. Oh..not now.... Now we must speak of Ron Jeremy, international porn star... Nurjev of the pop-shot... oh go on... be annoyed if you like... you fuck... it's not often I come here, now.
We'll get to Academia later...
'You can count from fifteen to one... and he will come'... Dan has seen the guy in action. On film. I think... 'He will come. To order. Absolutely on request'. We talk some more... Ron is obese now, apparently. (I wonder how Peter North is looking)?... We reach our own conclusion on the subject. 'we digress' drawls Dan. Yes. Nice diversion, though... considering the Scotch is making my Blood hum...
At this point it strikes me; Dan is one of those wonderful people who has been as high as you like in his time and yet isn't freaked out by the intoxication of others... even though that's a route he's forgone.
My mellowness of mood is coming across to him, he's joining in... it's a lovely way to spend a rainy Monday.
For me, anyway, for sure.
I ask Dan if he still frequents bars and pubs...
'For sure... I mean, it depends... I hang out with actors 'cos I've got this play going on...('The Boiler Room') this is the play that Ran in LA for two years. The LA times named it as one of the best plays of '98. Now we finally got the money together to take it to New York. I don't mind going to bars...'
For some reason, at this point we start talking about the elderly having sex for the last time. The point is, are they aware at the time that 'this is the the last time'? I guess it's to do with the fact that Dan doesn't drink and I'm getting at how tough it must be to say 'This is the last drink'?
'It doesn't happen like that', Dan tells me. He speaks with the unaffected tone of experience. 'You take it a day at a time'.
'It's about prorates.. .too. Sex was my top priority for a long time. Now the top priority is my work. The second is staying sober.
Have you read 'Mooch'?
I haven't read Mooch. Dan's second novel. Haven't seen it anywhere. I want to read it. "I've read Chump change, of course..."
"Mooch is the sequel", Dan tells me. I'm surprised at this... to me, 'Chump change' seems so complete. As the book ends, it ends pretty surely, a chapter ending on a life. "it's a pretty definitive ending" I venture, lamely. Across the bar old queens gossip. Rain is falling on old London town. But there's Scotch a plenty. My glass is full. What a wonderful pub this is. What great company, too. I go on, (and on):
"Of course... it was you're old man's work that brought me to 'Chump Change'."
My mind is wandering. I'm thinking of the hands of Nick Fante, John's old man. Brick laying in the snow. And how, on finishing 'Brotherhood of the Grape' I phoned my Ma.
'Are you sure there's no Italian in our family'?
Alas, no. Welsh and Irish. How dull. Didn't I feel the same after watching 'Godfather'? This is the effectJohn Fante's work has on you. Early Scorcese too... Marlon... a fine actor. Big hands. Yes, He had big hands too... Like Nick Fante. Stout papa... (hang on..weren't the stone mason's hands stubby and tough)?
Dan brings us back to earth. Lord, I ain't no interviewer.
It's that Iggy twang again, reeling me in; "I should ask you, really... or you should ask me... the styles (of John and Dan Fante), are very similar except the context is very different'
Hmmm..I disagree but am not sure exactly why.
I sip the Scotch delicate, like. Then order another.
'Your Father wrote in a different style, it seems to me... I mean The Road to Los Angeles was so different to the majority of his work.' (in fact, the atmosphere of this, subtly psychotic, is aped mucho in Brett Easton Ellis' 'American Psycho'... ) and then there was 'Wait Until Spring Bandini' (You know, there's a Scott Walker song by the same name, minus 'Bandini')... which was written so consummately from the child's point of view... by consummate, I mean this book asked and answered the same question in however many pages... it was a 300 page poem to me..'
Dan; 'It's his style... there's a fluidity that he managed around that time... it's interesting in that he wrote 'Wait Until Spring' before 'Ask The Dust'... 'Bandini'... in structure it has a beginning an an end... 'Ask The Dust' does not. It rushes for a hundred pages and then falls off... it's choppy. The first hundred pages are jerky and choppy... it's written by a guy who is forcing his writing... I mean, I knew my old man... and then he hits about page one hundred and it just flows. So, there are two styles... if you ever read it again... read the beginning and the first hundred pages are hard and then it reaches a point where it just begins to flow... and it cuts loose, and it's uneven... but it's brilliant'
I must admit, I hadn't noticed his pacing. The book for me is a seamless beauty. I hadn't jarred upon such differing rhythms; 'Maybe it takes a writer to notice that' I ask.
'Well, you know, it had such an impression on me when I read it. I was twelve years old... 'Ask The Dust' was the only novel he wrote where he actually confronted his feelings openly and dealt with what was really going on with him... his gut-level aspirations. The detestation. And he really dealt with that'.
How would you compare father and son, then?
'The edge that I use is the same edge of that protagonist in my writing.
This isn't something I did consciously... I always just wrote what I had to write. My father became a quite literary writer. His prose is just... beautiful... and... well... he was a powerful presence... a real raconteur...'
I'm reminded now that I had worried about my motives in meeting Dan.
John has outwritten Dan, in terms of published works... eleven (not including the collected letters) to two at this point. I've wallowed in all of John's prose... And, of Dan's I'd only read 'Chump Change'. I'd anticipated the possibility that Dan may have felt threatened by his father's reputation, overshadowed, dominated... and that he wouldn't want to discuss the work of his old man... not now, when at last, deprived of the monsoon of booze and drugs, his own work was at last in bloom. But no. That's not the case And I think this is a real compliment to Fante Junior's integrity and character.
I mean... relation or not... imagine meeting and relating to a writer that didn't appreciate the mastery and majestry of John Fante's work?
I recall the scene in 'Chump Change' where Bruno (Dan) goes into the City Lights bookshop and can't even afford his father's book.
"The thing about that book, Anthony, is that it really is the consummate novel of somebody so self conscious and driven by their demons and being honest about... I mean, think about it... 1937... it was so un literary to write a book like that. I mean, it's contemporaries were 'Grapes of Wrath' and 'For Whom The Bell Tolls'. I mean, there's nothing wrong with that shit... but compared to a guy writing first person narrative in 1937? It was very unpopular... and it was a great book. Just a great book. Completely singular in it's vision and unlike anything else of it's time.'
Asteroids fall on distant planets, in Alaska, a movie ends in a shabby theatre... somewhere in Asia, the Messiah is born.
In Soho, I remember what I need to say; "For me the best works are a universe to themselves. You enter their world and then leave. They are...that word again..consummate. Also, I've read Steinbeck and Hemingway and those guys... and of course, they are good... but there's no Blood...'
Dan: 'There's no Balls'
'There's an idea of Blood and there's a representation of Blood... but... it's interesting, just today I was cramming, re-reading a lot of John's stuff, 'cos I didn't want to make an idiot of myself tonight..."
Dan: "Nor me!"
"oh you'll be fine... you've just gotta'...
Dan "Stand up and not puke... haww..."
(tonight is a John Fante night at Borders Bookshop, Oxford Street, London. Dan and I are 'hosting' it).
Dan: 'Maybe I should just show up and puke!"
I lose my train of thought and start to think about the hands of Nick Fante.
The Soho rain has eased off. An afternoon lull has settled on the French House. Twilight time between the Oasis of the lunchtime pint and the after work blitz. A good few hours before we take 'stage' at Borders.
'You know of Jeffrey Bernard, Dan'?
'I heard o'him... wasn't he one of your English drinkers'?
I explain. Then suggest we visit the late Jeff's favourite oasis. The Coach and Horses. A few yards away and a wonderful pub.
We are soon there. I forget that Dan isn't drinking. He seems to be going along with it all, at my pace. We talk of Catholic guilt, the shame of robbing one's own money box, penance... I mention Ted Hughes... Dan's heard the name but it means little. I ponder on the rare collision of Artists worlds. How frreaky it was for the Beatles to meet up with Elvis. Freakier that there's no photo's of this mythical meeting.
I ask if Dan met Bukowski...?
Many times, in the hospital ward where John Fante lay dying.
It's the first time I've heard it, but Dan says... 'Bukowski was a gentlemen. Real laid back'.
So... The Coach and Horses. A place where I once saw legendary landlord; 'Norman' throw someone out for being 'too boring'. It's here that the maudlin drunk act kicks in... (usually a precursor to the raging-drunk thing)... I'm bemoaning to Dan the obscurity of an audience for what I do... and..also... though in a different league and realativeley speaking for what he does... for what John did...
"I once said to my father...after he wrote 'Dreams from Bunker Hill'... 'What is this...? What are you doing? This is so uncommercial. Look at this stuff... I said it tactfully or he would have bit my head off... I said 'Pop, this is a story about an old man dying from diabetes and alcoholsim up in the hills of Calafornia. Who is gonna' read this?... He said 'That's not my business. My business is to write it and it will find it's audience if it's good.'
Where does 'Chump Change' and 'Mooch' fit into this?
'My books are so uncommercial in their appeal... but if a work is true and clear... if it expresses you... it's gonna' change somebody... it's gonna' change their life... people have visceral reaction... people will react not in an intellectual way... but in a... in a... a... soul way'
There. He said it. Fante... soul music of the printed page.
What better description?
Well... I pass on a quote I picked up recently, regarding Henry Miller from the 'Odessey' film... It's where Anis Nin recounts a letter written to her where someone wrote her; 'Henry Miller's last book... Man... it re-arranged... my chromosones!"
In the Coach and horses, London, Soho, on a Monday afternoon, Dan Fante slaps his Palm against the wooden table in approval:
'Walk me back man... I gotta' get a call from my publisher'.
So.. the tape has ended now.... what follows is a re-visit to the Groucho... I stumble through 'Mooch' in the Bar as Dan deals with whatever up in the hotel room... an hour passes... we are in a black cab... the ice singing in my latest large Scotch as we sail the short distance up to Oxford Street through the Christmas light - bollocks London night...
Then we're there... at the table... Jane, the sweetest events manager Border's ever had... (she has invited and tolerated my presence at recent and previous Bukowski and Jacques nights...) sits us down... arranges wine... becalms us... (the place fills up... a good crowd... so that's what Fante readers look like... a young bunch.) Off we go.... Red-wine has replaced the Scotch... I read a few Bukowksi pieces; poems about John and letters to John Martin where Bukowski speaks of the effect of John's work on himself... and the world.... Dan reads the opening paragraph of 'Mooch'..it's scatter-shotgun brutal and funny... the delivery pumping the words out as one imagines they were written-black bullet holes appearing in space.... as funny and relentless as their writer.
I read a piece from 'Brotherhood of the Grape'... 'One of the main reasons I like this stuff is 'cos it's funny. And this is a funny passage'.
I finish and no-one laughs. The booze has screwed my timing and the audience have taken on the appearance of stuffed animals... a red-faced Goon in the front row tells me that 'You think everything's funny'...
This freak looks embarrassed or like he's just come...
'Your ugly red face doesn't amuse me...'
Dan: 'Where the hell did that come from'?
Despite this slurp of fun, the reading goes well... the audience are respectful and appreciative if a little London like (reserved)...(at one point I single out a bright looking guy - 'Any questions? You... why do you enjoy Fante'? His reply is the tone of the audience; 'Uhh, I'll think of something, uh...later... maybe'? Good grief).
It ends... Dan signs copies of 'Mooch' for what seems like every audience member... (I get this book a week later... it's funnier and deeper than Dan's debut... leaves you with a sense of loss once you've finished it... you miss the characters... come home disappointed to find the book closed, once you've read it... it would make a great Film... if that's a compliment now... the third in this trilogy will be the masterpiece).
We retire to a near-by Bar... Dan, myself and two friends of mine.... whom I initially and mischeviously introduce to Dan as 'two Groupies'- his response is to say nothing, tilt his head and flick an eyebrow upwards momenterialy)...
We take our seats... Dan's attitude seems to mellow slightly, now that we're in the presence of females... something of the old school gentlemen is suddenley about him. The bulldog is Charming and gracious... he suddenley appears somehow exotic in this light... there are four of us at this table... but I sense the presence of John and Nick... through the bottom of my Glass... through the prisim of Dan Fante's authenticity... whatever that may mean now...
The friend to my left, suitably forthright and noticing the 'Soda with a twist' that Dan is cradling... asks how and when he gave up the Booze...
'Let's say I had a... a... conversion of sorts... I'd reached a nadir... with the drinking and what have you... shooting out the mirrors in my Hollywood apartment with a Magnum... I reached a trough and I had a... a sudden insight...'
I drain the Scotch..
'I just knew... in a moment... that everything was gonna' be alright'...
Let the next round begin.