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Who is John Fante?

By Garry Crystal
Updated May 23, 2024
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John Fante was one of the great, unsung heroes of American Literature. Often seen as an outsider, his real life story was the stuff of which novels are made. John Fante was a writer of short stories and books, but throughout most of his life, he made money from writing film scripts for Hollywood.

John Fante was born in 1909 in Denver, Colorado. His father had emigrated from Italy, and most of his childhood was spent in poverty. He attended the University of Colorado, but determined to become a writer, he dropped out in 1929. Fante then moved to California and roomed in cheap boarding houses while working at menial jobs.

Fante’s break into published writing came with a short story in The American Mercury magazine. He was befriended by the magazine’s publisher, H.L. Mencken, and began to write novels. In his most famous works, known as the Bandini novels, John Fante used the character Arturo Bandini as his alter ego. The novels were mainly autobiographical or semi-autobiographical accounts of Fante’s life in California.

Fante’s first novel, The Road to Los Angeles, was rejected, but he soon found publication in 1938 for his second, Wait Until Spring, Bandini. It was reviewed as the best novel of that year. His third novel, Ask the Dust, published in 1939, is considered by many as his masterpiece. In 1940, he married his wife, the poet Joyce Smart, and published a collection of stories under the title Dago Red.

John Fante wrote stories and novels that were simple in style but had a deceptive strength. His stories were full of dysfunctional characters and poetically atmospheric in tone. Ask the Dust focuses on a destructive love affair between the writer Arturo Bandini and a Mexican waitress that eventually spirals into violence and insanity. It is considered by some as one of the most beautifully written novels in American literature.

Although Fante had published novels, his books were not selling well enough to make a decent living. Fante had to resort to writing film scripts to support his wife and four children. He described this type of writing as the most disgusting job in Christ’s kingdom. However, he made a good living at scriptwriting, and it would be 12 years before he would publish another novel.

In 1955, John Fante was diagnosed with diabetes. In 1978, due to complications, both of his legs were amputated, and he went blind in 1979. Years of writing films had broken his heart and spirit. Drink and fast money had left him with bad health and a cynical nature, but he was to write one more novel before he died.

Every morning for a year, John Fante sat in his wheelchair and dictated his final novel to his wife. Dreams from Bunker Hill was the final chapter in the Bandini saga. At the time, all of his books were out of print and his previous novel in 1977 had only sold 3,000 copies. John Fante lived to see his final book published, and he died in 1983.

In 1980, famed poet and writer Charles Bukowski sent a copy of Ask the Dust to his own publisher demanding it be reprinted. The recommendation by Bukowski brought a renewed interest in Fante’s books. They are now all back in print, even those that had previously been rejected for publication. In 2006, a film was made of Ask the Dust starring Colin Farrel and Salma Hayek.

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