Recently I did a review on the neglected author John Fante. Well, he had a son and his son decided to follow in the big footsteps of his father, becoming a writer of gritty and sardonic wit and insight. The first and only book of Fante’s I’ve read is his much lauded Chump Change (1998), the title of which has all the hardboiled potential of a Chandler or Hammett novel. Set in New York and LA, Fante’s protagonist, Bruno Dante discovers after getting out of jail that his father is in a coma and not expected to live. What ensues is a trip to LA where Dante, a part-time drunk and aspiring writer, eventually winds up naked in a car with an underage hooker.
While lacking the subtle, poetic nature of his father, Dan still manages to deliver a brutal dialogue of kaleidoscopic characters, each of who seems to suffer from their own dose of madness. I would not describe, as some have, the novel as vulgar, but rather describe it as colourfully raw. What it lacks in subtlety it makes up for in delivery—Fante strikes me as the old-school story-teller—where his father still adhered to a sense of macabre tradition. Fante Sr spoke of love and life in a world-weary context, whereas Fante Jr prefers the bleaker, gutting path of brute candour- simplistic and visceral to the point of hilarity. As such, Dan is more of a humourist than his father, in a way.
Yet both Dan and John present the archetype (their archetype) luckless character—not simply world-weary but world-deceived and cheated. Dan’s man, an ex-con alcoholic (as well as an aspiring writer, like John Fante’s Bandini) performs his character in a way that induces sympathy from even the most scathing of critics. This is not a new technique—writers and directors alike have always managed to provoke sympathy in the viewer/reader for the small-time crim who just needs to be loved. But Dan’s execution of this character induces a kind of sympathy that borderlines pity and patheticism.
Interestingly, while on the one hand one feels pity for the protagonist, there is also a touch of envy, that brutality of language that aligns itself with a no-nonsense insight, only capable of developing through living the tough life. Again, turning dirt-living into poetry in nothing new, but its success is varied, and often can degenerate into a storm of clichés. Thankfully, Dan steers clear of the usual route and forms a character who is not necessarily the villain with a heart of gold, but a fence-sitting soul caught up in a world and life he has no control over, with a heart that is heavy but not made of pure gold. This is the driving characteristic of the novel. If we were to be subjected to yet another golden-hearted villain again, we may have grown tired of that used-up caricature. Fante’s point is that those real victim/villains may not be able to be deep and profound enough for redemption. The heart in itself is symbolic, as it is Dante’s father’s heart that continues to beat once taken off life support: ‘It refuses to stop. It’s the only organ he has still functioning and it won’t give out.’
Like his dad John, Dan maps out a colourful LA in his writing, though contrary to his father, Dan’s expression is not as artful as it is dark and jaded:
“Seeing LA from the air was more frightening than memory permitted. Real, vivid, science fiction. It was just after sundown when we began to land. The natural light of day was gone, replaced by billions of smog particles that gave the coming darkness a hue of blood in a draining sink. This enormous, overfed, infected pink pig of a city rolled across the landscape as far as the eye could see, coughing, snorting and sucking up whatever was once natural and undisturbed.”
The link between the city, one decrepit and lost in Dante’s eyes, mirrors Dante’s own tortured, lost soul: “I was decomposing from within, like this preposterous town LA was the right place for me after all. I belonged here with the killers of my father: the mind-fucking twenty-two year old movie producers and distribution gurus who’d dictated the course of his life. I was a true son of LA”
Throughout much of the novel, the character Dante is in what he describes as a ‘drunken sexual frenzy’, and the lyrical prose attests to such an observation. Dante is at once detached and connected, viewing his life from behind a glass while living it to its most brutal reality. Often it is the simplicity of observation (rather than excessive poeticism) that favours the reader the most. When waking next to his underage hooker with a stutter, Dante delves into his broken memory: ‘Next to me was the skinny body of a boy without a dick—segments of the memory of the night before were coming back in grey flashes—Angie?—Edith?—Amy!’
This is a blood-on-the-pages tale not to be underestimated or undervalued. The enigmatic city of L.A. has not been too kind to either Dan or his father. But while Ask the Dust set up the scene in a more surreal manner, Dan’s Chump Change effectively breaks through the veneer to expose a more sinister, though amusing, side. The book ends on an ambiguous note, and I am unsure of how exactly to feel. Although the last line will reassure readers of Fante’s mastery over depth.
Other works by Fante Jr include:
Spitting Off Tall Buildings (2002)
Short Dog: Cab Driver Stories from the L. A. Streets (2002)
Gin Pissing, Raw Meat, Dual Carburettor V-8 Son-of-a-Bitch from Los Angeles (2002), poetry
Don Giovanni: A Play (2006)
Kissed by a Fat Waitress (2008), poetry
Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking and Surviving (2011)