Believing that my first novel was about to drop, I was asked to read at the 2012 Down N Sound Lit Fest at the Last Bookstore, alongside Mr. 86’d himself, Dan Fante. Since his father, John Fante, was one of my cherished L.A. literary beacons, I accepted the invitation, convinced the stars were aligning: my first reading for my first book and I was already alongside a Fante, which obviously meant I was predestined for greatness. Like John Doe and Exene sang, “I just wanna say I met you, it’s who you know” — only I had forgotten the irony, and my book wouldn’t drop for another seven years.
When I shook Fante’s hand, it was like a cinderblock lined with amphibious pads to soften the blow. He let me know, before I could, that I must be a fan of his. Perhaps sensing his intro was awkward, he changed the subject, by means of anecdote, to his deceased father. This too would have been off-putting if Dan wasn’t promoting his new memoir, Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking, and Surviving. It was the book he was literally born to write, so he could do whatever he damn well pleased. He earned it — even the right to move himself to tears in the middle of his reading. It was unexpected, disarming, and captivating — so much so that we attended his every subsequent event. “Sorry I’m late, did he cry yet?” became our irreverent joke. The truth was we couldn’t get enough of him. Looking back, he was teaching us a lesson: not only is it okay for a tough guy to cry, but you cry because you’re a tough guy.
Thanks to a teenage growth spurt, Dan actually became bigger than his abusive dad, and so was able to give him a run for his money. “I stood my ground and yelled, ‘C’mon old man. I’ll break your jaw right here. I’ll put you in the hospital!” says Dan in the memoir. But imagine being the tough guy shadowboxing the legacy of your legendary father — it’s a fight no one wins. “Dan seemed annoyed when I billed him as ‘Son of L.A. legend John Fante, author of Ask the Dust.’ He said he’d published many more books than his father had and deserved to be billed on his own,” Justin Maurer, author and curator of the Last Bookstore event, told me later. “Despite being late to discover Dan’s work, his writing left a lasting impression on me, like a scar on my arm that I look upon fondly whenever I notice it.”
Dan was right. He deserved independent billing. With the rerelease of Short Dog: Cab Driver Stories from the L.A. Streets, we find Fante at his most grizzled and unrepentant. If you’re expecting the wounded romance of John’s novels and stories, Dan’s napalm-ink will deliver a rude awakening. Willy Vlautin nails it in foreword: “When I finished the book the first time, it felt like passing out drunk in a sleeping bag in a vacant lot only to be awoken from a fever dream in the mid-day sun, hungover and sweating, unable to get the bag unzipped […] but now when I look back at this collection, I think of survival.”
Dan didn’t only inherit alcoholism and sorrow from pops. He also acquired a gift for steady pacing and a taste for lean-meat-and-potatoes prose. But then he sped things up and opted for hardboiled content. The effect is like Jim Thompson whispering lines for Charles Bukowski to carnival bark. In fact, both Dan and John Fante owe debts to Bukowski. John’s work had all but disappeared until Bukowski declared him his “God,” while Dan, in his turn, seems to have learned most from, if not actually worshipped, his father’s devotee.
That wasn’t the end of Dan’s education, of course. He also spent years on NYC’s mean streets, before returning to L.A. in the 1990s, with an insult-laden raconteur’s heart, to drive those yellow sin-stained vehicles we call taxis.
Enter Bruno Dante, Dan’s thinly veiled hard-boozing, cab-driving, sex-addicted alter-ego, who steers these stories as far from redemption as the city limits. And don’t get in the car if you’re looking for the fastest way to profundity, either — Bruno’s taking the backstreets, ’cause he’s gotta make some stops on the way. Take a sip of your short dog and enjoy the ride.
Let him tell you about Wifebeater Bob, an in-joke because it’s his wife who beats on him for showing up reeking of gin to work at the Bennington Plaza Hotel, “not far from where Orange Juice Simpson sliced off the head of his sexy blonde wife, then watched her blood run down the sidewalk into a landscaped bed of begonias.” Then try not to get upset, I guess, when he starts telling you about his ex-girlfriend’s pet. “I don’t like dogs,” says Bruno. “The pig is my animal of preference. And I was unable to bond with Kerri’s little rat-faced fucker so, for fun, I tormented him almost every time the opportunity arose.” You can pray it’s another in-joke, or a grand allegory for conquering his animaux shadow-self, until your faith runs thin.
See, a repellent, actively repelling alcoholic like Bruno thinks — often by not thinking — that he can do anything he wants because he deserves a reward for valiantly fighting the hangovers he describes as “the firing squad in my head.” Of course, he’ll need a whole other kind of shot after hooking up with a masseuse in the backseat of his cab and getting herpes, the tip that keeps on giving. You’re a cringing witness, but this is his cab. Rest easy, though: there’s a whole backrest between you and Bruno.
Luckily, the horizon expands, if ever so slightly. He knows his way around places other than Skid Row, reminding us things can be rough in Beverly Hills, too. In “Marble Man,” we’re gasping at a mansion’s soirée, climbing the walls high on uncut coke as host Donald schools us on marble samples whether we’re listening or not. Later we trudge along toward the shore in Malibu, where we’re treated to a bit of fresh air and genuine humor. This comes courtesy of “Princess,” a Burmese python whose daily appetite rivals that of her junkie owners, Libby and Bitch. It’s like the Little House of Horrors, the way the snake has taken over the deluded junkies’ lives. The situation is twofold primal: they submit to the serpent’s savage biology in order to distract themselves from their deadly heroin dependence. You might be getting crowded in the backseat, but this is the best story in the book — a comedic meditation on cognitive dissonance.
Some stories, however, come across like mere exercises in obscenity, adrift with no strategy or emotional anchor. When Bruno pitstops at City Hall to renew his cabby license, he takes his frustrations out on the clerk and the obese blue-collar customer in front of him, who are just trying to get through the day like him. Bruno’s insults escalate like a note being passed between two giggling schoolboys — but Fante’s on his own here, trying to outdo himself. He plays with form in “The Bobby,” opting for a stage play format. It’s another suffocating conversation between two cabbies, but at least some morality is tepidly explored here, as they discuss what to do with a puking drunk who dropped $1,400 in the backseat. It becomes easier to understand why these guys (by and large exclusively guys in the early 1990s) are as bitter as they seem to be: their job is to deal with us at our worst moments.
Finally, our ride comes to an end at 1647 Ocean Front Walk. While it took a lot of patience to get here, Bruno finally shows sensitivity without the tough guy posturing. Fearlessly, he turns himself inside out: “I’d diagnosed myself as too fucked up to write and made the decision to give it up completely except for the poetry I jotted down while in my cab. Everything else I’d put on paper — each new attempt at a novel or short story — was a lie. False. Unredeemable pigshit.” When Claire, the daughter of Bruno’s wealthiest customer, slips into his life, she confides that her mother’s health is deteriorating. He’s caught off-guard, suddenly sweet on her — in love. Unfortunately, Bruno isn’t what you’d call in touch with his emotions, so he jerks off about it in the cab. But at least his sincere wit and insight remain intact: “You look like shit. You been burning the candle at both ends?” he’s asked. “No candle. Just burning.”
Claire triggers a feverish writing night in Bruno — apparently all he needed was that sudden flood of pent-up emotion. (It’s debatable whether it was an alcoholics’ in-joke I caught, but when he “sipped from a six-pack of Cisco wine-coolers” I screeched the brakes — as a connoisseur of that brutal high-gravity sauce I clearly recall its “not a wine cooler” warning on the label.) But this is Dan Fante we’re dealing with — we’re not going to get romance without tragedy. What Claire and her mother do forces him to change: “After that day, I never drove a taxi again.”
After a shower and shave, you can appreciate Short Dog as a wild time capsule, a last gasp of ’90s alcoholic chest-beating heroism — before our culture launched on a redemptive yet equally indulgent self-help arc. And it’s sobering, too. You remember what it felt like when your ride from the party disappeared, leaving you slurring, “But I thought we were having fun?”
Gabriel Hart lives in Morongo Valley in California’s High Desert. He’s the author of Palm Springs riot-noir novelette A Return to Spring (Mannison Press, 2020), the dispo-pocalyptic twin-novel Virgins in Reverse / The Intrusion (Traveling Shoes Press, 2019), and of the poetry collection Unsongs Vol. 1 (Close to the Bone, 2021).