In his current book, "An Offer We Can't Refuse: The Mafia in the Mind of America," George De Stefano bemoans the fact that young Italian Americans know themselves only through skewed popular images: "They know all about John Gotti but not John Fante." Unfortunately, you don't have to be Italian American not to know who John Fante was, though perhaps a few more will discover his work thanks to Robert Towne's adaptation of Fante's best-known novel, "Ask the Dust," starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek, which opens March 10.
If it weren't for Charles Bukowski, who regarded Fante as his (please excuse the term, but it applies) literary godfather and who dedicated poems to him, it's likely that few would remember Fante's name today. Bukowski, who was known in the early part of his literary career to go around shouting, "I am Arturo Bandini!" in tribute to Fante's ebullient, raw-nerved literary alter ego, was instrumental in getting Fante's books back into print in the late '70s, shortly before Fante's death in 1983. (Twelve of his books are currently in print from Ecco, including all four of the Arturo Bandini novels.)
Fante -- the name rhymes with Dante, which must have afforded no end of amusement to someone whose best-known character constantly proclaimed a desire to be "the world's greatest writer" -- is one of the true bad boys of 20th century American literature. Born in 1909 and raised in an Italian American ghetto in, of all places, Boulder, Colo., Fante fits into no particular niche. Many refer to him as the quintessential L.A. novelist -- not exactly the most glowing of recommendations, but one that does take in, after all, Raymond Chandler and Nathanael West, whose "Day of the Locust" was published in 1939, the same year as "Ask the Dust." (Michael Tolkin, author of "The Player," is a longtime admirer of Fante's work. He recently told the Los Angeles Times that if the Los Angeles school system was serious about its curriculum, it would "make 'Ask the Dust' mandatory reading.")
Others have called him the big brother of the Beats. Italian Americans have never known quite what to do with him; second-generation Italian Americans might display a copy of "Christ in Concrete" by Pietro Di Donato on their bookshelves (as my father did), even though Di Donato was a communist, because, after all, he had achieved some measure of respect in the literary world, as few Italian Americans had. But John Fante was notorious. My father's generation didn't read him, or didn't admit to reading him, which is a shame because in many ways he was the writer who most embodied the hopes, dreams and insecurities of the children of immigrants.