Confessions of a Fante Fan

by Ian on March 28, 2012

by Gwil James Thomas

Gwil James Thomas is 24 years old and was born in Bristol, England. His stories have been featured in publications such as Mungbeing, Perhaps I’m Wrong About The World, Mint Magazine and More Noize: The Worst Fanzine in The World. His novel Captains of Sinking Ships was recently published by Kenton Publishing.

I

I sit back in the out of place deck chair, as if it’s some sort of throne. My eyes scan the sentences, as they turn to paragraphs, following the words like footsteps in the snow. The passion reignited now.

With one callused hand I turn page, using the other to shove some food, into my mouth – judging by the texture I’m pretty sure it’s part of a tomato. To think, I thought I’d lost this copy. Damn that day. Of course, I’ve got another edition somewhere, but this one was important to me. I guess losing it, made me forget about it all for a while. Though I have my doubts as to whether it was lost at all and not just slyly nudged down there by a certain ex-girlfriend. Still, that must have been almost a year ago now.

“To be honest John, you’re lucky that I found that thing. Even though it does look familiar,” my girlfriend says from across the table.

“Hmn?” I reply.

“I think I’ve read that book, I mean I didn’t really read it, someone lent it to me, but I only started part of it. I really should read more. Is it any good?”

I tear myself away from my dog eared copy, of John Fante’s Ask The Dust.

“I think it’s very good… I had no idea you’d read this. Who lent it to you?” I say as if it’s something that should have been mentioned the first time conversation was struck.

“Oh, someone ages ago, I think he fancied me.”

“What did you think of the book? I’m quite surprised that someone lent it to you.”

“I don’t know John, it was ages ago, I can’t even remember. I only read a chapter I think,”

“Oh,” I say.

I grin and get back to reading. I manage to get through the next chapter – then there’s a sudden nudge at the table and my girlfriend taps her fork on the plate.

“Okay, so I know you both share the same first name and it’s a huge book for you and everything. But maybe you could put it down for a while? Come on, you’ve had it back a few days, let’s just eat together for a few minutes…” she says, smiling.

“You’re right,” I say, I suppose she did make it, whatever it’s supposed to be.

“I might get some more water, want some?” she asks.

“I’ll be fine,” I say, as she gets up.

I wonder how it actually did get down the back of the radiator though.

II

My hair’s still slightly moist from the shower as I brush my teeth, before I wander around and head towards the window and stare outside – Portishead by night. A scattering of lights, nothing special. I head back to the sink spit out the toothpaste and sip some water, concluding my nightly ritual en route to bed.

I get under the covers and continue where I left off with Ask The Dust, reading it by the light of the bedside lamp. My girlfriend twirls around in the bed for a moment or two longer, I think she’s going to ask me to turn off the lamp, but she surprises me.

“You’re really into that book aren’t you?” she says.

“It’s important to me, yes, it got me into a lot, the first book that I actually liked…”

“I know you’ve told me all that. You know what? I think that really it comes down to your dwindling passion to open up a bookshop. Wasn’t that what you always wanted to do?”

“Yes, thank you for reminding me,” I reply and get back to the book. It’s meant to be sarcastic but it comes out wrong and we just end up lying there. By the time I turn around next she’s fallen asleep. Or at least seems to be. So, I continue to read. Ask The Dust wasn’t even my favourite of Fante’s books, but still I’m engrossed in the thing, the words twirling around the page as if in the midst of some psychotropic indulgence.

I can remember when I first bought it. I was nineteen years old. I’d pulled it off the shelf in a charity shop. It was smaller in size than a lot of the other books that stood next to it, which was a large selling point, not only because of what I had to undertake, but the fact that I could fit it into my coat pocket. There was also an introduction by someone called Charles Bukowski, who’s name I was sure I’d heard mentioned somewhere. I didn’t have much interest in literature, if any, but there were a few things that I wanted to get from this book. Like some malevolent dictator I’d often toyed with the notion that if you used the right words on the right person you could get them to do anything. Though I was lost with most big words I wanted to increase my vocabulary. I’d considered that books were a good enough start as any. Really I think I just wanted someone or something to come into my life and change it somehow. But that didn’t happen and this was much easier. I took the copy to the till.

I took it home and got through the first pages. I managed to finish it in a few sittings. I’d never done that before. The imagery, the narrator’s voice, the honest simplicity of its words. Literature before had been something that had been shoved down my throat. Why hadn’t anyone told me to read this writer’s books before? Why hadn’t I heard of him? Once I finished it I read the book from cover to cover, absorbing every word, phrase and sentence.

I followed the words but couldn’t work out what it was that seemed so significant about this writing? In a way it was like me, simple, self indulgent and laid itself out for a lot of criticism. It left me with a feeling that the writer had stepped up to the typewriter like entering a confession booth, writing his way out of problems and exposing himself to all. It was just a way of writing things and I didn’t know why that felt significant. Still, all I had to do was look outside – religion’s invisible forefront, dishonest politicians, the insidious compulsion of advertising, it was enough to see why the idea behind honesty felt so refreshing. But that’s that.

I yawn and turn off the lamp.

III

I wake up soaked in sweat, and a little nervous. My eyes are drawn to the window, where some light is creeping in – highlighting some condensation that’s trickling down the glass.

Hoping not to wake my girlfriend I turn on the bedside lamp. It seems I’ve hardly been asleep five minutes.

Why hadn’t I studied Fante in school? I learnt a lot from his stories. I knew there was stuff in there to be deemed offensive or inappropriate and I don’t even agree with every single word that springs from Arturo Bandini’s mouth, albeit very different times, or in a sometimes humorously self deprecating way, but what if I’d known? Literature wasn’t just formats, things that ended with moral punch lines, or elves running around in circles. Of course not. But who was going to teach me that?

I can even see myself back in school as if I were a fly on the wall – sat down with the rest of my English class. Monday morning, first lesson, no older than thirteen. And of course replaying it, I know what’s coming this time – our English teacher steps up and tells us that today she wants us to write a story. One whole side of A4. It has to have a beginning, middle and end and we’re to finish a second draft for homework. But we can use characters from a T.V. show or film if we get really stuck. An unsettling wave of impossibility washed over the class and I released a sigh, revealing my newly modified mouth brace. It wasn’t a great start to the week. And I really had no idea, not that many of us did. I wrote down a few notes on something our teacher had said, trying to look busy. Though most of that lesson was spent with my eyes glued to Hayleigh Smith.

When I got back home that evening the T.V. kept me distracted for far longer than I’d anticipated and I didn’t even think about homework until my journey back to school the following morning. For a while I considered copying someone else’s story, but that seemed too predictable. I couldn’t even remember anything about the previous lesson besides Hayleigh bloody Smith. Then resting the A4 pad on my knee I had an idea. I’d write a story based on Hayleigh Smith. Desperately I wrote down things that I knew, hoping to fill up that side of A4. All of which was my love for Hayleigh Smith in all the words and ways I’d been trying to get her attention before, but had little idea as to how. It was stupid but it was something I knew about and furthermore the words were filling the page.

I wrote a few more lines – adventures of this princess of Shirehampton breaking hearts across Lawrence Weston, Avonmouth, even Pill. It was almost finished, somehow I’d written an entire side of A4, completing the homework in time.

Smugly I dropped my book on top of the others that being handed in, though that didn’t work any more than it had before and instead of being read out, my teacher asked me to stay behind. Apparently my homework had been constructed to provoke. I had little idea as to what that actually meant, but I was sure she’d missed the point. She never paid any attention, everyone knew that. She seemed too preoccupied by the visits from the deputy head – whom Rich Balfour said he saw finger-fucking her one evening through the staff room window. Nevertheless, I’d done what she asked an entire A4 page of it too.

Did she even read past the first sentence? Why did I even bother? She knew which ones she liked from the beginning. I think I lost any possible interest at that point. It all seemed so pointless; a long way from habouring any juvenile pipe dreams on opening second hand book shops. Which was probably a good thing.

I’m sure it wouldn’t have made much difference, but I often wondered that if maybe I’d have heard the words of Fante then, my opinions might have changed. But of course I hadn’t. What surprised me the most was how many still hadn’t. Something that came to my attention a few years on at the local library. I’d just finished Ask The Dust. I was back for something else. The library was pretty much alien to me too. But I headed to the fiction section, hungering for whatever else was on those shelves. Would I ever see the name Camilla Lopez in another book? What else transpired for Bandini? Or would the next work have nothing to do with these at all? Moving down the isles, I suddenly realized that my meagre brain hungered for words.

That was when I turned around. I was in the F section and there was nothing of Fante. I searched again, back and forth, but still nothing, not even Ask The Dust. Perhaps they were out? I headed straight to the information desk.

“What was the name again?” the man behind the desk asked.

“John Fante,” I repeated

The man searched their system, before shaking his head. “Nothing, never heard of him,” he said.

Why didn’t they know? I was sure that he’d be up there with all the big time writers. What had happened to that hopeful writer, loyally typing through the night from his Bunker Hill bedroom? Damning sounds of typewriter keys being pressed echoed around my head. A sense of wrongness and disappointment overwhelmed me. This wasn’t how I expected it to be – like some lost voice stuck in another time, or in the words of another man, little kept secret.

Searching online proved to be more rewarding. But I was surprised how few titles there were, most copies looked like they were still circulating from when the author was alive. Criminally neglected, curiously unknown to the public at large – the quotes on the back of my copy of Ask The Dust seemed just as relevant.

Even with a Festival held by his people in Italy, a highly forgettable Hollywood movie adapted from Ask The Dust, John Fante still seemed unknown to the masses. I lost count of the number of people who hadn’t even heard his name. I couldn’t understand it; it was like some strange curse, that would leave me grinning once his genius was truly and utterly unearthed. The most logical commitment to all of this, is of course a new tattoo. I’ll have to hide it from my girlfriend at first, but one evening this week it shall be marked in ink and blood, even if it’s to be done on the spur of the moment. Can’t turn back then.

Suddenly there’s some movement in the bed and I realize that I’m still not asleep. How long have I been doing this? How long have been mulling over and recollecting it all again? I need sleep. I put Ask The Dust away and turn the lamp back off, long enough to see my girlfriend momentarily open her eyes and gives me an, are you fucking serious expression?

IIII

Morning arrives. I check for my keys and walk towards the door, before I hear my girlfriend call my name. For a moment I expect she’s going to tell me that I’ve left the cooker on, she’s late for work, or remind me to pick up something from the corner shop later. But I can tell from the curve of her smile that’s not it at all. She pulls me closer and kisses, me on the cheek before she whispers “I love you John,” next to my earlobe.

When I get outside it feels like another grand morning. I shut the door and check for my keys. Then, before I go any further I unscrew the lid of my thermos and take another swig of coffee. A tabby cat darts from amongst the shrubs and rubs itself against my shin. Sorry kitty, but I’ve got to move on – I’ve got a job to do. I walk to work, using a car on a day like this would be an abomination.

Heading towards the high street I smile and wave at all those who pass me by. A mother skids up to the lights with a car full of school-children. I give her a little grin but forgive her for not noticing. In the back I see her children all uniformed and unwilling. At the front I see their mother searching for the biting point and I slyly stick my middle finger up at the kids – that wakes them up. They stare at me in annoyance and disbelief, they tap their mother on the shoulder but she’s not having any of it. My condolences children, grow up and see what you’re missing. Then they’re gone. But I’m at work now – I stand in front of my second hand shop and thumb for the key, I’m a few minutes late, but what does that matter, it’s my place anyway. The whole day to price up books, recommend them to people and have the joy of passing them on. We’ll consider anything for these shelves, it’s part of our policy. With my copy of Ask The Dust taking centre stage, I’ll probably keep that one though… Suddenly I awake and am brought back to reality.

Somehow I’ve slept through my alarm-clock. My girlfriend’s gone too. I’m already late for work. Outside it’s pissing down and I jump into the car. Back to reality now, real jobs, meddling girlfriends and more bills – judging by the post.

For a moment I wonder if this is anything close to how Fante felt, as a disgruntled screenwriter, waking up with the odd gun from winning a game of poker. Tired from another evening out with friends, dreaming of escaping to the simplicity of somewhere else? I’m not sure, I doubt it though.

IIII

I’m sitting in the staff room. People don’t want books. People no longer want to follow a book. They want instant gratification. To suck in information at a simple click. They need pop ups in the middle, streams, and a double click at the end of it all. They want a link at the end of the page that leads to Myspace, Twitter or Facebook. They want to find out where their hipster author last took a shit, what their hobbies are, or their favourite place to unwind with a mocha. It already seems dated to bring it up, but then there was the Electronic Book too. An Electronic Book? Are you having a fucking laugh. Sure, it’s just like a real book except it eventually runs out of power. No, you stay in 1933 Fante. The future for me has arrived and I can tell you it’s madness… I’m so wound up. It’s consuming. It’s been a long time since we last made love. Maybe that’s the real problem? Me and my girlfriend that is, not Fante. A lot of the time I feel like a stranger to her. Sometimes I wonder how we ever got together in the first place. Maybe this is what they call “sexual aggression”.

I find it hard to relate to a single person in this staff room. I stare at the clock, I should probably get back.

IIII I

There are bags of food shopping packed up on the back seat of the car. My girlfriend stares out at passing scenery. I concentrate on driving back home. The roads aren’t great. After sometime my girlfriend breaks the silence.

“Why don’t we just go out tonight?” she says.

“Go where?” I reply.

“I don’t know, how about going into town? Try that French restaurant?”

“But we’ve just gone shopping; we’ve got loads of food here. Why do that? Besides, I hate French food,” I reply.

I stop at the lights.

“I know, but wouldn’t it be nice to go someplace?” she says.

“Seems pointless if you ask me, fork out all that money to go somewhere, dress up,” I reply.

“John…” my girlfriend says turning to look at me. “Don’t you remember, we used to do things like that once, it’s not being reckless, it’s just a little fun.”

I turn on the radio – someone slowly playing slide guitar, nothing too intrusive whatever it is. Should lift the mood with her a little. “I tell you what, why don’t you quiz me?” I say.

“Quiz you, on what?” she asks, a little mystified though very nearly smiling.

“Fante, you can quiz me on Fante,” I say.

For some reason, there’s a moment’s silence. “Fine, what colour eyes did he have?” my girlfriend says, not that she’d know. I detect a hint of jealously in her voice too.

“ Brown,” I say. I get the feeling she didn’t expect me to know that.

“When was his birthday?” she asks.

“April the 8th 1909 John Fante is born to a newlywed Mary and Nick Fante in Boulder, Colorado, U.S.A. …Next question!”

Slowly passing amongst the traffic, I notice a bookshop, Roy’s Reads. It doesn’t look like it’s new, but I can’t remember seeing it before, or maybe just not paying it attention. Two things catch my attention, a man is whom I presume to be Roy sitting behind a desk, then a sign in the window begging someone stupid enough to come forth and help him amongst his little ramshackle.

“…Why are you laughing?” my girlfriend asks.

I don’t know, I really don’t. Eventually I manage to get a grip and the laughing subsides. My girlfriend stares out of the window again, in silence.

“…And when is my birthday then John?” she continues, quite serious.

There’s not really a lot more to this drive.

IIII II

There’s a foul mood in the air this evening as my girlfriend watches something on her laptop. I stand by the bookshelf and finally leave Ask The Dust to rest on the shelf and look at the rest of them – I’ve got every possible book of his that I could, his son’s work as well.

Slotting the books away, I think of Roy there in his little shop. Suddenly I feel I jealous of Roy, that’s why I laughed like that. Really, I wanted to be Roy. This is how the new plan has fallen into place. Tomorrow morning, I’ll go there and ask him about the job he’s got advertised in the window. If I don’t ask immediately, I doubt I ever will, or it’ll either be gone. It wasn’t my own place, but it was a start. I could see it though, me and Roy business partners. I wonder what my girlfriend would say to that?

I head over to the drinks cabinet and pull out a bottle of Whiskey. My girlfriend doesn’t say anything but I can tell she’s watching me. It’s been a long time since I drank and even longer since I drank whiskey. I pour a generous finger into the glass and drown it in one gulp. It rushes to my blood very quickly. I pour another. I sip this one slow and sit down.

Tomorrow I shall confront Roy. If being a reader, he knows of the cult following of Fante then he’ll appreciate what I’m saying. If however, he’s never heard of him then he’ll surely appreciate input. Foolproof. And as Fante wrote through the night, I shall read.

I take another sip and head over to the bookshelf, this time pulling down Dreams from Bunker Hill, quite convinced that there’s some sort of answer in there for me. With everything behind me, I find my happy place and my eyes reach a sentence, before there’s some noise over my shoulder.

“Okay, this is getting beyond obsessive now. I don’t know a lot about literature, but it’s just a matter of opinion. Ask The Dust isn’t the only good book, it’s really not that much of a big deal,” my girlfriend says from behind her laptop.

“I know, but to me it’s always going to be the first. I’m not even reading that,” I say.

“Well… What’s that then?

“Dreams From Bunker Hill.”

“It’s written by him isn’t it…” my girlfriend says.

“Yes,” I say, the reply’s fine in my mind, but judging by my girlfriend’s second glancing expression I must be slurring the words slightly.

“You just don’t get it do you?” she says.

“No,” I reply and continue reading.

Folding up her laptop, my girlfriend huffs and leaves the room. I take another gulp from the glass and focus my eyes back to the sentence I was reading – something about Arturo Bandini befriending a Japanese wrestler. I pour a couple more. It’s a good twenty minutes before I leave the book, get up and go to the toilet.

I come back knock over my glass and decide to open up the window full tilt, letting the night air blow rain into the room – feeling the millions of tiny droplets against my pores, a rain cloud drifting in from the Atlantic. That’s when the top half of the window dislodges itself and slides down like a guillotine smacking me in the back of the head. I must be a lot more drunk than I thought. When I get back, the text’s a little harder to read this time and I hold the book up in the direction of the light bulb. It keeps blurring out of focus and I can’t read it.

Fuck it. With one hand to my head I fling Dreams from Bunker Hill in the direction of the bookshelf. For one moment I realize how stupid everything is, what did I really know about Fante? I’d never met him, nor ever would. The dead weren’t good at retorting anyway. I walk over to the shelf and with one hand behind Full of Life, shove the entire collection onto the floor. Then, trampling across the books, I head off in the direction of bed.

I reach the bedroom, stretch my arms and free fall onto the sheets.

IIII III

I open my eyes and stare at the clock, I’ve been asleep for a few hours. I reach out and long for my girlfriend to be there, but there’s nothing. Her patch of the bed’s cold now. I deserve it, I suppose. It’s strange though, it feels as if I’m being watched, but I have a strong feeling that I’m very much alone. Something doesn’t feel right.

Holding my head, I eventually pull myself from the sheets. As I pass the window something strikes me as odd – outside it’s somehow darker than I ever remember. It’s incredible. Not one single light from Portishead. For a while I wonder if I’m dreaming? It’s a sheet of black, which is what causes me to notice the figure on the other side of the door. The vision startles me more than anything and I turn.

His hands clutch a copy of The Los Angeles Times and I read the headline before it’s folded away “City Dedicates Square to Young Writer From Colorado,”. Blanketed by my own suspension of disbelief – in a way it seems more ridiculous than anything now.

With the time and miles not standing between us anymore, a young John Fante stands staring at the floor. Full of life again, limbs all intact, he would have recently embarked on a journey to California after the long days of hitchhiking and hopping on freight trains. His skin bathed under the smog infused Long Beach sun. This young American – though an American still deeply immersed in the love hate relationship with the reality of his Italian background, stands adjusting his necktie, still with the belief that above all – he would write. His heart, yet to be crushed by the plastic rose of Hollywood. Step over Nietzsche, bow down Dostoevsky. There was new blood that demanded a place on those shelves.

“Where the hell have you been? And what happened to you?” I demand.

“What, you think you’re the only one that’s been inspired by someone’s work?” he replies, which is strange, mostly because his voice is nothing like I’d imagined it to sound. He clears his throat. “I’ve spent the last three months influencing a girl in Zurich. She’ll go on to write two outstanding novels straight from the heart and some dull poetry.”

“What about all the abandoned work, unfinished pieces?” I ask.

“What about them? You’re obviously just basing that opinion on something I wrote… Maybe, I really did just lose it. Better a few years of books that you can appreciate now, than a lifetime of ones that’ll do nothing for you. But can a man not just be left with his work, why does there have to be more? And what about you, you idle son of a bitch, what about the bookshop?”

“I don’t know, what should I do?”

“This is your vision John, you work it out. If there’s an answer it’s not with me.”

My little dream sequence draws to an end, an anticlimax and I stare back at the blankness of the oriental wallpaper. I liked those books a lot, maybe too much – but I did so because of what they gave, of what they taught me and the further things they got me into. It’s what’s led to the whole bookshop fiasco.

I’m up for quite some time thinking things over.

IIII IIII

The car’s parked and I feel like shit, but it’s another day and that’s what’s brought me to Roy’s Reads. It’s not really a big thing, but again, I know myself well enough to say that if it’s not today, it won’t be done at all. I should really phone in sick.

Then with the beads of sweat rolling down the recent dent in the back of my head I see clearly that this is more than another job, or interest in literature. It’s what’s brought me here. I can always turn my back on it, but I’d have to go all the way back, picking up the pieces. I’m not sure if she’d pick the phone up, but I’d love see what my girlfriend would have to say?”

Whatever, I think and slam the door of the car and walk across the pavement to Roy’s Reads. Inside, Roy is talking to another man not much older than me in a brown suit.

“…So in short, what you’re saying is, John Fante: Read His Books,” Roy says as the pair of them start laughing as if this is the start of some wonderful alliance.

“You’ve got it.”

“Well, I like it, I really do. I’ve only ever heard of his books, but it’s been great speaking with you.”

“Likewise.”

“We get a lot of these, but I’ll be in touch,” Roy says waving some pieces of paper that I’m guessing his future business partner has just handed him.

The man smiles and leaves Roy to watch, as he turns and looks at me for a moment before pushing open the door. I hadn’t seen that coming. I really hadn’t. I stand there quite speechless. I feel pretty stupid. Maybe it’s a sign after all.

“Afternoon, can I help you?” Roy says to me.

I try to think of an answer. I wonder if the man before me mentioned Dan Fante at all?

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