Fate and its strange ways

About Fante’s ‘Ask the Dust’

I think coincidence – some might prefer to call it ‘fate’ - is strongly underrated. When i look back into my own past, i find at least four occasions which could have ended tragically if not fatally. When i was 6 we visited the Han grottoes, on a school trip. Coming out of the grotto a huge piece of rock, some 50 kilos, came down, missing me by an inch or two. Nobody had even seen it. A schoolteacher turned around, shouting, “Hurry up now boy, or you’ll miss the bus.” I’d almost missed my life.

Sixteen years later we had been painting the walls all day in the youth club i ran. It was almost night, we were exhausted, we were going to have a last drink in the pub some hundred meters down the street. For one reason or another i had to shut down the electricity. My friends were already waiting outside, the lights were out. My hands were wet, i had washed them. In the dark, i was stupid enough to go into the electricity closet. It was an old style handle. I grabbed it. It shot up my shoulder. When i came out of the door, someone asked where i’d been so long. “I’ve had a near death experience” wasn’t exactly the answer they’d expected.

Fate. Another 10 years later i run out of my office to go and have a sandwich. I’m in a dreamy mood (that’s no news: i often am when walking the streets. Actually, strike out ‘walking the streets’). I hear a loud TING TING TING. I was almost driven over by a streetcar.

And now, 3 weeks ago, in my own house, i go to the toilet. I open the door. I hear a loud BANG. I think: something upstairs must have fallen. Instinctively i look up: less than a centimetre above my head a heavy panel, having come down, is blocked, resting upon a tiny hinge. Later my carpenter said those kinds of hinges are usually put lower. I would have been as dead as a dead mouse. 75 kilos would have split my skull in two.

I think this puts things – life – in perspective for at least a bit. We’re continuously living on the brink of the abyss. But don’t worry – don’t worry. Don’t even think about it.

Now, i was thinking about all this as i reread the introduction to the 1999 edition of John Fante’s ‘Wait until Spring, Bandini’. It was written by his son Dan. John died in 1983 at the age of 74. John Fante was ‘a ballsy kid’ – says Dan. When he was 21 he wrote to the famous editor H.L. Mencken ‘strenuously suggesting that he publish his stuff’. Otherwise, he would be missing out on the new Knut Hamsun. Mencken replied, asking Fante to send some stories. His son: “But that created a problem. John Fante had no stories, only ideas for stories. But he had the absolute conviction that he could produce brilliant fiction, by the goddamn ream and truckload, if only someone would pay him. There was this other sticky problem too, my father couldn’t type.”

In 1939 ‘Ask the Dust’ was published, not even selling 3,000 copies. It wasn’t until after the writer’s death in 1983 that it was regarded as a masterpiece. Maybe it was Bukowski setting things in motion, by writing: “Fante is my God”.

So why is it ‘Ask the Dust’ failed when released in 1939? Now that’s where Fate, or coincidence, comes in. Dan: “As it happens, in 1939 Stackpole published (without permission by the author) a book called Mein Kampf. The author was a literary amateur at best. His syntax was confusing. Goofy. His paragraphs rambled and he had a tendency to endlessly rant about minutiae and shit. And of course Adolf Hitler was pissed off at everybody.” Adolf sued Stackpole & Sons. So, says Dan, the money that would have gone to promote Ask the Dust and give John Fante the recognition he deserved, was spent on attorneys to settle a legal battle against Adolf Hitler.

Bad luck. Glory only passed the Fantes when John was resting in his grave. Without Adolf Hitler and Mein Kampf his life would have looked very different. But there, of course, he was not the only one.

(John Fante, Ask the Dust, published by Stackpole & Sons, 1939.)

(Painting by Britt Snyder, Boston, US, www.brittsnyder.com.)

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