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Dan Fante’s Don Giovanni

Novelist Tony O’Neill hails the current indie press explosion and argues that “For those who want to know what is REALLY going on in post-modern American literature right now, Don Giovanni should be essential reading”.

These are exciting times for literature. Look beyond the bloated monoliths of mainstream publishing and something exciting is happening on the ground. You can see it in the wealth of new material popping up on the better literary websites, and also in the renewed activity of the independent presses. The more established indies, like Akashic, Wrecking Ball and Soft Skull are punching way above their weight these days. Get your War On is one obvious example of how a non-mainstream publication on an independent press could now infiltrate the mainstream. And the new houses are popping up everywhere: in past months I have read and been blown away by books on brand-new independent labels: Mark Safranko‘s Hating Olivia (Murder Slim Press) and Rob Woodard‘s Heaping Stones (Burning Shore Press) are two that leap immediately to mind. Burning Shore Press operates out of Long Beach, CA and looks to be a hotbed of cutting-edge literary activity. Along with Scotland’s Canongate, England’s Wrecking Ball Press and the US’s Sun Dog Press, BSP can be proud to be a house with the foresight and nerve to publish Dan Fante, a name that I have no doubt will one day ring down the ages when future generations talk of major post-modern American authors.

BSP, like Wrecking Ball Press who published the short story collection Corksucker, are tackling some of Fante’s more uncommercial oeuvre: in BSP’s case two of his plays, Don Giovanni and The Boiler Room. Don Giovanni — the first to hit shelves — is one of Fante’s most revealing pieces. The play is a deeply personal work, which seems firmly rooted in the author’s own troubled family. The Don Giovanni of the title is Jonathan Dante, a visionary novelist whose work never found him the kind of mainstream literary success that he deserved, and whose quitting literature for a lucrative career writing for Hollywood has created a never-ending source of bitterness.

Don Giovanni takes place at the aged patriarch’s birthday: diabetes has left him wracked with pain and nearly blind, yet this physically feeble man still rules the family with an iron fist. Fante’s antihero Bruno Dante is here, hanging onto sobriety with slipping fingers with a drunk, vengeful wife and hurt, bewildered daughter in tow. Also there is Jonathan’s other son Dickie, whose decision to give up a budding career as a concert pianist to become a gym teacher, coupled with his homosexuality, makes his a constant source for his father’s rage and abuse. And then there is Catherine, Jonathan’s wife whose patience is seemingly never-ending and whose quiet dignity is the glue that holds the family together.

Fante writes masterfully for an ensemble cast, a move away from the novels and short stories which tended to focus only on the world through the eyes of Bruno Dante. The dialogue is smart, funny and most of all natural: even on the printed page, you have the sense not only of a family at war, but also the more complex reality of people that love and forgive each other’s myriad failings. It’s a complex portrait, set within a seemingly simple narrative. It is the sort of thing that one would think should work better on the stage than on the page, but somehow as a written piece Don Giovanni really soars.

This is an essential part of the Fante canon, and maybe one of the definitive works (so far). It is the work of a writer at the top of his game, deviating away from the boozy confessionals that drew this reader to his work in the first place, yet taking the fans along for the ride with ease. For people that loved the Bruno Dante trilogy (Chump Change. Mooch, Spitting off Tall Buildings), Don Giovanni is a fascinating peek into the ‘other’ lives of many of those books’ characters. For those who want to know what is REALLY going on in post-modern American literature right now, Don Giovanni should be essential reading.

Don Giovanni by Dan Fante (Burning Shore Press)

Tony O’Neill‘s debut novel Digging the Vein is published in the US and Canada by Contemporary Press, and in the UK by Wrecking Ball Press (summer 2006). His collection Seizure Wet Dreams will be released very soon by Social Disease. He has played with bands including Kenickie, The Brian Jonestown Massacre and Marc Almond. He lives in New York.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, June 8th, 2006.