The Los Angels Times called Chump Change “passionate, obscene and quite wonderful.” It is passionate and obscene…and well written, but wonderful? I must admit that my brief forays into Charles Bukowski and John Fante, the author’s father, have taken their toll. I keep remembering that one of my best friends in college, a bright and for a time successful businessman, ended up a derelict on the streets of Cleveland. He died too young because of alcoholism and left his wife—a friend also—and daughter in a pretty rough financial state. I used to drink with him while in college—never saw it coming. I knew when to quit drinking and could. He didn’t and couldn’t and it killed him. So when I read about the utter degradation of what an alcoholic goes through, such as Dan Fante skillfully put on paper in Chump Change, I somberly think of my old pal and what might have been—except for the booze.
The book is confessional-autobiographical. The protagonist is named Bruno Dante, the son of a screenwriter and novelist who is dying. The story is about Bruno traveling with his wife (who hates him) from New York to Los Angeles and his experiences there around his father’s failing condition and death.
Early in the book, Bruno says, “I was decomposing from within, like this preposterous town. L.A. was the right place for me after all. I belonged here with the killers of my father: the mind-fucking twenty-two-year old movie producers and distribution gurus who’d dictated the course of his life. I was a true son of L.A.
“This was perfect. In a drunken sexual frenzy, I had disgraced myself, then cut my wrists in jail, and now I would show up to shake my brother’s hand and kiss my mother’s cheek.
“Standing there I made a decision. I didn’t care….”
In a conversation with his brother: “I had not planned to be crazy, I said. Arrests for lewd practices in public were things that happened when I drank. I’d not planned to be a degenerate. Life got away from me. Out of hand. I couldn’t figure it out either.”
He ends up with his father’s old bull terrier, Rocco, also dying. The feeding and care of Rocco becomes part of the story. Bruno particularly likes Mogen David Mad Dog 20-20 for its numbing effects. He meets a pimp, McBeth, who ditches his whore, Amy, after taking Bruno’s money. Amy is about fifteen, flat-chested, horse-faced, skinny like a young boy, and she stutters when she’s not drunk. She likes Mad Dog too. The whole Bruno-Amy relationship is funny in a sick way. It doesn’t last.
Bruno reminisces about his father and life as a child when he sees his old house, close to Paramount. His father couldn’t make it as a novelist and sold out for money as a screenwriter. I found this attitude interesting, as though there was something wrong with screenwriting. Who knew?
But…”Sometimes a Mad Dog run could last two or three days, sometimes weeks…Now , my mind out of THE DOG, self-judgement stabbed at me and ripped my guts until it would be impossible for me to exist in my thoughts. Without the wine, my head remembered only evil…A pimp junkie had stolen my money. I had allowed myself to get fucked by an absurd, handicapped child. My cowardice in leaving the hospital the night before and not facing my father’s death was completely selfish and without conscience. I’d stolen my brother Fabrezio’s car. I was a degenerate, with an insatiable capacity for perversion. Incapable of change. I could do anything except not drink.”
He needs a job and the story of his experiences selling for a video dating service is good writing. The job doesn’t last either. But the book actually ends on the upbeat. Bruno is thinking…about loving his father. He’s written a poem…and he’s gone one whole day without a drink.