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Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Author Chronicled Malibu Life in the 1960s


Much of 20th century novelist and screenwriter John Fante’s writing focuses on the Italian American experience and explores the precarious, gritty, hardscrabble existence of the screenwriter in Los Angeles. Some of his writing also provides a vivid portrait of his life in Malibu.
Fante, who struggled with poverty in his home state of Colorado before coming to Los Angeles to pursue a career in writing during the depression, had plenty of experience with adversity, but a series of successful projects enabled him to buy a house on an acre of land in Malibu.
Fante, his wife Joyce and their four children moved to Point Dume in September of 1951. The house they purchased for $29,000 was one of the first built on the Point after WW II. The original owners reportedly found it too isolated, too remote and too windy.
The family named the house “Fante’s Folly.” It was ringed by a windbreak of pine trees—which are still there—and had an unobstructed view of the Pacific and the Santa Monica Mountains. In 1956, that view offered the writer and his family a panorama of Armageddon, as fire swept down the mountains on the day after Christmas, burning 37,537 acres.
In the early years, when there were few trees and even fewer houses, the Fante family at the western end of the peninsula reportedly communicated with the Whalley family on the eastern side of Point Dume by flashing mirrors in the sun.
Fante kept a menagerie of animals, including a bull terrier, who was the reputed terror of Point Dume, notorious for attacking other dogs and eating cats; and a burro.
Fante is probably best remembered for his 1939 novel “Ask the Dust,” a bleak but compelling depiction of tough times in LA that conveys a tremendous sense of place, and “Full of Life,” a more lighthearted roman a clef, in which the main characters-a struggling screenwriter and his wife-prepare for the birth of their first child.
“Full of Life” was adapted by Fante as a film in 1956. “Ask the Dust” was filmed in 2006 by director Robert Towne.
Fante died in 1983 at the age of 74. A resurgence of interest in his work following his death led to the republication of many of his novels and the first time appearance of previously unpublished works. A biography of the author, written by Stephen Cooper, was published in 2000 and provides additional insight into Fante’s life.
“My Dog Stupid,” a novella published posthumously in 1986 as part of the book “West of Rome,” is set on Point Dume and provides a colorful and often crude autobiographic record of Fante’s life in the late 1960s, chronicling the part humorous, mostly tragic generational disconnect between the mid-century modern main character and his postmodern children, and the misadventures of a sex-crazed and very violent dog that adopts the family.
Fante begins the novella with: “We lived on Point Dume, a thrust of land jutting out into the sea like a tit in a porno movie, the northern tip of the crescent that forms Santa Monica Bay. Point Dume is a community without streetlights, a chaotic urban sprawl so intricately bisected by winding streets and dead end roads that after 20 years of living there I still get lost in fog or rain, often wandering aimlessly over streets not two blocks from my house.”
A description of the things the protagonist’s youngest son did not do sheds a little light on extracurricular activities of the time: “He didn’t ditch school or get into fights or come home in the sheriff’s car with the deputy lecturing his parents on the seriousness of vandalism, or steal or get drunk or wreck cars or have pot parties on the beach,” Fante writes in “My Dog Stupid.”
The novella also records details of life in Malibu that still resonate: “The day was a heart-breaker,” wrote Fante, describing a perfect winter day in the late 1960s. “The storm had washed and drip-dried the world. The sea was a vast blueberry pie and the sky brilliant as the Madonna’s cloak. There was a fragrance of pines and salt air, I could see the Santa Barbara Islands forty miles away, riding the horizon like a herd of whales. It was the kind of day that tortured a writer, so beautiful that he knew it would rape him of ambition and suffocate every notion born of his brain.”
Contemporary readers may find Fante’s misogyny and use of racial epithets troubling, but his writing offers a window on Los Angeles and Malibu in a time that is already beginning to slip from memory.
“West of Rome” and other works by Fante, including a volume of letters, are readily available new or used, as is Cooper's comprehensive and thorough biography. The John Fante literary trust maintains a website at

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