Nearly all artists toil in anonymity. Most of these unknowns must have thought that maybe they will receive their due at some point in the future. Occasionally, it actually happens. Such was the case with John Fante (1909-1983), whose novels about Los Angeles have become renowned since his death.
In summer 2018, I saw a copy of Stephen Cooper’s Fante biography, Full of Life, in one of my favorite bookstores – The Book Nook in Atlanta. They wanted $10 for a used copy, which was more than I wanted to pay. So, I filed the book away in my memory, then got around to ordering it in 2019.
Fante was born in Colorado into a family of Italian-American immigrants. During his younger years, his family spent time in both Boulder and Denver. His home life was turbulent. John escaped (to some degree) when he attended a Roman Catholic high school in Denver. In author Cooper’s telling, Fante’s difficult childhood and Catholicism combined to shape his novels.
Eventually, Fante moved to Los Angeles. With no credentials, he worked a series of menial jobs and gradually established himself as a writer. It was Fante’s novels featuring his semi-autobiographical protagonist Arturo Bandini that would eventually be hailed as the greatest novels ever written about Los Angeles.
Author Stephen Cooper, an English professor, follows Fante’s journey from beginning to end. The biography is mostly successful. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Cooper’s background , Full of Life shines when it discusses Fante’s work, which Cooper knows very well.
The portrait of Fante that emerges is of a great, but tortured artist. Fante could mine the hurts and prejudices he’d endured and turn them into fine literature. But he couldn’t escape his past. Eventually, he married and had four children, and then treated his own family to many of the same cruelties he’d been exposed to as a child.
The following passage has a quote from Fante’s wife, Joyce, and a passage that he wrote. It gets at John’s dual nature –
Criticism and Questions
The book can be clunky in places. The sections on John’s early years in Colorado contain too much of what Cooper imagines happened to John, perhaps due to a lack of sources. Also, there are some clumsy attempts to introduce politics into the story. (A quibble – Cooper twice states that Representative Martin Dies of Texas was a Republican, which is untrue).
Cooper leaves one nagging question that probably can’t be answered – did Fante realize his potential? After his successes with novels, John primarily supported himself as a Hollywood screenwriter over the last 40 years or so of his career. Cooper appreciates Fante’s achievement, but can’t help wondering what might have been.
The most-moving aspect of Full of Life is its ending. Fante became diabetic and endured a long, awful decline during which he went blind and lost both of his legs. Cooper’s account of these years will move even the most-hardened readers.
Cooper succeeds at portraying an enigmatic subject’s art and life. The reader gets a good understanding of Fante in about 330 pages. Full of Life closes on a high note that surprises the reader – a brief account of Cooper’s personal contact that Fante in the 1970s.
I give Full of Life 8 out of 10 and recommend it.