Whisky & Culture

Dante's inferno...

Jefferson Chase on an extreme independent novel that rode in through the back door
By Jefferson Chase
For the next couple of issues, I thought I’d focus on literature’s equivalent of the small-batch bourbon – books from independent presses. So let’s begin with an excellent and extreme novel, Dan Fante’s Chump Change.Fante, a recovering alcoholic and the son of author and screenwriter John Fante, originally published his novel in French, after it was rejected by American publishers. It was then re-imported to the States, where many a professional scout discovered, with chagrin, that he had turned down a talent comparable to Hamsun or Bukowski.Chump Change, which was eventually published in English in 1999, is autobiographically based. Afailed writer and alcoholic, Bruno Dante, sets off to Los Angeles to pay his last respects to his father, a promising novelist turned Hollywood hack. Bruno’s marriage is on the rocks, his life is a sleepless nightmare of maintenance drinking, and what’s worse, he gets stuck minding his father’s aging mutt.At around eight a.m., I sat on the back porch after more cups of coffee that were mostly scotch. I got an idea. Rocco was still guarding his rodent in the morning light when the thought fully formed; the dog had the right to say goodbye to Dante in the hospital. My father had been his master his whole life. Now his time had run out too. I was sorry for Rocco’s situation. From now on, his life would only get worse.No doubt 12-steppers will nod with recognition at Dante’s uncompromising descriptions of the alcoholic’s daily fear and self-loathing. But what makes Chump Change worthwhile for non-alcoholics is, above all, his gift for black humour.To wit: the scene that transpires once the befuddled Bruno succeeds in coaxing the dog into his father’s hospital room.I was about to leave with Rocco and the wrapped gopher as a lure, when a perversity grasped my brain. Across the room I recognized my wife’s purse among the other handbags. I remembered that, in a wallet inside the purse, she kept several credit cards which still bore the raised letters that spelled out the name Mr. and Mrs. Bruno Dante. It was true our marriage was over. That was what made it easy to convince myself that one final accommodation – the use of a credit card from her purse – would be my last requirement of her as a wife… As I returned the wallet to the handbag, another idea came to me. I should leave her an exchange, a memento, something for something. So into the purse I dropped the towel containing Rocco’s gopher.Armed with plastic, Bruno stocks up on Ten High and Mad Dog 20-20, steals his brother’s car and sets off for a joyride with man’s best friend – and man’s worst enemy, himself. He wakes up naked in the car next to a scrawny hooker, and with a ill-tempered rent-a-cop telling him to move it along.Rocco charged the glass and snarled until the dickhead backed off. I covered my genitals with my free hand, leaned forward above the seat, and waved and nodded YES up and down to make him go away. Then I tried looking through the back window again, squinting past the pitiless glare to see what was making the guard guy so aggressive. The rear of the wagon was a few feet from a door. The lettering on the door read, Cedars Hospital. Morgue Entrance. Is this an omen? Is Bruno heading six feet under? Or will he be redeemed by a whore with a heart of gold? Not on your life. Fante is a far too original writer for such obvious trajectories. Chump Change is anything but cheap. It’s what a realistic novel is supposed to be, a blend of the real and the imaginary, the profane and sublime, that takes us on a ride while honestly depicting human nature and the world in which we live.Or as a Fante fan site on the internet puts it: “All drunks are poets in some ways. They lay out in the freezing air at night and see the moon in a way the rest cannot.” Merci to the French for first spotting what American publishers were too blind to appreciate.