April 5, 2009

John Fante: a Boulder Writer worth the Remembering.

The below comes via our dear colleague, the inimitable Mr. Tom Peters, proprietor of the landmark Beat Book Shop on 1717 Pearl Street in Boulder, Colorado.




100 years ago on April 8th 1909, writer John Fante was born in Boulder, Colorado. In the first year of his life, he lived both at 1738 Walnut & at the corner of 9th & Arapahoe, where there now stands a senior center. Both in real life and in the mind of his fictional alter ego, “Arturo Bandini,” Fante dreamed there would be a plaque erected on that corner saying: “The great baseball hero, Arturo Bandini (John Fante), lived here.” There is no plaque there yet, though in 1987 I had planned on putting one there when I tried to buy the small church for sale across the street. I wanted to start a Jack Kerouac Museum in the church.

Before Kerouac and Fante became published writers, they were Roman Catholic school kids who excelled at a sport. Fante played baseball at Regis High School & College, (briefly attending the University of Colorado); Kerouac was the star football player at Lowell High School before Lou Little (who was incredibly well known if not famous at the time) recruited Kerouac for his college prep year at Horace Mann. He then continued on at Columbia. Although Fante excelled at baseball, he never went on to be the professional champion he had imagined. Neither did Kerouac. 

I had never been to Boulder, Colorado when I first heard about John Fante, the Los Angelino bus boy who was published by H. L. Mencken in “American Mercury Magazine.” The story,”Altar Boy,” took place in a fictionalized Boulder. Fante’s name appeared on the cover of the magazine, & he continued to publish many stories in Mencken’s magazine. So many that Mencken had to beg Fante (through the mail) to please send some stories to some other magazines too. A picture of the bus boy who made good was published in the Los Angeles Times, & it had been reprinted in an article in the free L.A. READER in or around 1984. I was waiting tables & writing in Los Angeles at this time. The article featured letters between the young John Fante & the great man of letters H. L. Mencken who had already completed 3 volumes of the daunting series “The American Language.” The article focused on the naive letters of Fante & the heroic responses by Mencken. These letters were later published as the FANTE-MENCKEN Correspondence by Black Sparrow Press. The L.A. Reader also excerpted these letters along with photos. I was hooked. I ordered Fante’s latest novel that was being published posthumously by Black Sparrow, “The Road to Los Angeles.” This was one of the many times I read a writer’s most obscure work first. I had to order it from a book shop in L.A. that was 5 miles from my house & take the bus to pick it up (The Bodhi Tree Book Store). Fante’s books began to be reprinted by Black Sparrow at the encouragement of their star race- horse Charles Bukowski who had accidentally discovered Fante’s work in the Los Angeles Public Library some 35 years before. Bukowski wrote the introduction to the 1980 reprint edition of ASK the DUST. The original 1939 printing had been overshadowed by the same press’s English- language version of MEIN KAMPH. Fante covered this experience in vivid detail in the novel “1933 Was a Bad Year.” A fictionalized Boulder, called Rockland, is the setting where the stone gas station still standing near the corner of 17th & Arapahoe plays a role, as well as some spots in Longmont.

After scouting locations in Boulder (such as Pearl Street, The Boulderado, the grocery store on 4th & Arapahoe, where I think “On Broadway” now stands, as well as the house on 9th & Arapahoe & the Flatirons) for Wait Until Spring, Bandini, a film adaptation of Fante’s novel, Coppola’s pre-production film crew thought that 1980’s Boulder had become too big to play Boulder in the Teens & Twenties. They opted to film all the Boulder scenes in Utah.

In 1980 when Black Sparrow began reprinting Fante’s work, most of it had been out of print since the 1950s when the family drama “Full of Life,” had come out in paperback. Fante went into scriptwriting, after feeling like a financial failure as a novelist & short story writer. Fante made some great financial moves in L.A. such as selling his dilapidated house in Downtown L.A. & buying (for the same cost) a sprawling ranch home in the then-inexpensive Pacific Palisades. Fante gets a screenwriting credit in “Walk on the Wild Side,” as well as in the screen adaptation of his novel, “Full of Life.”

In the early 1980’s, he had already gone blind from diabetes and was dictating his new works to his beloved wife, Joyce. He died on May 8th 1983, after completing the dictation of “Dreams from Bunker Hill.” His great classic “Ask the Dust, was made into a film a few years ago by screenwriter Robert Towne, the writer of Chinatown, The Two Jakes, Shampoo & many other films. Towne bought the screen rights to “Ask the Dust,” at the height of his career in the 1970s. (It closed in Boulder in less than a week.) I had hoped to write a biography of John Fante in the 1980s but opened a Book Shop instead. As fate & divine providence would have it, some nuns at Fante’s elementary school “Sacred Heart of Jesus,” in Downtown Boulder directed his biographer to talk to me at the Beat Book Shop & I helped him identify Fante in some old Boulder group photos, as well as Denver baseball photos. I was also able to iintroduce him to some families who had known Fante.

Fante has been well know in Europe since the 1980s. They had even sent writers from magazines in Denmark and more to Boulder to write articles about Fante. These writers encountered person after person who had no idea who he was. Some of these people found me at the Beat Book Shop, & I sent them on a tour of the Boulder of Fante’s fiction. Fante wrote and published at least 7 novels that are still in print on Harper Collins imprint Ecco, 2 novellas, 2 books of short stories, 1 book of correspondence with Mencken. All of these publishings exist thanks to the diligence of Charles Bukowski and John Martin at Black Sparrow Press. Fante also wrote the screenplays to at least 3 films that were successfully completed, had one full-size biography written about him, had 2 major motion pictures made from his novels, he fathered the writer Dan Fante, has fans all over the world including the star of the films “Once,” & “The Commitments,” who stops in the Beat Book Shop every time he is in town to pick up a Fante book. From the hundreds of copies of all his books that I have sold in the last 20 years, many a customer has come back to tell me of their love for Fante. He still somehow seems unknown in his hometown! I think it was the great JC who first said: “It is hard to be a prophet in your hometown.” There will be a public reading of Fante’s work on Monday April 6th 2009 to celebrate the 100th Anniversary of his birth from 8-11pm at The Laughing Goat as part of the “beat book shop’s” “So, You’re a Poet,” Reading Series at 1709 Pearl Street.

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