THE CENTRAL JOKE: My Dinner with Fante

DAN FANTE’S READING AT MUTINY NOW! in the fall of 2013 was sparsely attended. Dan and Luke, then owners of Kilgore Books, where my release party was happening, showed up. An author of horror, action and adventure books named Tom Piccirilli was there, a mountainous presence slow to smile, feet planted widely apart. He was Fante’s pen pal also. I kept looking around for Sam Dent, formerly Sam Kane (both pseudonyms), who I’d invited via IdentiPal, but he never showed. Dent-formerly-Kane had first recommended I read Dan’s father John Fante’s stuff several years previously, and it had been his recommendation of the Mario Van Peebles film Baadasssss! which had inspired the declarative title of my own first book, but he was known to be a late-night drinker and a temperamental recluse, so I wasn’t too surprised at his absence from this early afternoon event.

Dan Fante was pale and fit with shaved head, round glasses and blue jeans. “Are you Zack? Thanks for writing that article.”

“Sure, I wish more people had shown up.”

Fante read from the memoir and his book of poetry, telling stories of his childhood in the bosom of great drunk writers sucking on Hollywood as Hollywood sucked them off, all those Faulkners and Fantes, and happy gambler Bill Saroyan jumping up on his publisher’s desk and saying, “Double or nothing, you son of a bitch!” when offered an advance of thousands.

I was paying Jack Jensen’s flossy haired partner Jean for a copy of Dan’s latest book when a plump, pretty woman with glasses and short brown hair in a light purple dress came up to me and said, “You wrote the article, right? And I saw you guys talking, you’re friends with him. Please come to dinner at our house tonight. My name is Susan.”

Susan and her husband, also named Dan, with close cropped black hair in a short sleeved blue button up shirt, were friends of Jack Jensen’s—his paintings were hanging all over their house a few blocks away—lurid, sneering, smiling graphics with captions like WHO MADE THE RULES and WHICH END IS UP.

The couple had a huge antique cabinet in their dining room stuffed with 20th century gas station kitsch, hand-painted figurines and trinkets and action figures and other bric-a-brac. I stood staring at appreciatively for a while, but no one ventured to say anything, and he couldn’t think of a comment either, so he turned back around.

Over dinner Dan Fante talked about the new detective thriller he was writing. I fumbled conversation: “Did you ever end up reading The Killer Inside when I recommended it to you?”

“Who wrote that?”

“Oh, Jim Thompson. I haven’t read much Thompson but felt like recommending that one because of its central joke.”

“No, I didn’t,” smiled Fante.

“What was its ‘central joke’?” asked Picciriilli, suddenly keen.

“Oh, you know, the way he always speaks in aphorisms. Like how everything he says is a cliché. Because he’s supposed to be this good guy sheriff for all the townspeople, but he’s secretly this crazy— “

“You’d have to be crazy to think of that as ‘the central joke’,” said Tom, author of multiple suspense narratives.

Well, goddammit, I thought. That’s the central fucking joke. That’s the central joke, buddy. Bur Dan Fante hadn’t read it either. There was no one to defend me. I sat there. “Yes.”

Nobody mentioned the Occupy protests, which were spreading all over the world just then, signifying rebirth or heralding the onset of a defensive crackdown by the state. I didn’t bring it up. Dan Fante mentioned how he’d been through pretty much every self-help program known to man in his efforts to beat the raging demons on his back, “I went through EST, I even tried Scientology.”

“They’ll do anything to turn a profit,” proclaimed Tom.

“Well,” I interposed, “My friend Marvel was a Scientologist for something like 13 years, in the Celebrity Centre, until she escaped with her husband, and it’s actually a really hardcore mind control trip they put on everybody who joins . . . they make people believe everybody who’s not a Scientologist is actually in the service of an evil alien god . . . you see, so they’re the only good guys. So, profit is a factor, but there’s a lot more going on than simple greed.”

“I’d say that’s pretty much common to all cults,” said Fante, who seemed impeccably on his guard. “That’s textbook cult thinking.”

Well, maybe it was. “I guess so.”

Susan had made brownies with chunks of bacon in them using bacon grease to cook them. I ate one. It was good. I’d brought a copy of my own self-published first book, Undamned! “Here you go, Dan. Might make for good reading on the plane.”

“You say that’s your first novel?” observed Tom.

“Yeah, that’s my first.”

Tom had upwards of twenty-five novels on action, adventure, horror and death. “Good luck on the road,” he proclaimed, barely smiling, his giant, heavy face. 

“Good luck to us all.”

It felt good knowing Dan might read a book I’d written inspired by his father John Fante’s writing. The copy I’d brought had arrived from the automated self-publisher I’d chosen without its copyright imprint, even though I’d entered it online, so I had to handwrite one into the “much respect” inscription barely showing on the flyleaf, the ballpoint I’d chosen having run plumb out of ink.

Tom Piccirilli died of something brain-tumor-related in summer of 2015 after writing a noir  called The Last Whisper in the Dark and working on one called Blue Autumn.

Dan Fante shuffled it off before Thanksgiving of the same year, after a fight to the death with kidney cancer. Today, February 19th, is his birthday. Both times we met, he seemed truly gentle and happy, a far cry from the conflicted, desperate, suicidal character whose times he lived through and wrote out in books like Mooch, Spitting of Tall Buildings, Chump Change (not to be confused with Eddie’s book), and others. 

I think he died with his wild days behind him, far more the respectful archivist of his impressive non-fictional family memoir, FANTE, a man at peace with his demons after driving them to grudging stalemate,and writing a detective book called Point Doom. Go get ’em, Dan. Mutiny Now! has changed its name to Mutiny Information Café, making this piece at once a remembrance and a case of time travel.


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