canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999


TDR Interview: Dan Fante 

By Matthew Firth

Itís a common problem. Well, maybe not common, but familiar: living in the shadow of a successful parent. It makes life tough on the kids. But what if your old man was John Fante, the legendary Los Angeles-via-Colorado writer? John Fante is, after all, the guy who inspired Charles Bukowski to stop his hoboing antics to become one of 20th centuryís finest and most influential writers. The story goes, Bukowski stumbled on John Fanteís novel Ask the Dust in an L.A. library and discovered writing that was so close to the bone, honest and devoid of the flowery pretence that infected so much other modern literature, he fell in love.

Now comfortably into the sixties, Dan Fante has produced some of the best straight-shooting, from-the-gut writing in recent years. Iíll take it further and say Fanteís writing stacks up next to all the best, brawling heavyweight writers Ė this includes Bukowksi, Hubert Selby, Henry Miller, an ole John Fante himself. Whatís more, Dan Fante is not merely the next in line, an inheritor of some bad-ass crown. His writing has its own flavour, while drawing on the fine tradition of salty American letters. Thereís booze, bravado, violence, longing, sex, and rage laid bare on the pages of Danís books. But thereís also vulnerability, perhaps even maturity, in his work that is missing in, for example, most of Bukowskiís stuff. Maybe itís because Dan Fante found success later in life than these other guys. Or maybe itís because he canít shake the fact that heís John Fanteís boy, and, like a young boy, Dan Fanteís writing knows and shows anger but it also knows and shows openness.

Dan Fante is also a versatile writer. He is the author of three novels (Chump Change, Mooch and Spitting Off Tall Buildings, all first published in English in the UK by Canongate Books and now available in North America from Sun Dog Press); a poetry collection (A Gin - Pissing - Raw - Meat - Dual - Caburetor - V8 - Son - Of - A - Bitch From Los Angeles Ė Sun Dog Press); a highly-praised play (Don Giovanni Ė Burning Shore Press); an attractive, single story chapbook (Renewal Ė Bottle of Smoke Press); and a short story collection (first published in the UK by Wrecking Ball Press as Corksucker and then published in April 2006 in the US by Sun Dog Press as Short Dog, subtitled Cab driver stories from the LA streets). Translations have followed of most of his books in French, Italian, Dutch, German and other languages. This outpouring of work came to print in the last eight years.

The new book Ė Short Dog Ė is a thin but explosive collection of stories, just eight in total. As the subtitle proclaims; cab-driving is the fulcrum here. Which is no surprise as work/labour is central to Danís fiction. Chump Change and Mooch (esp. the latter) focus on telephone sales work. Spitting Off Tall Buildings plots twelve years of Bruno Danteís ups and downs in New York City, including stints as a window washer, cinema usher, and cab driver. This working-manís blues dimension further aligns Dan with Selby and Bukowski. The proletarian spirit Ė also present in John Fanteís work, e.g., Brotherhood of the Grape Ė helps give Dan Fanteís work an edge and a rare authenticity.

The main character of his novels and short stories is named Bruno Dante. Again, itís like Bukowski and his thinly-veiled alter-ego Henry Chinaski or, more closely, Danís fatherís Arturo Bandini character. Some readers donít like this small degree of separation between fiction and autobiography. When itís done well, like with Dan Fante, this style of writing can make fiction all the more powerful. I have no use for fiction where the writer hides, where the prose and plot is so generic and formulaic anyone could be the author. Good writing demands the writer bare not just his or her soul Ė Iíll take it further and say they should bare it all: blood, sweat, tears, semen, vaginal fluids; you name the secretion, an honest writer lets it ooze right there on the page for the reader to examine and revel in. This is Dan Fante to a T. He holds nothing back. Itís one reason his books are head and shoulders above the precious, literary drivel too much on offer in recent years.

Dan Fante also lights a fire under his prose, injecting it with energy and punch. Like Selby, not a word is compromised Ė the prose is swift, economical, and razor sharp:

I hated being stuck driving a cab. Since taking the gig again, my life had been drained of meaning. Stalled. The taxi business extracts the vital fluids from a manís body twelve-hours-a-day, six-days-a-week, a drop at a time. L.A. cab driving isnít useful work. It is human refuse relocation, the transportation of decomposing flotsam from one plastic fast food neighbourhood to the next.

From "Renewal" in Short Dog

And:

The half-juiced asshole was on his morning break, in his van at the corner of the parking lot, when one of the cabbies from the line approached the vehicle with Bobís wife Patsy close behind. As me and half a dozen of the guys watched from a distance, Patsy unlocked the vanís sliding door with her key and pulled it open. Inside, Wifebeater Bob was being orally serviced by a hooker named Erin-Lee. It was the best hundred bucks Iíd ever spent.

From "Wifebeater Bob" in Short Dog

You can read more about Fante on his website: http://www.danfante.net/

(May 2006)

*

MF: You write in many forms. Why?

DF: Boredom. A novel takes two or three years for me to write. Day in and day out with these characters living in my head like giant blood-sucking ticks. Ghouls. The shit drains me. I need a break after a novel so I write poems or a play.

MF: Which form are you most comfortable with or is that a stupid question? Is it a simple matter of how the stuff comes out that determines its form?

DF: Iím actually comfortable in all the forms I use. That wasnít always the case. The novel takes some getting used to, to get the pacing right. It really takes at least one manuscript to teach yourself how to write.

MF: Whether itís a short story, poem or novel, you donít ease off the accelerator. Some novelists coast, stick in filler. Your stuff is like a Ramones song: high-octane from the first word to the last but you pull this off over 190 pages, in the case of your novels. How do you keep the energy level and pace so high in your writing?

DF: Two things here. #1: Bad, tedious writing should be punishable with jail time. And #2: Fear. Iíve always been scared shitless of being boring. I really abhor tedious, unconscious, literary riffing. Itís like watching some one jerk off. At first youíre glad theyíre having fun but after a while Ė a very short while Ė youíre bored to death.

MF: I wrote an article recently for The Danforth Review that was critical of Canadian writers compared to American writers. I claimed that the US has a rich tradition of significant (i.e., not marginalized to obscure small presses), salty and provocative writers. Youíre part of this tradition Ė it carries through Henry Miller, Hubert Selby, Charles Bukowski, Kathy Acker and others, including your father, John Fante. First of all, do you think the US makes more room for from-the-gut literature? Second, if you agree that this tradition exists, why is there more room for it in the US than in Canada?

DF: American publishers have zero room for first person fiction or personal narrative. Zero! Iím sure itís invariably true for Canadians as well. Contemporary North American publishers think "blockbuster" and "best seller." The industry is run by MBAs. Whatís "commercial" is all they care about. American editors are morons and capricious, bloodsucking liars. To a man. They should be taken out back and flogged twice a week for the preposterous shit they do to writers.

MF: Are you part of this tradition of ballsy writers or do you fit somewhere else?

DF: Iím not adverse to be in the Selby-Miller-Bukowski school. There are some excellent post modern writers around today.

MF: One reason I ask is because your stuff was not immediately embraced in the US, i.e., your novels were first published in English in the UK. So, adding to the previous question, how does this further situate you in terms of an American tradition of hardcore writers?

DF: My work was first published in France. The French really do appreciate first persona fiction. Theyíre goofy and anal in their literary tastes. Thank Jesus or Iídíve gone back to Jack Daniels.

MF: I read a quote from you that referred to Kafka, wherein you said something to the effect that a novel should hit the reader over the head. Is this (being a provocateur) something youíre aware of when you write?

DF: The quote Ė Iíll paraphrase Ė is that a good novel should affect one like a blow to the head. Why not? The rest is rat vomit. John Updike and Saul Bellow and jerk-offs like that.

MF: If so, why? That is, why is it necessary for writers to be more provocative these days? To separate themselves from the hoards of mainstream writers who arenít provocative?

DF: No, I donít think so. I think a good writer feels an obligation to his reader. A good book can change the world. Bullshit clogs toilets. Something like that.

MF: Youíve had a tremendous out-pouring of work in the last ten years. Why have the last ten years of your life been so productive on the literary front?

DF: I quit drinking. It saved my life and my sanity.

MF: Only as a writer Ė if itís possible, though I doubt it is, to fully put aside family relations Ė is it a curse or a blessing or somewhere in between to be the son of John Fante?

DF: Oh, itís okay. After a while a writer makes his own way Ė says what he needs to say. My name happens to be Fante. If it was Kowalski the message would still be the same Ö and probably the book sales too. Christ knows Iím not what youíd call a popular writer.

MF: Are you fed up with the whole son-of-John-Fante angle?

DF: Hell no. Whatever gets people to read my stuff is fine with me. And the difference between us as writers is pretty obvious.

MF: Still, can you appreciate interviewers being curious about this, about how being the son of a very significant and influential writer affects your work?

DF: My old man was not famous when I was growing up. He was a hack Hollywood writer, busting his ass on rewrite deadlines to make a buck. Like so many others his screenplays were thrown and/or rewritten. So much for fame as a Hollywood writer. I never knew the John Fante of 2006. That man is a celebrity look-alike. He was long dead when I began to write.

MF: Because your father is there in your fiction Ė Iím thinking of Chump Change where his impending death is what kick-starts the novel and the examination of Brunoís relationship to his father is what the carries the book to its end. I admire this sort of honesty, this sort of laid-bare approach. But I get the sense you squirm a bit more when talking about the issue, perhaps compared to writing about it in your fiction. How accurate is this, that is, is it easier to write about your relationship to your father in fiction or pick over it in an interview? Why?

DF: Sumerset Maugham said, "If you wish to exorcise a demon write about him." I had mountains of ka-ka with my old man. Writing a novel about him was wonderfully helpful.

MF: Speaking of picking over, thereís been lots of this with Charles Bukowski. Thereís no denying his success and popularity. But heís still not held in the highest regard in critical circles, likely for a variety of reasons. But heís read Ė thereís no denying this; readers of all stripes are drawn to his work, which I think is a remarkable achievement. Can you weigh in with an opinion on Bukowski, given that his work owes so much to your fatherís?

DF: Iíll make this answer short: Good poet. Really good. But just a so-so novelist.

MF: Whatís your take on your fatherís current position in the literary landscape? You speak very highly of his work in your fiction. Is John Fante as widely read and respected as you think he should be?

DF: Iím delighted that heís received the recognition that was so long denied him and his work. Quite simply Pop was one of the top two or three best writers of the Twentieth Century.

MF: Another thing Iím always belly-aching about (especially here in Canada) is that fiction writers donít write enough about work, donít offer a working class perspective or (less politically) donít deem writing about the stuff most of us do day-to-day as worthy literary subject matter. Youíre the opposite. Jobs, especially shit jobs, are front and centre in your fiction. Why?

DF: A writer writes about what he knows. I know about bad women and shit jobs. If they taught that stuff at college, Iíd be a tenured professor.

MF: Is writing just another shit job?

DF: Christ no. Writing is a gift from God. Writing saved me from myself. Writing keeps me sane in a very insane world.

MF: Do you feel youíve arrived somewhere, now that the blood, sweat and shit of past labours and struggles is behind you? Or is it ever truly behind you?

DF: I want people to read my stuff. If they read my stuff, they tell others and I sell more books. If I sell more books I make more money. If I make more money I can produce the plays in my drawer. I want to be a rich fat producer of the plays of Dan Fante.

Matthew Firth lives in Ottawa. His new short story collection Ė Suburban Pornography and Other Stories Ė will be published in October 2006 by Anvil Press.

 

 

 

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