Happy Birthday John Fante

John Fante was born in Denver 99 years ago today. If you’ve never heard of the late author, you’re not alone. He is one of the best, least-known authors of the 20th Century, but he is rarely talked about in Denver or anywhere else.

“He’s an interesting in the American literary landscape. Those who have come in contact with his writing are bowled over and can barely comprehend why he is not celebrated like the other great writers of the twentieth century, lions like Hemingway, Faulkner, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald,” says Stephen Cooper, author of Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante, published in 2000. “He continues to be a marginal author, sort of cult favorite, but he is terrifically, deeply loved by those in the minority who recognize him.”

A hero of better-known iconoclast Charles Bukowski, Fante’s semi-autobiographical style was similar, though Fante’s tough-guy persona is softened by a poetic, almost elegant turn of phrase. His most famous book is 1939’s Ask the Dust, which was made into a terrible 2006 movie starring Salma Hayek and Colin Farrell. Some of his other books include, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, Dreams from Bunker Hill, The Brotherhood of the Grape and 1933 Was a Bad Year. He also wrote short stories and screen plays.

The Dictionary of Literary Biography calls him “one of the most engaging talents in American literature,” and credits the 1980 reprint of Ask the Dust for rescuing Fante from “almost total oblivion.” (Read a fascinating story about him on Salon by clicking here.)

Though Fante moved to the Los Angeles area when he was twenty years old, and set most of his stories there, he grew up in Northwest Denver and Boulder, where his father was a stone mason. Fante’s parents were married at Our Lady of Mount Carmel, still a neighborhood institution on 36th and Navaho streets, and Fante attended Regis High School in Denver.

“He spent the formative years of his life in Denver,” says Cooper, who is also a professor at California State University, Long Beach. “And he experienced both wonderful, glorious moments and terrible, hellish moments in Denver,” and those moments punctuate many of his books.

But unlike Jack Kerouac, Hunter Thompson and other authors with well-known Colorado connections, Fante is rarely discussed here; finding a librarian or book store owner who has heard of him is hit or miss. Cooper thinks it would be great if that changed, especially now, in advance of what would have been Fante’s 100th birthday (he died in 1983). In Los Angeles, Cooper believes there will be some sort of public event celebrating Fante’s legacy, the Italian town of Torricella Peligna, where Fante’s father was born, plans to honor him as well.

Perhaps there’s enough time for Denver to do so as well. -- Jonathan Shikes

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Jonathan Shikes is a Denver native who writes about business and beer for Westword.
Contact: Jonathan Shikes