Once you learn to read you will be forever free - Frederick Douglass

Friday, March 11, 2011

The Road to Each of Us is Love

Author John Fante
Today, The Obsessive Reader's work life and literary life came together in a wonderful way. Stephen Cooper, author of  Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante,  and a professor of English at Cal State UniversityLong Beach, lectured on Italian American writer John Fante at UCLA Library Special Collections, which holds the writer's remarkable archive. I remember - it was the early 1980s - getting those Black Sparrow Press editions of Ask the Dust, and Wait Until Spring, Bandini. I lay on my stomach on the living room carpet, reading into the night, entranced. (Even then I was an Obsessive Reader, stealing time from sleep I needed to get to work in the morning). I had never encountered a voice like Fante's. "Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles, come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town." (Ask the Dusk) In 1939, Fante was writing about sexuality, racial prejudice, urban blues. He may have described the frustrations and solace of being a writer better than anybody. He wrote about the tough life, hunger, poverty, and love - ephemeral life-giving love. It's wonderful that - unlike when he was alive - all of his books are in print - available to obsessive readers everywhere.  They can read his lyrical words, ponder the beauty in his pain. "The road to each of us is love." (Ask the Dusk).
I was publishing my poetry, doing readings. In the 1980s, I was emerging as a writer, finding my way on the page, struggling toward my voice. John Fante was still alive, his spirit inhabiting my imagination, helping me believe it could be done. Today, Fante's middle-aged children, his grandchildren, a nephew attended Steve Cooper's lecture.  The nephew, also named John Fante, told me that it wasn't until the papers were acquired by UCLA that the family learned about much of his uncle's life. He looked at me sheepishly, saying that all those unsavory private details being revealed, it was embarrassing.  That's what happens when you're famous, The Obsessive Reader offered. But he wasn't famous, nephew Fante reminded me. Not when he was alive. 
After this exchange, I fell into conversation with another writer.  The audience had lifted themselves out of their chairs and were sampling refreshments, wine, chatting with each other.  People walked to peer at objects from the Fante papers on exhibition. Letters from H.L. Mencken, Steinbeck, Robert Kennedy. A recording by Charles Bukowski, signed.  Fante was his god. More correspondence between Fante and Carey McWilliams, dearest friends.  Screenplays. My fellow writer and I huddled on our seats. We bemoaned, compared, rededicated ourselves to our novels.  We make such galling progress in our writing, inch-by-inch during stolen hours. We hold such hopes to add to the world's literary worth. Today there was Fante still hectoring, inspiring, saying, "I am no longer lonely. Just you wait, all of you ghosts of this room, just you wait, because it will happen, as sure as there's a God in heaven." 

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