Obituary: Dan Fante, author and playwright

US author and playwright, Dan Fante. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
US author and playwright, Dan Fante. Picture: AFP/Getty Images
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Born: 19 February, 1944, Los Angeles, California. Died: 23 November, 2015, Los Angeles, California, aged 71

Dan Fante was an American author and playwright who came to writing late - much like his father, John Fante, the screenwriter and author of many books, including the 1939 classic Ask the Dust. The younger Fante’s debut novel Chump Change was published in 1998 – in the UK, by Edinburgh publisher Canongate – by which point he was well into his 50s. It established him as a relentless chronicler of working American life as a recovering alcoholic and drug addict.

In many ways, the work of father and son was intertwined. Both wrote about their home city, and not about the glossy Hollywood veneer of the place, but of the ordinary, deadbeat, workaday normality of those struggling to get by in the city. Although despite LA being the setting for much of his work and his life, Dan Fante found New York – where he lived for 12 years – to be more of an inspiration. He preferred interacting with people and experiencing life on the street, rather than through the windshields of cars on the freeway.

In Ask the Dust, John Fante wrote of his alter ego Arturo Bandini, a flophouse-dwelling, Depression-era writer struggling to carve a name for himself. Dan had his own literary persona, Bruno Dante, a roughhouse drunk floating between jobs. “Bruno is you and me,” Fante once said. “He is the weakest part of us and the most passionate and destructive.”

Blunt and profane, Fante’s work was influenced by the post-modern style of Charles Bukowski, who dealt in similar themes and read the elder Fante religiously, referring to him as “my god.” In Dan’s novels there was precious little sympathy, but an evocative, rough-carved version of reality for many. Chump Change and its successors Mooch (2001), Spitting Off Tall Buildings (2002) and 86’d (2009) chronicled Dante’s life, and by extension Fante’s.

These and his collection Short Dog: Cab Driver Stories From the LA Streets roamed through his own previous, short-lived careers. These were many. His official website lists him as being a former “door to door salesman, taxi driver, window washer, telemarketer, private investigator, night hotel manager, chauffeur, mailroom clerk, deck hand, dishwasher, carnival barker, envelope stuffer, dating service counsellor, furniture salesman and parking attendant.”

Of Italian descent through his father’s parents, Fante was born in Los Angeles in 1944, where his parents had lived for 15 years. His mother was Joyce Smart, and he had three siblings. An aspiring actor at first, he studied the subject at UCLA until he was 19 years old and then moved to New York hoping to find stage work. Disillusioned by the amount of effort required to find and attend auditions, he began driving a cab and drifted towards playwriting at first.

He wrote for an amateur theatre company and for New York radio stations, creating a character called Smoke – a “black James Bond” – for the latter, and taught acting. All of the time, he drank heavily. Suffering a breakdown after a lot of drink, precious little sleep and endless taxi shifts during which he tried to scribble poetry, he moved back to LA to work for a chauffeur firm after more than a decade in New York.

Sober from 1986 onwards, Fante was into his mid-40s when he seriously began to write with a view to being published, or staged once more. Chump Change took him three intense years and was finally published at first in France, and then America and the UK, the latter through Canongate.

If Last Exit to Brooklyn writer Hubert Selby jnr – who read and complimented Chump Change prior to publication – was his icon as a novelist, Eugene O’Neill was Fante’s inspiration as a 
playwright. His plays The Closer, The Boiler Room and Don Giovanni were all staged in his later years, as were the poetry collections Gin P***ing, Raw Meat, Dual Carburettor, V8 Son-of-a-Bitch from Los Angeles (2002) and Kissed by a Fat Waitress (2008). As if to make up for the creatively wasted years of his youth, the avid blues listener also attempted to learn harmonica.

“I was a drunk and a madman for over 20 years. I’ve had many marriages. I’ve been to jail and worked a hundred jobs. I could probably write a hundred books,” said Fante in interview towards the end of his life, describing his approach to existence in his later years as “leave people alone and they will leave you alone.”

He was a writer’s writer, appreciated for his realist honesty, individual style and sense of post-modern experimentation. His father died undiscovered in 1983, having been a jobbing scriptwriter who supported his family through social security. Unlike John, Dan Fante’s work was at least discovered in his lifetime, allowing him to enjoy some of the appreciation and recognition he deserved.