Died yesterday in Los Angeles where we became friends who also admired each other’s work. Oh Dan! A kindred spirit! A delicious writer who I interviewed for my book Love in the Second Act in around 2005. Dan was in a very happy time of life, was exceptionally prolific, thrilled by his new love and his new son. Our interview titled Like Lazarus risen from the ashes follows:
Dan Fante is a fourth-generation Californian living close to the Pacific Ocean, in Southern California. His new wife Ayrin will shortly give birth to a baby. Dan is the son of John Fante, the noir writer first published in 1932 in the American Mercury who is sometimes called the Italian Hemingway. Born in Colorado in 1909, an alcoholic who had a tempestuous relationship with his own father, John Fante had a career that was a roller coaster, which went from fame to obscurity and back to fame. When John was in his late forties, he was diagnosed with diabetes that caused him to go blind when he was sixty-nine. Because his wife, the poet Joyce Fante, was willing to help him, he was able to write one final novel, called Dreams from Bunker Hill.
Dan, the second of Joyce and John’s four children, had a wish to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a writer even as a boy. Due to alcohol his ambition was thwarted. Finally, at age forty-six, his lifelong ambition was realized when his first novel, Chump Change, was completed. His second novel, Mooch, followed three years later and has been optioned by Danny De Vito for a film adaptation. The third novel in the trilogy is called Spitting Off Tall Buildings. It was published in 2000. Dan has also published a book of poems, and soon a book of short stories titled Corksucker will be published by Sun Dog Press. His books have been translated into twelve languages.
We set up our appointment by telephone. It’s a few weeks before the birth of his baby, and since it’s been a while since I’ve seen him face-to-face, I ask on the telephone, “Do you still have the earring in your ear?”
“No. I wear a red stone in my nose. I had a nose ring first, but since my new life began I’ve had a diamond stud in my nose. That’s what you remember but it wasn’t in my ear it was in my nose …”
Of course. It was his nose.
“To celebrate my marriage, my wonderful life, the diamond stud was traded in for a red stone.”
Dan’s “wonderful life” has been like Lazarus, risen from the ashes of a vastly different, mostly unwonderful, earlier life. Our face-to-face interview is convivial and light. Dan’s an easy guy to talk to. The first thing he tells me is that his history with women has been poor indeed.
“Simply put, because of my alcohol problem, I really never allowed myself to sustain anything that would improve my self esteem. I was good at a number of different things but I would drink and screw them up. Being the son of a hypercritical guy, I was also the recipient of some of his angst. I moved to New York at nineteen where I began the struggle to get an identity of my own. Almost immediately I married and a child was born. A son. The marriage lasted about five years.”
At the time, Dan was driving a cab. He had ambition but no direction. He drove a cab for seven years in Manhattan, the Bronx and Brooklyn. In those years the fares were very low but the tips for short trips were very good.
“So I worked Madison Avenue. Usually if I took an eighty-cent fare, I’d get a buck and a half tip. I moved from the Bronx to a hotel called The Pickwick Arms on Fifty-first between Second and Third. I’d get off work at five-thirty. There was a Blarney Stone at Fifty-sixth and Broadway. I was trying to write but my drinking was quite out of control. I was out of control sexually. Needless to say, my wife, my son and I no longer lived together.”
He gathers his thoughts.
“Around 1971, I couldn’t drive a cab anymore, I got to a place where I hated it, I could no longer do the hours. There was no air conditioning in those days. It was a brutal kind of job . I went to work as a chauffeur. I worked eighty hours a week as a chauffeur. I had a blue polyester suit void of any natural fiber. You could stand it up in the comer. I had a clip-on tie, a Greek seaman’s cap. All very nice. At this point, I lived in this little apartment on Sixty fourth and Second above a hamburger place. The apartment had never had a phone. When I wasn’t driving my limo I was drinking.”
It’s not hard to imagine Dan’s seedy side, though these days he’s scrubbed and pink and wears a Hawaiian shirt open at the collar.
“I was in a relationship with a woman who was on cocaine and black beauties and we were at each other’s throats constantly. There were no children, thank God. Then l went into partnership with the owner of the limo company. I moved to the West Coast to open the L.A. arm of the company. Within a year it was the most successful limo company in L.A. Suddenly I was showered with money and success. We had the entire rock ‘n’ roll clientele of Columbia Records. We drove all the rock groups. We drove Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton, everyone wanted us.”
He had the first stretch limousines in L.A. with pastel colors. One limo had eight pounds of crushed pearl in the paint. “We called the car Pearl. It was magnificent.”
But his drinking and drug use escalated.
“I had sex with anyone and everyone. I told my business partner, ‘Buy me out.’ He came at me with a handful of money, which was about twenty percent of what the company was worth, but l took it. After that, I rented a house in Laurel Canyon on a street called Wonderland Avenue which is, in effect, the country even though it’s five minutes from Hollywood. It’s up in the hills. Quickly I got into a terrible financial situation. My car was repossessed. I was getting in a lot of trouble, getting DWIs, driving drunk, hitting parked cars. I wound up homeless sleeping on a friend’s couch. I had to find work and tried selling a door-to-door dating service in Hawthorne and Torrance. It was so fucking hot. I’m wearing a suit and tie and going into people’s homes. People were throwing me out. Then I went to work for someone who hired indigents in a converted motel on Motor Avenue with five other down-and-outs selling office supplies by phone.”
“Oh. I think someone like you called me once and it cost me five hundred dollars.”
“This work is called telemarketing. I had another wife at this point. That was the early eighties. That marriage lasted about ten months. As soon as I started on the phone, I was unstoppable. I had the gift to slam people on the phone. Quickly I had a house in Venice, a brand-new Porsche, an aerobics teacher girlfriend … another disastrous relationship. But—though I didn’t know it at the time—I was bottoming out. It wasn’t until I stopped drinking at forty-two that I was able to stabilize emotionally.”
He’d been in therapy for fourteen or fifteen years, had been in the thicket of despair and had three suicide attempts that he can remember.
“I had sex with everything except a 1950 Ford. The monumental thing that occurred in my life, stopping drinking, didn’t happen until I was—if you will—into my second act. When I stopped drinking at last I stopped the major part of my self-destruction. I thought I was just a psycho. No shrink ever said, ‘You’re an alcoholic.’ Not once. Once I was sober through the help of a twelve-step group, an emotional leveling was possible … My relationship with women … with everybody … with God … began to change.”
There’s emotion in his voice, softness in his face.
“Having a spiritual aspect in my life changed everything. The great gift is that I’ve finally found a marriage—this is my fourth, by the way—that fulfills every need. And, I’ve found what I intended to do—what God intended for me to do—with my life.”
“Would you say your novels are biographical?”
“Oh yeah-autobiographical-similar to the kind of stuff my dad wrote but more honest, gut level. In 1935 you couldn’t be as graphic as you can today. My stuff is similar to Hubert Selby, Jr., to Bukowski, although I’m a better writer than Bukowski.”
“A lot funnier.”
“You’re not going to find too many yuks and chuckles in Bukowski.”
“I laughed a lot when reading your novels. I saw your play, The Closer, about telemarketing. I laughed like hell watching it.”
“The L.A. Times put it at the top of their list of plays for the year. It ran for two and a half years. I’ve written a play for my wife that—I hope—she’ll be doing down the road. There’s an ease and comfort to this relationship. I no longer even want to get angry, have adrenaline rushes.”
“ls it possible that you’ve got a closeness in this marriage that your parents had in theirs late in life? I take it your mother and father were very close at the end of your father’s life.”
“Your reference to my parent’s relationship is correct. While my father was blind and a double amputee, my mom, at the cost of her own health, cared for him. For months he would wake at night in a blind delirium and not know where he was. Mom was always asleep down the hall only a few feet away. When he regained him self after months of semi-confusion, he was able to dictate his last book to her word for word. Remarkably, his prose was flawless. Not one word was changed. He saw the entire manuscript before he said it out loud. I was there and witnessed many of those dictation sessions.
“I was just talking about my distaste for adrenaline rushes to a friend who I exercise with. We walk every day down at the beach a couple of miles, forty-five minutes.”
“Are you planning on being in the delivery room with your wife?”
“I hope so.”
“That’s the plan?”
“Oh, my gosh.”
“It’s so much different. I’m just so grateful and thrilled at my age—I’m sixty—to have my health. I just lost another one of my friends . . .”
“They’re really tumbling. Mine too. One of mine just committed suicide.”
“Normal people in their forties and fifties are witnessing their parents’ getting old plus a smattering of deaths. But people in twelve-step programs—people who’ve lived hard—they’ve seen a lot of death … people normally in the prime of life. I am really guarded and jealous and grateful about my health. I’m actually in very good health for my age. My liver is healed. No damage. I take stuff for cholesterol. Lipitor. My blood pressure’s fine. I exercise. I had a real identity crisis. I didn’t know what I was sexually but when I got sober that changed. My sexual identity is completely heterosexual now. It’s all wonderful. In truth I was never homosexual, I was omnisexual.”
“Is your wife happy?
“Oh, yeah. This is her first marriage. My wife lived in New York, Paris, London. My wife and I come from very different backgrounds—she’s a runway model, a print model, an actress. Our connection is the theater. We’ve got a strong connection there. I’m a fourth-generation Californian.”
“Were you married in the church?”
“No. We were married in Vegas. The baby’s due in a couple of weeks. I write at home in the morning. My wife is now in the last two weeks of her job. It’s all good.”
And, right on target a few weeks later, he e-mail to say that his wife, Ayrin, has given birth. I immediately sent him an email by way of congratulations and get his reply:
Thanks, Alison …
My arms hold breath
Life and death
And the song is everywhere
Perfection is everywhere
I will never be the same again
“It’s a boy. We’ve called him Michelangelo. I’m his during-the-day caregiver. The enclosed photo is of me, my wife, Ayrin, Michelangelo and my mother, Joyce Fante. My mother’s 91 and still correcting my grammar.”