April 8th will mark the 113th birthday of Mr. John Fante. His delightful landmine of a novel, Ask the Dust (published in 1939) along with the other three novels which chronicled the exploits of his feisty alter-ego, Arturo Bandini, remain gritty testaments to Fante’s hardscrabble genius. My poem “John Fante” from my collection, Arclight, celebrating the man behind the dust and dreams.
Inferiority might have been your first memory.
Though you were born on American soil,
Denver, CO, April 8th, 1909,
the chinked chains of immigration
had you by the throat and bowels, pinched your nerves
as you butted your head against the scabby base of a totem pole.
You, the little wop, the fenced-in dago, trying to dig his way
to China, or the moon, or to any form of greatness
that would eclipse your undermining complexes.
And so, out of shame and need, out of fevered desire,
you created Bandini, or he you.
Arturo Bandini, rising star and literary godsend
of John Fante’s complicated inner world,
soon to be exported and appraised and adored
by thousands, maybe more.
Arturo Bandini would draw from your history
and chagrin—your philandering, boozing, gambling father,
your mother, having to beg credit to keep the family fed,
your fear and loathing of Jesus,
and love-hate relations with the saints,
all of it would fuel Bandini’s quest
to transcend your blues,
your gnawing sense of lesser-than.
You would become the Joe Dimaggio of the literary world,
the gold-plated pride and joy of your people,
or at least go down swinging.
Bandini, fire in his belly, lean days of determination,
a starved mongrel digesting the pit and seeds
and citrus rinds and sun-tendered leaves
of palm trees in 1930s L.A., an angry, confused, passionate
young man, stalking fury and sound, full of himself
and words that he prayed to God would not let him down.
He, John Fante, the great Arturo Bandini, gave us pages,
a score of scorched pages, not enough according to him
(he would go on to become a Hollywood screenwriter
and malign himself as the worst kind of traitor to his soul and calling)
but he left behind the Bandini Quartet, four novels
with his grit-infused masterpiece, Ask the Dust, forming its apex.
Some angry young men mellow with age,
Fante, it seems, raged until the end.
His legs, and sight, were claimed by diabetes,
and Fante, as a blind amputee, bed-ridden, took one last dive
and salutary fling into the inspired world of Bandini,
dictating his final novel, Dreams from Bunker Hill, to his wife, Joyce.
Bukowski, who had accidentally stumbled upon Fante’s work,
considered him a god.
The two would become friends, and Bukowki would do his part
to resurrect Fante for a new generation.
It seems, after all, that Bandini, upon a cross,
grinning, scowling, dreaming of words
and how to arrange them according to gospel,
had amounted to a scarring glint
upon so much favored dust.