I’m Infecting You

From Fante to Bukowski to Towne to Cooper to me — and to you.

I’m transmitting the Virus of Writers.

See how it works.

In 1960 John Fante had no way of knowing that that work, most of it already behind him and long forgotten by the world, would one day be regarded as deserving a place among the finest achievements of twentieth-century American writing, would even come to be compared favorably to masterpieces of world literature written by the likes of Knut Hamsun and Dostoevsky. Fante’s first two novels, “Wait Until Spring, Bandini” and “Ask the Dust,” had been out of print for more than twenty years; he had not published a first-rate short story in over a decade; and the distractions of Hollywood, as always, still beckoned. But although he would not live to hear the praise of a later generation of critics, or to realize that his novels and stories would still be speaking to readers and writers in a dozen languages around the world long after his death in 1983, Fante was not finished yet. Screenwriting was one thing, but his fiction was another, and it was his fiction that as late as 1995 would lead Nathanael West’s biographer Jay Martin to name Fante “our major meditative novelist.” Strange praise, it might seem, for the chronicler of such sagas of the lower depths as “The Road to Los Angeles” and “Ask the Dust,” but praise befitting the author whose works also defined the exalting strangeness of youthful desire. Before the critics rediscovered him, however, it was this rough aspect of Fante’s work that would compel other writers to champion his legacy. As one of the first of many younger authors to acknowledge Fante’s influence, renegade street poet Charles Bukowski would be moved to call “Ask the Dust” “the finest novel written in all time,” a sentiment echoed by no less an aficionado of Fante’s place and era than the screenwriter Robert Towne, who would affirm that “[i]f there’s a better piece of fiction written about L.A., I don’t know about it.” But in late 1960 all such words of praise were still in the distant and unknowable future.

— Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante, by Stephen Cooper; pgs. 8-9


In the meantime, an up-and-coming young screenwriter by the name of Robert Towne had stepped forward to take up the cause of “Ask the Dust.” Researching 1930s Los Angeles for an original screenplay he was then developing — Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown,” as it would turn out, the classic neo-noir detective film starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway — Towne had come across “Southern California Country: An Island on the Land,” and in it Carey McWilliams’s favorable mention of Fante’s long-out-of-print novel. When Towne read a copy of “Ask the Dust” from the Los Angeles Public Library he was so moved that in the best Hollywood tradition he contacted his agent, who connected him with Fante. Towne and his then-wife Julie met John and Joyce for dinner and soon Towne’s Tortoise Productions had paid Fante $1,000 for the initial six-month option, which took effect in late 1971.

— Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante, by Stephen Cooper; pgs. 292-293


In the summer of 1974 I [Stephen Cooper, author of Fante’s biography] was living in a rented room in Los Angeles. I was twenty-four years old, unemployed and unattached, and I was trying to teach myself how to write. I had a radio and for entertainment I listened to Dodger games, nothing else. There was a woman I knew who worked at the State Hospital in Camarillo. Once or twice I drove up there to see her, or so I told myself, though the real reason was to walk the grounds of the asylum where, as I understood it, my blood father had been institutionalized before getting out and shooting himself to death. Those memories were hazy — I had been a very young boy at the time of his death — but if only for that rented room and my typewriter and those trips to Camarillo, the summer of 1974 would have remained clear in my mind. But there was also something else.

One August day I came across an article in the Los Angeles Times about a new movie I had admired. The movie was “Chinatown” and in this article the screenwriter Robert Towne mentioned a novelist whose name was new to me, John Fante, and a novel of his called “Ask the Dust,” which Towne said simply was the best novel ever written about Los Angeles. I could not rest until I had tracked down a used copy of that book to see if Towne’s assertion was true; and when I had finished the book I could not sleep, so amazed was I at its beauty.

Without really knowing what I was doing I wrote what I took to be a review of a novel that had been out of print for over thirty years, and then I sent what I had written to the Los Angeles Times Book Review. I then went to the library and like Florence Carpenter I found John Fante’s address in Malibu. I wrote him a letter saying how much I had been moved by the story of Arturo Bandini and how I wished everyone could read the novel. And when I went back to trying to teach myself how to write I could feel I was changing in some way that was important.

Time passed. The review I had submitted came back from the Times with a note thanking me for my effort but declining it. I wasn’t too disappointed because deep inside I had expected it would be rejected. And besides, by then another letter had arrived.

Dear Steve:

Thanks very much for your generous thoughts about Ask the Dust. I wish I could spare a copy for you but they are rare indeed. . . .

Writing is a great joy but the profession of writing is horrible. I wish you all the good luck in the world.

Sincerely yours,
John Fante

I have felt his wish with me all these years.

— Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante – Stephen Cooper; pgs. 328-329

And now, Robert Towne:

Robert Towne #1 Word Into Image 1984

Robert Towne #2 Word Into Image 1984

Robert Towne #3 Word Into Image 1984

Put down that vaccine. This is a good virus.

(Sidebar: In the second video, within the first eighteen seconds, Towne reveals part of the real secret. Which is not found in that drivel, The Secret.)

Explore posts in the same categories: Books - Fiction, Movie (theatre), Video - Online, Writers - Dead, Writers - Living, Writing

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