Thursday, September 21, 2006

Where Father Ends and Son Begins



John Fante drank and raged and wrote some of the best prose to come out of L.A. J.R. Moehringer talks to his son Dan, who drank and raged and is determined to write some of the best prose to come out

J.R. Moehringer, J.R. Moehringer is a senior writer for West and the author of the memoir "The Tender Bar."
April 30, 2006

This is a big night for John Fante, and for his son, Dan, who is proud of the old man, even if he doesn't often say so. Dan needs to be in the right mood to speak well of John, and tonight you can see in his smile, he's in the right mood. Tonight Dan is setting aside the bad memories, the sorrow and rage and resentment over John, for a few hours. For as long as any son can set aside such things.

Many consider Dan's father the best novelist Los Angeles has ever produced. In spare, gleaming prose, John painted a city that was nasty and harsh, but also shot through with magic—part land mine, part gold mine. "Los Angeles, give me some of you!" John wrote in the 1930s, while starving in a downtown flophouse. John's Los Angeles, where it was normal, even noble, to be a loser, where you could be down to your last nickel and still preen like a diva, won him a cult following, including Charles Bukowski, who famously called John "my god."

Of course, most of the actors and producers attending tonight's premiere of "Ask the Dust," the film version of John's masterpiece, wouldn't know John if he fell in their laps. They're here for the booze-and-schmooze. Nor would they recognize Dan, which amounts to the same thing, since Dan is a dead ringer for the old man. (In Dan's vernacular it's "the old man," rarely "my father.") Dan, 62, not only looks like his father, but writes books like his father, and wants to follow in his father's footsteps. That is, some of his father's footsteps. Certain of his father's footsteps lead directly to the grave.

The Fantes are a remarkable tandem: One of the few father-son acts in American literature, they are profoundly different, and yet they have more in common than some twins. Like his father, Dan loves fast cars, mean dogs, good books. Like his father, Dan can hold forth on all the classic masculine subjects—boxing, baseball, poker, pretty women. Like his father, Dan can give off an air of menace, with a gravelly voice and a large tattoo and eyes that narrow suddenly into the kind of scowl that precedes a knife fight. And yet, like his father, Dan can also be deeply sentimental, and terribly fragile. Tonight, for instance, Dan is still smarting over a slight suffered earlier in the day, when a publicist called his last novel "depressing."

But the key link between the Fantes is the way their lives are defined by a trinity of risky activities—drinking, writing, fathering—each of which can be a coping mechanism, or delivery mechanism, for rejection. And rejection, above all, is what binds Fante father and son. Rejection is their muse, their curse, their subject, and rejection is the best one-word prècis of Dan and John's relationship. All his life Dan has been seeking and rejecting John, a rejecter of the first order.

It's stirring, therefore, and symbolic, that tonight, after decades of professional rejection, John will get his turn in the spotlight, and Dan will be here to see it. John won't see it, because he died 23 years ago, but Dan is fully capable of standing in for the old man. Collin Farrell plays John in "Ask the Dust," but Dan can play John in his sleep. Dan can conjure John in a sentence, as John did his own father. (In the opening sentence of his first autobiographical novel, in 1938, John described his father's footsteps: "He came along, kicking the deep snow.")

So here comes Dan, kicking in the old man's footsteps, making his way through the well-wishers in the lobby of the Egyptian Theater, proudly taking his seat in the VIP section. Dan's younger brother, Jim, is in the VIP section too. He sits a few seats from Dan, alongside their younger sister, Vickie. Strained smiles. The siblings haven't always gotten along, and things have been extra tense since their mother, Joyce, died last June. For months the Fante siblings have been negotiating a division of the estate, and recently they reached an accord. Tonight, on top of everything else, Jim will hand Dan a check for his share. The money will help Dan pay his bills and finally focus full time on writing.

It's a very big night for Dan.

In walks Robert Towne, the legendary director, the John Fante of directors, who put his own literary stamp on Los Angeles with his masterpiece, "Chinatown." He steps to a microphone below the screen and the crowd quiets. By way of introducing his film, Towne recalls first meeting John in around 1970. He describes John's pessimism. John doubted that Towne could turn "Ask the Dust" into a film, and tonight Towne is beaming with pride, a prodigal returning to prove the old man wrong.

Dan beams too. He can relate.
Towne closes by thanking John's children for their help with the film. He asks them to rise and be recognized. He names them.

Jim.

Vickie.

Jim and Vickie stand. Applause, applause.

Towne doesn't name Dan.

Has he forgotten Dan? Does he not know Dan is here?

The lights go off. The theater is pitch dark. Then the screen gives off a soft glow that rolls over the audience like a fog. But as the name John Fante appears in giant letters, a kind of darkness still seems to hover over one seat in the VIP section.

the memorial service feels like a 12-step meeting: All the mourners are alcoholics, the deceased was an alcoholic, and every eulogy is turning into an alcoholic's "inventory."

An inventory is a drinker's confession, a dead-eyed reckoning of wounds inflicted and sins committed under the sway of booze. In 12-step programs it's called Step 4. Dan stands in the back of the church, eyes cast down, lips down, everything about him pointing down, because the deceased was the first person to hear Dan's inventory, 20 years ago, when Dan stopped drinking.

Dan was 42 at the time, and he'd spent his life doing what he'd seen the old man do—raging. But at least the old man had raged now and then on the page. Dan had raged in the streets and in barrooms, and at 42 he had nothing to show for all that rage. He'd run out of money, energy and time. He'd been arrested twice for drunken driving, and he'd recently shoved the barrel of his .357 magnum into his mouth. The only place left to him was here, among these alcoholics, "working the 12 steps" instead of following in the old man's footsteps.

Upon joining a 12-step program, Dan made a friend, a fellow alcoholic—the man everyone has gathered here to remember. Dan asked the friend to receive his inventory, which Dan had pounded out on a typewriter. It totaled 31 pages, single-spaced, and Dan asked his friend to listen while Dan read it aloud. Sitting on his friend's sofa, Dan read about growing up in Malibu, in a household clenched with fear. He read about cowering from his old man, who was forever screaming at everyone in his path. "I went deaf as a child for six months," Dan says. "They told me it was my adenoids blocking the hearing canal, but I believe in fact I lost my hearing because of my dad."

During Dan's childhood, much of John's rage was born of rejection. His second novel, "Ask the Dust," though well reviewed, hadn't sold, possibly because it appeared in 1939, a year that saw a glut of seminal California novels—"The Big Sleep," "The Day of the Locust," "The Grapes of Wrath." His next novel was summarily rejected by John Steinbeck's editor, Pascal Covici, and that was that. John gave up. Stopped writing novels, stopping writing anything besides the occasional Hollywood piecework, to pay the bills, which left him humiliated. When he did gather himself to write another novel, his work was invariably praised by critics and ignored by readers, which would send him into another period of gloom and indolence.

John was respected, but he wanted to be lionized. He was well paid, but he wanted to be rich. When reality failed to meet his expectations, he felt betrayed by the gods of literature. In later years, as his books fell out of print, he spent long stretches doing little more than golfing and sulking, and some days his fury about his failure hung in the Malibu house like smoke from his pipe. Most of Dan's boyhood memories are of hiding, on a surfboard, in a closet, anywhere out of range of the old man. "He wasn't anybody I wanted to be around," Dan says.

Dan read to his friend about getting a girl pregnant when he was 19. She had a son, and Dan fled, to avoid his father's wrath as much as his own responsibility. Dan read to his friend about hitchhiking to New York, trying to become an actor, driving a cab instead. He read about his carousel of jobs—carnival barker, private detective, window washer, dating counselor, telemarketer. With each job Dan drank to ease his sense of failure, but he didn't need a reason. Drink was in his blood. His father was a drinker, as was his father, Nick, a bricklayer from Abruzzi. "They're all drunks," Dan says of the Fante fraternity.

Nick also had that congenital Fante rage: Near the end of his life he stabbed a man to death in a barroom brawl. "My grandfather was such a difficult man," Dan says. "He was my father's role model—and he was no role model."

Stephen Cooper, author of "Full of Life," the definitive biography of John, says Nick arrived in America around 1900 with a chip on his shoulder. "He had an attitude toward the world in general, and family life in particular, that, especially in dealing with his eldest son, John, came out in some pretty pyrotechnic ways."

John, like Dan, spent his boyhood cowering and hiding from his old man.

Why such animus between Fante fathers and sons? Dan sometimes blames the Italian blood. Other times he says the Fante men were archetypal pre-Freudian patriarchs, who defined themselves through work and disadained wives and children.

Whatever the cause, Cooper's research, going back to the early 1800s, shows a staggering intractability in the Fante paternal tradition. Invariably, Fante sons follow the bad example of their fathers, until the sons become their bad fathers. John would vanish for days at a time, carousing and drinking, just as Nick had done, and Nick was merely emulating his father, Giovanni, who sailed for America by himself at the turn of the century, leaving his family to starve. Nick went after his old man, and found him in Colorado, passed out in a Denver saloon, near the start of 1902. Nick "threw him over his shoulder and carried him out into the Rocky Mountain winter," Cooper writes.

Thus did the Fantes arrive in America, with a son following his father, then bearing the burden of his father, and this mini-drama would be enacted again and again over the next 100 years.

Dan poured all this out to his friend, 31 single-spaced pages, about his troubled family history, about getting married in 1964, about having another son and getting divorced soon after, in 1969. He read aloud to him about returning to Los Angeles in 1975, marrying again in 1980, divorcing two months later. He lost touch with both sons, bounced from job to job, made money, lost money, tried therapy, tried drugs, chain-smoked, guzzled gin, slept around, attempted suicide, landed in jail for public drunkenness, then again for being drunk on an airplane—a harrowing odyssey.

Rock bottom was a rented house in Laurel Canyon. Drunk, Dan used his gun to blow holes in a mirrored wall. Afterward he was forced to see in the shot-up shards what he'd become. "When I had the gun in my mouth with the hammer back—it was a pretty good indication I'd had enough fun," he says. "I got sober and began going to meetings."

Near the end of his inventory, Dan glanced up. His friend wasn't exactly riveted. "He started reading the newspaper," Dan recalls. "Then he fell asleep." When Dan roused him, the friend asked meekly: "How much more are you going to read?"

Though Dan's first stab at autobiographical narrative met with rejection, he wasn't discouraged. Sure, his friend hadn't listened—but he also hadn't judged. Or criticized. More importantly, Dan had written something. He'd worked at it every day until he'd finished, and it felt good. It felt like the thing he was supposed to do. "The inventory," he says, "was the key to letting me know I could write."

After that first inventory, Dan wrote more, which he called poems. He started a longer, more ambitious inventory, which he called a novel. The writing was hard, but Dan didn't stop, didn't dare stop, because writing seemed to widen the gap between his new self and his old—even as it narrowed the gap between himself and the old man. By the time Dan quit drinking John had been dead three years, and booze had been the root cause. Decades of abusing red wine and scotch had brought on diabetes, which led to blindness and the amputation of both legs. In taking up his father's trade, Dan hoped to avoid his father's fate—though his father's fate was partly the result of that trade: John's sense of rejection picked up where his alcoholic genes left off. So Dan's decision to follow in certain of John's footsteps, while carefully avoiding others, was fraught with peril.

Dan got a chilling reminder of how much peril when his older brother, Nick, named after their grandfather, drank himself to death in 1997. Dan's entire right forearm is covered with a ghastly green tattoo-epitaph that commemorates his older brother:

NICK FANTE

DEAD FROM ALCOHOL

1-31-42 TO 2-21-97

Now, near the end of his friend's memorial, Dan walks to the front of the church and stands before the microphone. "I'm Dan and I'm an alcoholic!" he says.

"Hi Dan!" the mourners shout.

Dan clears his throat and delivers a brief eulogy in which he credits his friend for saving his life. My friend was kind, Dan says. My friend was patient, Dan says. My friend was loving, Dan says, eyes glassy with tears, because his friend was everything his father was not.

Dan describes that long-ago night when he read to his friend. He tells the story well, in a self-deprecating tone, but the mourners have heard too many stories. And they have begun to notice that coffee and cake are being served in the back. As Dan recalls his friend not listening, his audience isn't listening. Like the formless readers every writer fears, the mourners are fidgety, distracted, keenly aware of other things they would rather be doing. The layering of inattention upon inattention, rejection upon rejection, is daunting. But Dan presses on.

In this moment, dead sober, watching his words fall on deaf ears, Dan might be as different from the old man, and as like the old man, as he's ever been.

Sons of celebrated novelists don't become novelists. And if they do, they don't become celebrated. There are no Kirk and Michael Douglas among American novelists, no Bobby and Barry Bonds. Dan thinks the reason is simple. Writing, unlike acting and baseball, can't be taught. Fathers can pass along the hunger to write, but not the skills.

John didn't try. On the contrary, Dan says, John hoarded his skills, squelched Dan's early literary bent, tried to make Dan self-conscious about his intellect. John berated Dan about his report cards, needled him in print about being glib: In "Brotherhood of the Grape," John's narrator belittles his two oldest sons, who couldn't be more like Nick and Dan, for their "icy ability to verbalize."

Thus, in 1991, when Dan began to write, to really write, not just the post-sobriety free verses, but a novel, he had to fight more than his muse. He had to go 12 rounds with the old man. "When I'm writing," Dan says, "I can hear him. Why the [expletive] did you think of putting a comma in there, you stupid [expletive]?! Jesus Christ, Dan, what kind of sentence is that? Only a moron would do that!"

And if he wasn't hearing the old man's criticism, he was hearing the praise heaped upon the old man by the critics of his day.

"I don't envy Dan," says Cooper, the Fante biographer. "And I admire him for doing what he's doing."

Dan contended with the old man's ghost by confronting him head-on. He moved into John's house in Malibu, where his mother still lived, and commandeered the old man's Smith-Corona. He found it in the garage, along with John's last ream of paper, 500 yellow legal-sized sheets. On the old man's machine, on the old man's paper, Dan launched the search for his own voice. Sort of.

In four of his novels John spoke through a first-person narrator, Arturo Bandini, who was his double—a young naïf from Colorado who fled his drunken father, lit out for Los Angeles and lived on nothing but oranges and rage while trying to write. Through Arturo, John could vent and rant and rhapsodize, often about his father, and nearly 55 years later Dan decided to do the same. He birthed his own doppelganger—Bruno Dante. He opened his novel with Bruno walking out of a "nut ward" in New York, after another hellish bender, and learning that his father, a great writer named Jonathan Dante, is near death from diabetes.

Bruno flies to L.A. and comes face to face in the hospital with the specter of his old man—blind, legless, unconscious. "I went to the bed and picked up one of the hands," Bruno says. "The fingers were short and thick. Hammer handles. I recalled those fingers. I remembered once thinking Michelangelo must have had fingers and hands like these."

The lines recall John's about his "fictional" father, also dying of diabetes, whom he doesn't even bother to rename. Nick, he writes, "was a flawless craftsman whose imagination and intelligence seemed centered in his marvelously strong hands. And though he called himself a building contractor I came to regard him as a sculptor."

Bruno is there when the old man breathes his last, and he responds by bolting. Overcome by grief he holes up in a motel on Sunset with plenty of booze, a 15-year-old hooker, and his father's pit bull, Rocco. Dan freely concedes that he wrote about real events and flesh-and-bone people. "It's autobiographical fiction," he says. "It's biography taking poetic license." ("It's different from biography," John once wrote of his own work. "Yet it's very much like it.")

Dan finished the novel in 1994 and with his thick Fante fingers tapped out the title page: "Chump Change." "It just kind of roared out of me," he says of the book. "It's a really intense book."

Part of its intensity derives from its relentless evocation of John. When not recounting actual events surrounding John's death, "Chump Change" is speaking in a style that recalls John's—that finely honed simplicity, that primal screaming at America, and specifically Los Angeles. "L.A. was the right place for me after all," Dan writes. "I belonged here with the killers of my father."

John, in "Ask the Dust": "They hate me and my father, and my father's father, and they would have my blood and put me down."

Bruno's boss calls him "a lover of man and beast alike." The same phrase appears in "Ask the Dust." It's how Arturo refers to himself when feeling proud.

Aside from John's influence, "Chump Change" also shows the influence of Bukowski and Henry Miller. Raw, bleak, its language is gleefully vulgar, its narrator unapologetically Bacchic. While drunk, Bruno has sex with men, women and one teenager, and he commits one awful self-debauch on an airplane—all of which may explain the lack of enthusiasm from publishers. "I couldn't believe all the rejections," Dan says. "I couldn't believe some of the rejection slips, what they said."

Evan Wright met Dan while he was writing "Chump Change," and the two became friends. Wright was dreaming of doing a book, and feeling like a failure because he was already 30. (In 2004, Wright published "Generation Kill," an acclaimed memoir of his time with U.S. troops in Iraq.) Dan impressed Wright with his attitude: Though nearly 15 years older, Dan didn't seem unnerved about getting a late start. Nor did he seem troubled that his father had set such a high standard. Then Wright read "Chump Change" and found himself doubly impressed. The book is important, he says, because it gives a searing account of trying to sell oneself in a city where everyone is on the make. If there is a father-son dynamic in Dan's work, Wright says, it's more "Death of a Salesman" than "Ask the Dust." "Salesmanship and redemption—those things are the essence of Dan's work."

In 1996, Robert Laffont Fixot Seghers in France agreed to publish "Chump Change," and the French newspaper Sud-Ouest called it "sublime." Sales in France were "decent" for an American novel, Dan says—roughly 7,000 copies. John Fowles, author of iconic American novels such as "The French Lieutenant's Woman," sent Dan a rave, which was excerpted on the cover of the American edition, finally brought out in 1998 by Sun Dog Press. "Like his dad's writing," says Al Berlinski, president of Sun Dog, "Dan's just somehow grabs you and doesn't let you go."

American reviewers largely ignored Dan's book, but "Chump Change" refused to disappear. It went on to be published in 11 countries, every now and then beguiling another critic. "Absolutely tremendous," said the Birmingham Post in England. "As funny, sad, angry and human as it gets."

Long before "Chump Change" was published Dan was hard at work on the next project. He'd witnessed his father stop writing, then fail to start again, so Dan dove quickly into a play, "Boiler Room," based on his days as a telemarketer. It ran for two years in Los Angeles, and the Los Angeles Times cited it as one of the best plays of 1998. Dan then wrote "Spitting Off Tall Buildings," a novel based on his time as a window washer, which was published by Canongate. Susan Salter Reynolds, in the Los Angeles Times, said: "You feel that the author has told you the truth about something, about these jobs and about the drinking life."

Then, in 2002, Dan wrote "Mooch," also published by Canongate. "Mooch" not only resumes the suicidal odyssey of Bruno, it fairly resurrects John. The novel contains so many allusions to "Ask the Dust," it seems at times a T.S. Eliot pastiche of references and appropriations. Though there are important differences between the books, in their language and sensibility, and in their views of sobriety, the similarities are striking.

In "Ask the Dust," Arturo lives in a Los Angeles flophouse, falls for a Latina waitress, fails to win her, then settles for a deformed divorcée. Following their loveless tryst, Arturo suffers an attack of searing Catholic guilt. At last he seduces his Latina, after which he whisks her to Laguna to live in blissful isolation—though, in the end, his Latina chooses drugs over him. Meanwhile he dreams of being a writer and cherishes the one story he's published in a magazine.

In "Mooch," Bruno lives in a Los Angeles halfway house, falls for a Latina stripper, fails to win her, then settles for a deformed divorcée. Following their loveless tryst, Dante suffers a nightmare about the nuns who tormented him in Catholic school. At last he seduces his Latina, after which he whisks her to Laguna to live in blissful isolation—though, in the end, his Latina chooses drugs over him. Meanwhile he dreams of being a writer and cherishes the one story he hopes to publish in a magazine.

If Dan feels any "anxiety of influence," Harold Bloom's famous description of the unease poets feel toward their predecessors, he doesn't acknowledge it. Yes, he says, his father's books influenced him. But far greater was the influence of Hubert Selby's "Last Exit to Brooklyn." Asked about the parallels between "Mooch" and "Ask the Dust," Dan says there aren't many. Shown the parallels, forced to hear them ticked off one by one, he falls silent.

"You're right," he says, sounding astonished.

john might be even more intimidating as a writer than as a father. He might be a fiercer literary opponent than he was a parent. After all, the man drank with F. Scott Fitzgerald, palled around with William Faulkner and William Saroyan. Critics called him one of the virtuoso stylists of the 20th century, and compared his best work to Steinbeck, Hemingway—even Goethe.

To whom is Dan compared? John. And it frustrates him. "I just want my day in the sun," Dan says. "I would like to have my work as well received as—no, received. In the States. I'd like to sell some books in America."

As if making his case to a panel of critics, Dan begins to delineate the differences between himself and the old man. "I don't think he could write what I write. I don't think he could be as honest." Also, John wanted to be literary, Dan wants to be a visionary. "I have an ax to grind," Dan says. "I believe books can change people's lives."

Versatility—there's another category where Dan feels he's got the old man beat. "My old man wasn't a playwright. He wasn't a [expletive] poet."

Productivity? Score another point for Dan, he says. Dan has two books coming out this spring: a collection of short stories, "Short Dog," and a play, "Don Giovanni." "My father wrote in fits and starts. I don't do that. I write all the time. I'm always writing. I write six days a week."

Left unspoken is the implication that Dan can write every day because his mind is clear. Dan takes life one day at a time, and every day he takes sober is another victory he takes over the old man. Sometimes, even in the midst of praising John, Dan can't resist burying him. " 'Ask the Dust' is a much a better book than `Catcher in the Rye,' " he says. Minutes later he adds: "It's an uneven book. It starts out tough, kinda choppy in the beginning. It takes 50 pages to take off."

As if competing with his father weren't enough, Dan also competed with his mother. When "Chump Change" first appeared, Joyce fired off letters to critics and publishers, disavowing Dan. As John's literary executor, Dan says, Joyce was enjoying the resurgence of John's reputation, making good money off his recently reissued books, and she resented the idea of the Fante brand name being diluted. "My mother tried to sabotage my work," Dan says grimly. "She saw me as some kind of competitor for attention."

The day Dan learned what his mother was doing was one of the worst of his life. "It was literally the only time I've ever actually been driven to my knees."

Eventually he made peace with his mother, but the old wounds fester. He's fond of saying that, rather than children, "my parents should've raised chickens."

Soon there might be another Fante competing with Dan, vying for space on the same crowded shelf at the local bookstore. Dan's younger brother, Jim, plans to write a book. An autobiographical novel, he says.

Jim, who has more happy memories than Dan of growing up, says the Fante household was an extremely competitive arena. And yet Jim insists that he feels no rivalry with his father, no pressure from John's legacy. Asked how he views his brother's books, how they compare to the old man's, Jim pauses: "I would say the main difference is: My father was more of a natural."

In "Don Giovanni," a newly sober Bruno returns to Malibu to visit the family. The play marks the first time in Dan's work that John speaks, and he sounds like a cross between Bukowski and Mr. Micawber. Every line is a model of scatology and puffery. "That's the old man," Dan says. "He spoke that way when he asked you to pass the salt."

Told that "Don Giovanni" resembles "Long Day's Journey Into Night," its family of articulate drinkers eviscerating one another, Dan demurs. " 'Don Giovanni' is the superior play," he says. "O'Neill was a bit wordy."

Bravado is another way of competing with John. And another way of imitating him. Bravado was John's response to rejection. It's the bravado of the boxer, the put-'em-up stance of Hemingway and Mailer. John did box as a young man (trained and managed by his father) and Dan loves boxing too. One day, attending a match in downtown Los Angeles, he stares at the ring moments before the fight starts and says: "This is the only thing my father and I had in common."

Dan begins speaking very rapidly, recalling the old man's ferocious love of the sport. The old man sure knew his straight rights from his left hooks! The old man loved Archie Moore best of all! And Carmen Basilio? Oh the old man really loved Basilio! Dan smiles at the memory of his old man. His arch-nemesis. His dad.

The bell rings. The boxers dance toward each other. Dan says the smaller boxer looks gamer. "He's a banger," he says admiringly. "Won't go down."

(In "Mooch," Dan writes of a phone salesmen: "Freebase was old school, like me—a relentless banger.")

The other fighter, however, is a natural. Blessed with greater reach, and a longer body, he immediately lands hard punches, from long range, at will. Everything Dan's fighter does is quickly outdone by his opponent. Soon Dan's fighter is bleeding from the eye. Dan yells at his fighter to throw a combo, work the body, but after two rounds Dan's fighter is so behind, so discouraged, he's simply trying to stay upright.

By the end Dan's fighter is walking straight into punches. He rallies briefly, but his opponent flashes an effortless left-right-left, squelching all hope. Dan grimaces. Still, Dan's fighter won't quit. To the last bell Dan's fighter keeps banging.

The judges' decision is unanimous. Dan's fighter slouches on his stool. His corner men whisper condolences into his cauliflower ear. He turns and peers through the ropes, scanning the crowd, then spots his wife, directly in front of Dan. He gives her an apologetic smile. Then a wink. It's OK—we'll get 'em next time. In that small gesture of grace, of acceptance in the teeth of a defeat that seems predestined, Dan's fighter suddenly is the nobler figure in the ring.

"There's some Bruno in Dan," says Ayrin, Dan's wife. "But for the most part it's not him at all. At least I hope not."

What brings out Bruno? Rejection, Ayrin says. Lack of recognition, lack of sales, lack of respect. Dan gets his hopes up, and when his hopes are dashed, "it just levels him," she says.

Ayrin met Dan in 2002. A mutual friend brought them together because Ayrin was a struggling actress in search of a part, while Dan was a playwright with a hit under his belt. Ayrin liked Dan at once, but Dan was aloof. For starters, Ayrin was 24 years younger. Also, Dan had been married and divorced yet again—he wasn't looking to go down the aisle a fourth time. Above all, Ayrin was engaged. "I loved the fact that he didn't care," Ayrin says. "He was so uninterested!"

After their first meeting, a brief coffee date, Ayrin walked straight to Barnes & Noble and bought "Chump Change." She read it in one sitting and found it reminiscent of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein." Soon after turning the last page, she phoned Dan and asked him to meet her for another coffee. Then she called off her engagement. Two years later she and Dan were married.

Curiously, in the four years she and Dan have been together, Ayrin has never read any of his father's books. She tried "Ask the Dust" but couldn't get into it. She did, however, "meet" the author. Posthumously. When Dan brought Ayrin home to meet his mother, Ayrin found herself face-to-face with the old man. "I actually saw him," she says. "John was in the room. It took me a long time to explain that to Dan."

Ayrin says she's been "clairvoyant" much of her life, but especially after suffering a head injury five years ago. Spooky, she admits—but not so different from what Dan does. Doesn't he speak to his dead father every day, in his books and plays and poems? "I actually feel like Dan's trying to communicate with his father," she says, "to touch him."

For all her extrasensory perception, Ayrin didn't foresee the kind of father Dan would become. Their son, Giovanni, was born 20 months ago. "I've been amazed," she says. "They're incredible together."

The Fantes live in a one-bedroom apartment in Venice, the living room dominated by Dan's scarred metal desk and computer. (He's moved on from the old man's Smith-Corona.) During the week, while Ayrin is at work selling aromatherapy oils, Dan watches Giovanni. In the mornings Dan writes while Giovanni plays. In the afternoons they go to the park.

This afternoon is cold, windy, and a heavy fog engulfs father and son as they walk down the street to the little park by the ocean. Dan sets Giovanni on a swing and gives him a gentle push. The boy goes backward, then forward, screaming with delight. "You like that?" Dan says.

John never did this with his sons, Dan says. Not once. He wasn't around, and when he was around, he wasn't pleasant company. "He had two moods," Dan says. "Angry and angrier."

"I didn't want the role," John once said, through his narrator, of fatherhood. "I wanted to go back to a time when I was small and my father stood strong and noisy in the house. To hell with fatherhood. I was never born to it. I was born to be a son."

Dan's early failure at fatherhood, he says, led to his downfall. "I couldn't stand that I'd abandoned my son like my father had done to me," he says. "That's why I drank."

Though Dan has salvaged a relationship with his second son, he and his first son remain estranged. Now Giovanni gives him a fresh start. And more. "This is a joy," he says, giving Giovanni another push. "It's not even redemption—it's a gift to me." He takes Giovanni off the swing and sets him on his feet, tells him to run around. He follows a few steps behind.

Dan and Ayrin might soon leave Los Angeles. The schools are not what they want for Giovanni, he says, and they can't afford to buy a house. Arizona, they think.

Quit the city his father helped define?

Dan shrugs.

The city also helped defeat his father.

Giovanni tumbles toward the edge of a duck pond. Just before he falls in, Dan catches him by the wrist. Dan turns Giovanni and aims him away from the pond, toward the middle of the park. Again he follows a few steps behind.

Giovanni discovers a broken water fountain. The boy dashes to it and cups his palm in the rust-colored water. He tastes. Makes a face. Nasty. He does it again.

"Giovanni!" Dan says. "What are you doing?"

Dan takes Giovanni's hand from the fountain. As Dan turns away, Giovanni goes right back to the fountain. "OK," Dan says, "we're done." His tone is final but amused. He understands the attraction to a poison fountain.

Holding Giovanni's hand, Dan tells him to come along. They walk a few steps before Dan notices Giovanni dragging his feet. He lifts Giovanni onto his hip and carries him home, and for the moment every rejection in their lives, past and future, seems as soft, as penetrable, as the gathering fog, because of how eagerly each accepts the other's grasp.

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