10 January 2017

I am Arturo Bandini

by Paul D. Marks

By Nail Babayev (Own work)
[CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)],
 via Wikimedia Commons
Robert Towne, screenwriter of Chinatown and writer-director of Ask the Dust, has called Ask the Dust by John Fante the greatest novel ever written about Los Angeles.

“Fante was my God,” Charles Bukowski wrote in the introduction to a later edition of Ask the Dust.

***

This post is the tale of a young punk and John Fante, author of Ask the Dust, Dreams from Bunker Hill, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, and more. They never met, they never talked, they never corresponded (though sort of), but one was greatly influenced by the other.

Some time before Fante died the young punk discovered his work, especially his seminal work, Ask the Dust, about Arturo Bandini (Fante’s alter ego), a young writer struggling in Los Angeles in the 1930s. The young punk devoured everything of Fante’s he could get his hands on, and at that time not everything was in print as Fante hadn’t been rediscovered yet. The punk thought that Fante was speaking to him, writing about him. The punk related to Bandini’s struggles and aspirations.

Ask the Dust is Bandini’s story. Bandini was born to be a writer and he is more than excited when he sells his first short story. Fante, uh, Bandini, was a struggling writer living in the Bunker Hill section of Los Angeles in the 1930s (see my piece on Sleuth Sayers from 12/2016 –  http://www.sleuthsayers.org/2016/12/remembering-los-angeles-bunker-hill-in.html  for more on Bunker Hill). Even then the once-impressive neighborhood, filled with grand Victorian mansions, was rundown. Many of the mansions had been turned into cheap rooming houses. Both Fante and Bandini lived in cheap hotels there, Fante in the Alta Vista, renamed the Alta Loma for Bandini:

The hotel was called the Alta Loma. It was built on a hillside in reverse, there on the crest of Bunker Hill, built against the decline of the hill, so that the main floor was on the level with the street but the tenth floor was downstairs ten levels. If you had room 862, you got in the elevator and went down eight floors, and if you wanted to go down in the truck room, you didn't go down but up to the attic, one floor above the main floor. – John Fante, Ask the Dust

Bandini (Fante) traveled the streets of downtown LA, from Pershing Square to the Grand Central Market, where he liked to look for girls. Bandini was elated when he finally sold his first short story, as was the punk when he sold his first paid piece – an article on John Lennon.


Screenwriter Towne decided he wanted to make a movie of the book. His dream finally came true in 2006, with mixed results. But one thing that the movie got right was the sets, at least in tone. Built on two “football” fields in South Africa, they recreated the look and feel of the hot and dusty Bunker Hill of the 1930s. Maybe every little thing isn’t in the exact place it should be, maybe every little detail isn’t exactly right, but the overall ambience and milieu is there and you feel like you’re there among the hoi polloi and the people just hustling to get by. And you feel that you could run into Bandini – or Fante – in a diner or the Columbia Buffet on Spring Street.



***

Fante and Bandini moved to Los Angeles from Colorado. The punk was born in LA. Fante lived in Bunker Hill, once the city’s most affluent neighborhood, but by the time Fante lived there it was what Raymond Chandler called “shabby town”. The punk never lived in Bunker Hill, but would see it often as a child on trips to downtown LA. And later as a young adult when the old Victorians were being torn down or put on dollies to move away, he and a friend explored several of the Victorians that hadn’t yet been moved. He still has the finial from a newel stairway post that he liberated from one of those old houses...and that he recently pulled out of storage.

And those images of the Bunker Hill that used to be linger still in the movie playing before the not-so-young-anymore punk’s eyes. A romantic vision of shabby gentility. Or maybe not so much gentility as seen in several noir movies that were filmed there in the 1940s and 50s, including Criss Cross, Kiss Me, Deadly and Cry Danger.

***

The young punk identified with Bandini and Fante. And even young punks who think they’re cool have idols and one of this young punk’s idols was John Fante. To that end, he decided to reach out to Fante.

As a young man, Fante had begun a correspondence with H.L. Mencken, journalist, scholar and co-founder of a magazine most of the readers here will know, Black Mask. The punk hoped to have a similar relationship with Fante. He sent Fante a long, 3 page single spaced typed letter. It was a fan letter, but also more than simply a fan letter, and the young punk hoped to begin a correspondence with Fante like Fante had had with Mencken.

The young punk had done a lot of things like that, writing to a lot of well-known people. Got letters back from some, phone calls from others (Cary Grant), and was even invited to Gene Kelly’s house. And from others nothing. As time went on, the punk started to lose hope that he would ever hear from Fante.

Even though Fante eventually had success in Hollywood, writing movies like Full of Life, Walk on the Wild Side and others, he never seemed like a happy man. He thought of himself as a well-paid Hollywood whore. And the punk knew that Fante was bitter and angry and in failing health. He never did hear back. He figured Fante was too sick or too angry or both.

On April 8, 2010, John Fante’s 101st birthday, Fante Square was dedicated in downtown L.A., near Bunker Hill. The area may have changed a lot, but the spirit of Fante and the old Bunker Hill is still there.

By eigene Aufnahme (Own work (Original text: eigene Aufnahme)) [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en), CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)], via Wikimedia Commons


Fante died on May 8, 1983 and the not-so-young punk liked to think that maybe Fante read his letter or a family member read it to him before he died. And the punk kept writing, hoping to someday be able to say “I am Arturo Bandini.”

Books by Fante:

The Road to Los Angeles (1936, publ.1985)
Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938)
Ask the Dust (1939)
Dago Red (1940), short story collection
Full of Life (1952)
Brave Burro (book, with Rudolph Borchert) (1970)
The Brotherhood of the Grape (1977)
Dreams from Bunker Hill (1982)
The Wine of Youth: Selected Stories (posthumously, 1985), Dago Red and short story collection
1933 Was a Bad Year (post., 1985; incomplete)
West of Rome (post., 1986), two novellas

Fante/Mencken: John Fante & H. L. Mencken: A Personal Correspondence, 1932–1950 (post., 1989), letters
John Fante: Selected Letters, 1932–1981 (post., 1991), letters
The Big Hunger: Stories, 1932–1959 (post., 2000), short story collection

###
And now for the usual BSP:

Coming on January 30th from Down & Out Books:
Coast to Coast: Private Eyes from Sea to Shining Sea 
A collection of 15 Private Eye stories from some of the best mystery and noir writers from across the country. Available for pre-order now on Amazon:


And I have a couple of appearances in January.

Santa Clarita: The Old Town Newhall Library
Saturday, January 14, 2017, from 10:00 AM-3:00 PM.
24500 Main St, Santa Clarita, CA  91321

Cerritos Library, where I’ll be moderating a panel:
Saturday, January 28 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
18025 Bloomfield Avenue, Cerritos, CA  90703


9 comments:

Leigh Lundin said...

I love the historical stuff, Paul.

Enquiring minds want to know… Where in South Africa was that shot?

Paul D. Marks said...

Leigh, I believe it was filmed in Cape Town.

O'Neil De Noux said...

Interesting, insightful article. Way to go.

Art Taylor said...

Have really enjoyed your posts circling around Fante and Bunker Hill--an education for me, since I hadn't heard of him before (I'm embarrassed to say). Need to look up his work, of course!

B.K. Stevens said...

Thanks for this post, Paul. Like Art, I hadn't heard of Fante before. I'm not sure he'd be my cup of tea, but I enjoyed this fascinating glimpse into his life and his work--and into those who admire him.

sarahmchen.com said...

I was a huge fan of Charles Bukowski's writing (still am) so that was my introduction to John Fante. I never read him although I have a limited edition of ASK THE DUST that I keep meaning to read. My friend took a writing course from his son, Dan Fante, a couple years ago and thoroughly enjoyed it. Sadly, he passed away in 2015. I wonder what it would have been like growing up in the shadow of such a legendary writer. Thanks for this piece, Paul!

Craig Faustus Buck said...

Great post, Paul. I just have to give a shout-out to L.A. author Kim Cooper who, along with her husband, runs Esotouric Tours (I've done their Bukowski tour, a lot of fun) but, more to the point, led the effort to create John Fante Square.

Eve Fisher said...

I agree with Art - great posts about Bunker Hill, Fante. Thanks!

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, O’Neil

Glad you’re enjoying the posts, Art. And I’d be curious what you think after you read Fante. He’s like the “poet” of LA.

Thanks, B.K. If you ever do decide to give him a shot, I’d be curious to know what you think. I’d start with Ask the Dust.

Thanks, Sarah. I like Dan Fante too. Though certainly different than John and sometimes can be pretty gross. In fact, I mention him in the sequel to White Heat (which hopefully will see the light of day one of these days) and an agent corrected me saying, “Shouldn’t it be John Fante?” And I said, no, it was his son I was talking about. As for growing up in his dad’s shadow, I think there were issues there from what I’ve read. And it would have been great to take a class from him. I’d love to hear about that some day from your friend.

Thanks, Craig. I haven’t done any of Kim’s tours yet, but I would like to. I’ve sort of done them on my own I guess you could say. And that’s great if it led to the creation of John Fante Square.

Thanks, Eve!