Full of Life: A Biography of John Fanteby Stephen Cooper
In the first comprehensive biography of John Fante, one of the great lost souls of twentieth-century literature, Stephen Cooper untangles the enigma of an authentic American original. By turns savage and poetic, violent and full of love, such underground novels as The Road to Los Angeles;
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The first biography of one of the great outsiders of American literature.
In the first comprehensive biography of John Fante, one of the great lost souls of twentieth-century literature, Stephen Cooper untangles the enigma of an authentic American original. By turns savage and poetic, violent and full of love, such underground novels as The Road to Los Angeles; Ask the Dust; and Wait Until Spring, Bandini simultaneously reveal and disguise their author.
Born in 1909 to poor Italian American parents in Colorado, Fante ventured west in 1930 to become a writer. Eventually settling in Los Angeles' faded downtown area of Bunker Hill, Fante starved between menial Depression-era jobs while writing story after story about the world he knew-full of poverty, hatred, and the madness of love. His first stories were published by H. L. Mencken in the American Mercury, but Fante also made a career in Hollywood working with the likes of Orson Welles and Darryl F. Zanuck.
By the time of his death, though, he was nearly forgotten. Fortunately, readers such as Charles Bukowski began to recognize that Ask the Dust stands alongside the best work of Nathanael West and Sherwood Anderson. This exacting and vivid biography will help secure Fante's place in the American literary pantheon.
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In the summer of 1960, at the age of fifty-one, John Fante flew from Los Angeles to Rome. The veteran screenwriter had been hired by producer Dino DeLaurentiis to write a story about a modern-day Italian outlaw. Fante knew something about Italian outlaws from his family's history, which had been much on his mind; and since he needed the moneychronically needed the money, the old plight of the artist bringing his talents to market in exchange for one more season's expenseshe came to live in a glorious Renaissance apartment hard by the wall of the Vatican. With a maid who came daily, light from the high windows and keys to a company car, Fante settled into the task of writing.
It was the summer of the Rome Olympics, the year of Fellini's La Dolce Vita. As a de facto member of the city's cosmopolitan film colony, Fante divided his days between sieges at the typewriter and the dreaminess of a Roman summer. When he wasn't writing he could be found at a favorite trattoria ignoring doctor's orders about his diabetes, or out at the Capanelle racetrack playing his hunches, or wandering the catacombs that webbed the underside of the city, refining his sense of mortality.
Fante's eldest son, Nick, nineteen and full of piss, came to stay for several weeks. But Nick's visit was soon over, and before long Fante was nearing the end of the script, the conclusion of which was to feature a miracle. In order to write the scene accurately Fante drove south in September to witness the feast of the liquefaction of the blood of San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples, an exhibitionof faith which strengthened his own, if only in God's everlasting strangeness. As he motored back to Rome afterward the first tang of fall was in the air. Soon he would be returning home to his wife and three younger children and their sprawling California ranch house on Malibu's Point Dume. First, however, there was another pilgrimage he needed to make; so he headed east toward the mountains of the Abruzzi. With each kilometer of his ascent into the Central Apennines the air grew lighter, the same lightness that for eons had sustained the Abruzzi's inhabitants, the legendary highland people of Fante's ancestry.
The mountains were full of legends. One of the oldest of these told of a ver sacrum, literally and in general a spring sacrifice of firstlings, but in this case a sacred vow by the forefathers during an evil time to send their firstborn sons beyond the known territories. And so the tribes had branched out in search of new homelands, Fante's ancestors the Peligni to the rugged peaks and valleys of the Majella Range. There they settled into an austere independence amidst rocky soil, frequent earthquakes and savage winters. Despite the region's harshness, in time the remote reaches of the Abruzzi proved attractive to a breed of outsiders as well. As early as the second century B.C. in the aftermath of the Punic Wars, the defeated forces of Hannibal took to the mountains, where they remade themselves into roving highwaymen. The cutthroat descendants of these brigands were still roaming the high passes early in the new millennium, when the most celebrated poet of the Abruzzi, Ovid of Sulmona, died. In a land filled with stones"a nightmare of stones," in the words of one travelerthe word sorcerer of Metamorphoses had been powerful enough to make the stones speak, to transform men into birds and maids into poplars, but not to rid the land of its bandits. Nor had the notorious banditti disappeared by the thirteenth century, when another Abruzzese poet, Francis of Assisi's biographer Blessed Thomas of Celano, gave voice to the sinner's fear on the Last Day in the grave cadences of "Dies Irae," a poem that could have been written only by someone who knew the terrors of earthquake and ambush:
Dies irae, dies illa,
Solvet saeclum in favilla ...
That day of wrath, that dreadful day,
Shall heaven and earth in ashes lay,
As David and the Sybils say....
Now death and nature with surprise
Behold the trembling sinners rise
To meet the Judge's searching eyes.
Soon a staple of the Latin requiem mass, this dark Catholic vision remained rooted in the region's sensibilities even as modern times dawned. But it did not supplant the pagan taste for magic also favored by the folk of the Abruzzi. Rather, the primitive vigor of superstition intermingled with the primal fears of Christianity. For protection against bandits a right-thinking peasant might as soon make the fork-fingered sign of the evil eye as invoke the saints in heaven. And just in casefor in the Abruzzi the saints could be as fickle as the gods, and a man had to look out for himselfthere was always near to hand in a boot top or a pant leg one's favorite short-bladed, razor-sharp dagger.
John Fante's forebears were known as stout peasant workers as far back as the early 1700s, when the name Fante first appeared in the parish archives of Torricella Peligna's church of San Giacomo Apostolo. The first Fante to distinguish himself was one Tommaso Fante, long remembered for his excellence in making fireworks. Only one other member of the Fante line would enter Torricellan memory, this one through his participation in the Abruzzi's long and bloody history of brigandage.
Domenico Fante, known as Mingo, served "with valor and honor" in the army of the Spanish Bourbons during the pivotal decade of the 1850s. By that time the House of Bourbon had ruled the Kingdom of Two Sicilies for over a century, maintaining power by pitting the hated middle class, who could read and thus think, against the illiterate peasantry with its twin allegiances to Cross and Crown. To enforce this split, Bourbon strongmen had long exploited the Abruzzese inclination toward brigandage by paying the mountain desperadoes salaries and even pensions for helping to keep the populace in check. So that when the egalitarian Risorgimento, or war of national unification, forced the Bourbon king Francis to flee Naples, the loyalist Mingo Fante took to the highlands. Like men in defeat since the time of the Carthaginians, there he assumed the life of a highwayman-rebel to await the return of his king. In the end, however, his king remained dispossessed; the Risorgimento triumphed; and Mingo Fante, an unwitting peasant royalist who in his way lived up to the name of Bourbonwhich to this day denotes an obstinate clinging to the old orderwas apprehended, tried for treason, and hanged. Owing to aggressive enforcement of laws enacted after the 1861 unification of Italy, the brigands of the Abruzzi soon came to exist mainly in tales told around the hearthstone at night.
One spinner of such tales was a nephew of the hanged Mingo, an itinerant knife grinder by the name of Giovanni Fante. Inclined to the outdoors because of a shrewish wife and a love of claret, the unlettered Giovanni had about him the sensibility of a poet. To his son Nicola Pietro, born in 1878, Giovanni passed on stories of Uncle Mingo's heroism, and in time a congenital taste for wine. From his mother Maria Andrilli the boy inherited a hot temper, a sharp tongue and a tendency toward braggadocio. Nicola showed little interest in tracing his vagabond father's footsteps, however, displaying instead the far more down-to-earth talents for stonework and masonry. The problem with having such skills in an impoverished village like Torricella Peligna, however, was that little opportunity existed to ply them. By the time he was nearing twenty Nicola Fante was growing restless to improve his chances in life, not least of all for the sake of a girl.
In the late 1890s the whitewashed walls of Italian villages were festooned with broadsides for the steamship lines that were then ferrying waves of emigrants across the Atlantic: North German Lloyd, Guion, Cunard, Inmon and Hamburg-American, among others. Like millions of others throughout Europe, vast segments of Italy's young and able-bodied peasantry were being drawn to emigrate. Nicola Fante was no exception. In order to make enough money to marry he would try his luck across the ocean.
His first bid to succeed overseas took him to Argentina. But the once thriving economy of the South Río de la Plata had bottomed out, and Nicola managed only to eke out a living for a year or so. Then, inexplicably, his eyesight began to fail and he made arrangements to return home. Halfway across the Atlantic, after a mysterious sailor urged him to bathe his eyes in the waters of the middle passage, his vision was miraculously restored. But the triumph of his homecoming turned into a tragedy when he discovered that the girl he had left behind had been betrothed to another man. Though the girl fell to her knees to plead for Nicola's forgiveness, his heart had been hardened. But that was not the worst of it. In Nicola's absence his father had decamped for the United States, leaving a wife and young daughter to fend for themselves. Nicola looked around him, and what did he see? Infidelity, hysteria, destitution ...
And yet that was where John Fante was driving now, to his father's birthplace in Torricella Peligna. Over the years he had heard his father Nick tell the story of his Argentine odyssey many times. It was part of the old man's legend of himself, the automythography of a confirmed embellisher of facts. In that respect his father's tale-telling had been one of the earliest models for John Fante's own bent for fiction, a way of remaking the world. This trip to his father's birthplace was, among other things, an effort to see with his own eyes the place that had produced such a specimen of manhood, the redoubtable Nick FantePapathe single most important man in John Fante's life. According to the road map he was almost there.
Whatever he might have expected, when John Fante drove into Torricella Peligna in the fall of 1960, he found a poor village perched atop a cold and stony mountain, inhabited by suspicious crones in black shawls and hostile youths idling about the piazza. His father's hometown struck him as a wretched and unlivable place, at once familiar and as foreign as a bad dream. Except for the donkeys straining under their great loads, no one appeared to be employed. Indeed, the donkeys turned out to be the most interesting aspect of the village's life, striking in Fante an unexpected chord of sympathy. There was something about them, a look of timelessness in their eyes, which suggested how little life had changed in the world where his father had been born. The sight was too depressing for words. Having seen his father's birthplace, the stone walls and dusty streets, Fante too wanted out. He turned the car around and headed back down the mountain.
Driving back to his apartment in Rome, Fante was unhappy, not for the townsfolk of Torricella Peligna but for their long-suffering beasts of burden. With those dumb animals he felt a bond. He had spent the last two months writing a movie story involving an outlaw's quest for sacred jewels, dagger-point dealings on the Neapolitan black market, and a vulgar miracle of uncoagulating blood, all for the sake of a buck and at the whim of a meddling producer. It was a far cry from the kind of writing he had done in the years when he was young and broke, when he had written straight from the heart. Although he had included a secondary character in the script who was loosely based on the legendary Uncle Mingo, the story had little to do with the truer dramas of family lifelines and artistic desire that compelled him, stories of fathers and mothers and sons and brothersand the alter-ego writer always at their centerthat characterized his life's best work.
In 1960 John Fante had no way of knowing that that work, most of it already behind him and long forgotten by the world, would one day be regarded as deserving a place among the finest achievements of twentieth-century American writing, would even come to be compared favorably to masterpieces of world literature written by the likes of Knut Hamsun and Dostoevsky. Fante's first two novels, Wait Until Spring, Bandini and Ask the Dust, had been out of print for more than twenty years; he had not published a first-rate short story in over a decade; and the distractions of Hollywood, as always, still beckoned. But although he would not live to hear the praise of a later generation of critics, or to realize that his novels and stories would still be speaking to readers and writers in a dozen languages around the world long after his death in 1983, Fante was not finished yet. Screenwriting was one thing, but his fiction was another, and it was his fiction that as late as 1995 would lead Nathanael West's biographer Jay Martin to name Fante "our major meditative novelist." Strange praise, it might seem, for the chronicler of such sagas of the lower depths as The Road to Los Angeles and Ask the Dust, but praise befitting the author whose works also defined the exalting strangeness of youthful desire. Before the critics rediscovered him, however, it was this rough aspect of Fante's work that would compel other writers to champion his legacy. As one of the first of many younger authors to acknowledge Fante's influence, renegade street poet Charles Bukowski would be moved to call Ask the Dust "the finest novel written in all time," a sentiment echoed by no less an aficionado of Fante's place and era than the screenwriter Robert Towne, who would affirm that "[i]f there's a better piece of fiction written about L.A., I don't know about it." But in late 1960 all such words of praise were still in the distant and unknowable future.
Back in Rome it was full autumn, cold and storm sodden, trattoria weather now more than ever. Having finished the script but still on contract and collecting his salary, Fante was drinking again, and his blood sugar was running high. When his left foot began to bother him he curtailed his long walks about the city and started staying in his room with its high ceilings and classical painter's light. But he was no longer in the mood for things classical much less legendary, neither outlaw tales nor Ovid's changelings nor least of all Blessed Thomas of Celano with his dirge from the Mass for the Dead.
With an effort Fante roused himself. In the last days of his stay in the Eternal City he cut out rich foods and all the good local wines from his diet and set about preparing for the trip home. He missed his wife's bed and the night sounds of the Pacific. As his father had done more than sixty years before him, John Fante was looking west.
Nick Fante sailed into New York Harbor aboard the Red Star Line's S.S. Friesland on December 6, 1901. Moving through the inspection lines at Ellis Island, Nick produced a document that had been notarized in Denver one year earlier attesting to Giovanni Fante's financial ability to sponsor his son Nicola's immigration to America. To one inspector after another Nick showed his life's savings of $20, demonstrated an ability to read and write rudimentary English, and displayed the scar over his right eye noted in his passport ("Segni particolari: Cicatrix in fronten"). Although possession of a passport exempted him from the shorthand status accorded Italian immigrants arriving without papersw.o.p.his deep-set eyes, his accent, even the cut of his mustache branded Nick a wop in the curt American view. And New York City was certainly curt. In the days ahead as he walked the city streets Nick may have been handed a pamphlet like the one widely circulated by the Daughters of the American Revolution urging him to "Give up all `campanilish' prejudices," "Treat women and children very kindly," and "Throw away all weapons you may have, [especially the] knife with a blade about the length of a man's middle finger which the Italian brings with him from his native land." Such advice could only remind Nick that he was in a strange and foreign place. He wasted no time getting out of New York, and headed by train for Colorado.
With a turn-of-the-century population of 134,000, the mile-high city of Denver boasted 149 churches, 80 schools, 8 hospitals, 9 libraries, 11 banks, and 334 saloons. After a long and exhausting search, it was in one of those saloons in the Italian quarter of North Denver that Nick finally found his father. There have been more touching reunions. It was unclear whether Giovanni had suffered a financial reversal since signing the notarized Consenso d'espatrio the previous year, or simply exaggerated his circumstances in the first place. But when Nick tracked him down, the old man was laid out on a bench in the back room of a dingy drinking establishment looking neither prosperous nor sober. "Figlio mio," he said upon seeing his son, "tiene un scuta?""You gotta buck?" At which Nick pushed him roughly, threw him over his shoulder and carried him out into the Rocky Mountain winter.
For the next several years Nick lived with his father off and on, first in Denver, then in Boulder, working diligently between bouts of fist-fighting drunkenness to shape an American future. In Boulder several of the great buildings of the University of Colorado were under constructionthe library was completed in 1903, and the Guggenheim Law Building was begun not long thereaftermaking brick- and stoneworkers valued tradesmen. Nick's efforts to bring his mother Maria and sister Giuseppina, known as Pepina, to join him and his father were stymied, however, as immigration rules fluctuated: at least once Maria made it as far as Ellis Island only to be detained for several weeks over some confusion about her passport, then returned to Italy. In Maria's absence Nick's father Giovanni continued his vagrant ways as the tippling walkabout knife grinder. Five years after arriving in Boulder, Nick was living alone at 713 Pearl Street, just off today's modern outdoor mall; but by the following year, 1907, the City Directory listed him and his parents, John and Mary, all by their Americanized first names and all occupying the same second-story flat.
Reunited though they were, theirs was by no means a family free of tension. For one thing, there was no real Italian quarter in Boulder, not like the one in North Denver, and the shrill voice of Nick's mother could often be heard disturbing the peace of Pearl Street as she hurled violent Abruzzese imprecations upon the godforsaken land to which she had reluctantly moved. Despite her name change, the vitriolic Mary Fante never acclimated to life in America. On the contrary, she fought the New World with her every Italian fiber, and when her husband or Nick or, what was worse, when both of them had gotten enough wine in their bellies to fight back, the uproar emanating from their upstairs apartment was enough to test the tolerance of even the most forbearing American neighbors.
None of this improved the family's standing in a community poorly disposed to the Fantes' kind of people in the first place. Of the various immigrant groups that came to labor on the railroad, in the mines or, like Nick, in construction in turn-of-the-century Colorado, Italians were among the least welcome. Many native Coloradans, themselves of largely northern European extraction, held Italians in lower regard than even the Irish because of the melodramatic Italian brand of Catholicism, flamboyant Italian food preferences, and notoriously demonstrative Italian waysin short, because Italian customs differed from the safely familiar. True, there had been no recent lynchings of Italian nationals in Boulder as there had been in Denver less than a decade earlier, when the mob shouted, "Death to the Dago!" The 1890s had been the decade when Protestant Coloradans by the thousands joined the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic American Protective Association, a grassroots movement whose popularity prefigured an even darker turn in Colorado politics to come during the 1920s. All the same, even in the years between these two eras, a palpable undercurrent of anti-Italian sentiment was part of the atmosphere Nick Fante breathed, a bad situation made only worse because of the ways in which he and his parents seemed to live down to so many stereotypes.
When it came to making a living, however, Boulder was a good place for a stoneworker to be. Even the town's name suggested the local importance of stone. In contrast to the brooding Majellas, which overshadowed the economic stagnancy of Torricella Peligna, the dramatic Flatirons towering up west of Boulder were reminders of the area's bustling quarries and thus a symbol of the burgeoning economy. On the strength of a $300,000 bequest by Boulder banker Andrew J. Mackey upon his death in 1907, in fact, the University of Colorado's greatest single building project to date was about to commence, and Nick Fante was looking forward to all the advantages of a long and steady job.
When a discontented adoptive stepdaughter of Mackey's contested his will, however, plans for the auditorium's construction were put on hold, and Nick found himself drifting back to North Denver's Italian section, where a man could feel more at home over a flagon of Chianti and a good bitter Toscanelli cigar. In Denver, with time on his hands and no steady attachments, Nick Fante was about to take the next logical step for a man of his age and experience, a step that would lead to the creation of an American-born namesake for that knife-grinding ne'er-do-well, his father.
Bordered roughly by 38th Avenue on the north, the South Platte River on the south, Inca Street on the east and Pecos Street on the west, Denver's Italian quarter was home to a vibrant community of new Americans hailing largely from the lower half of Italy's boot. There, amidst all the other small but well-kept homes along the pleasant tree-lined streets, John Capolungo, a tailor whose family hailed from the province of Potenza in the lower Italian region of Basilicata, had settled with his wife Louise and their eight children at 3104 Osage Avenue.
Before coming to Denver the Capolungos had been parishioners at Chicago's Church of the Assumption, where in 1899 Mother Frances Xavier Cabrini had opened one of the country's first Italian parochial schools. Later canonized the first American saint, Mother Cabrini was a prime influence on John and Louise Capolungo's fifth child, the Chicago-born Mary Concepta. Even as a young woman the pious Mary could often be seen walking the four blocks from her home to mass at North Denver's Our Lady of Mount Carmel Italian church on Navajo Street.
Like Chicago's Church of the Assumption, Our Lady of Mount Carmel was staffed by Italian priests of the Servite order, whose business it was to know their parishioners so as to serve their needs and ultimately cultivate their eternal salvation. Certainly they knew soft-eyed, soft-spoken Mary Capolungo, who, still unmarried in her mid-twenties, was showing signs of a vocation. Mary's devotion to Saint Teresa, her attachment to the rosary, and the joy she took in adorning the altar with flowers from her own garden all marked her as a promising candidate for the novitiate. The good fathers and sisters of Our Lady of Mount Carmel knew of these things, and they agreed that Mary would make a fine nun, a quiet one, to be sure, perhaps a contemplative to be cloistered in silence. What they didn't know was that Providence had other plans for saintly Mary Capolungo, in the ungodly person of Nick Fante.
In two published stories, an important unpublished manuscript and a screenplay written for Orson Welles, John Fante would repeatedly fictionalize the meeting, courtship and marriage of his parents. In each version of these events the traditional Italian theme of the dominant, aggressive male and the submissive, nonerotic female is treated with Fante's trademark irony, so that the strutting figure of the suitor is comically deflated by his own overbearing ways, while in her passivity the figure of the future wife and mother is revealed to be the wiser and more reliable of the two. Fante had behind himindeed, inside him in his inherited perspectivethe Latin culture of an overwhelming masculine mystique, which east mothers and wives alike in the strange role of Madonna. Women were to be worshipped for their likeness to Mary, the virgin mother of Godbut they were often also walked on. Thrust into the role of mater dolorosa, the suffering mother, a woman was likely to respond by repudiating her sexuality and embracing a life of sublimation spent serving the men in her life, sons included. Romantic courtship was a trap door.
It is unknown how Nick Fante met Mary Capolungo. Perhaps, as in Fante's story "A Kidnapping in the Family," their first encounter was at a street parade celebrating the feast of San Rocco, with brass bands, sacred statues and a wine-enamored Nick Fante pursuing the demur but fascinated Mary all the way to her mother's house. Or perhaps they met in a more sober moment, as in "A Nun No More," while Nick laid bricks at the house next door to the Capolungo home on Osage Street. Or then again, maybe they met as Mary passed her uncle Rocco Capolungo's saloon on Navajo Street, a mere block from Our Lady of Mount Carmel. There would have been music in that saloon, and Nick liked to sing, and all three of Mary's brothers were musicians, levelheaded professionals who hoped that their sister would come down from the clouds and find a man to marry, preferably someone with a solid trade.
Speculation aside, it is a fact that on Monday, June 29, 1908, Nick Fante and Mary Capolungo were united in holy matrimony at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church. Family lore would later have it that the ceremony took place on a Monday rather than on the traditional Saturday because Nick had disappeared on a drunk, showing up two days late. The couple stood before the altar that Mary had often adorned with flowers in the days when her heart had been set on becoming a bride of Christ. As the words were spoken, angels and saints looked on from numerous Italianate statues and paintings: Saint Francis, Saint Anthony, Saint Dominic, Saint Joseph, the Archangel Michael and the virgins Cecilia and Lucy. As if to edify wives-to-be, Saint Lucy held before her a saucer, and on it her eyes, plucked from their sockets in the course of the martyrdom she chose to suffer rather than surrender the treasure of her virginity. Presiding over all in the gilded alcove above was the Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Queen of Heaven, scepter in one hand, Holy Infant in the other, floating atop an ethereal cumulus cloud.
At the priest's prompting the groom responded, "I do." Chances are that his virgin bride was crying, and that Nick could have used a drink. But having come this far he was determined to live up to his duty. Within days he had seen to the necessary details of his wife's first conception. Immortality was bound to follow.
What People are saying about this
Jay Martin, author of Nathanael West: The Art of His Life
Thom Jones, author of Pugilist at Rest
Meet the Author
Stephen Cooper is the winner of a 1991 National Endowment for the Arts grant for his fiction, and editor of John Fante's last book, The Big Hunger: Stories 1932-1959. He is Professor of English and Film Studies at California State University, Long Beach, and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and their two children.
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