Review by Graham Johnstone
This hefty collection, initially only in hardback, collects Noah Van Sciver’s three poignant yet hilarious volumes about a struggling writer.
‘Fante Bukowski’ is the aptly-chosen pen name of Van Sciver’s undiscovered genius, a composite of Charles Bukowski, and his less famous ‘God’, John Fante, all three work-hating, drink and sex loving, ‘semi-autobiographical’ writers.
The first volume, simply called Fante Bukowski, was short at sixty pocket-sized pages, but sharp satire. ‘Fante’ (real name Kelly Perkins) spends less time writing, than musing upon the literary world (“an editor is a school yard bully! Drunk with power!”), and failing to productively engage with that world. For example, by mocking acclaimed writer/editor/publisher Dave Eggers to his nearby agent. Coming hot on the heels of 2015’s earnestly downbeat Saint Cole, Fante Bukowski was stronger for the sharp, often laugh-out loud, humour underscoring its genuine pathos.
Fante Bukowski Two, convincingly developed the premise over a well-plotted, and full length graphic novel. It opens a year later, as Fante (like his author) relocates to Columbus, Ohio, with it’s vibrant literary scene, about which Van Sciver has joked that most readers will have to take his word. Audrey, Fante’s girlfriend from volume 1, is now an acclaimed author on a promotional tour, which provides a different look at the writer’s life, and the price of success including lengthy promotional tours. This strand is mostly played straight, except for the idea that her multi-generational literary novel is to be filmed by absurdly mismatched director Michael Bay. Audrey is the antithesis of Fante as a writer, and clean-living Atticus Blake is the antithesis of Fante’s lifestyle. It’s a well conceived and plotted novel, rich in satirical observations on the world of writing, combining countless moments of laugh/cringe aloud humour, and genuinely moving scenes.
Volume three, A Perfect Failure, finds Fante still in Columbus, thinking his star is rising, as he is interviewed for the local paper, but no, it’s just for the Zine-Fest, and no they don’t need a photo. The cast is refreshed, replacing Audrey with ‘Lady,’ sex worker to the literati, who serves as both ‘love’ interest and, perhaps, unofficial agent. Performance artists Norma and friend/rival Jacq expand the focus to other fields of marginalised expression, providing a further rich source of satire. The most charming element is the series of flashbacks to (the then) Kelly Perkins’ days as an aspiring Emo songwriter and musician. Flashbacks to his stint at the Perkins law firm are less fruitful. However, his hate-my-job grousing in the local, does prompt one of the barflies to pass on his ‘library’. This includes the eponymous Fante and Bukowski, and sets Kelly properly on his literary path. Who would predict that path involves ghostwriting a ‘rags-to-riches’ biography of a Disney starlet? Surely he is the exactly the person for the job…?
The semi-autobiographical novel about a struggling ‘artist’, is a long established genre (Kunstlerromane), a variant on the coming of age novel. This requires the protagonist return home wiser for his travels and experience. True to form, Fante is summoned home after his father (and target of bitter poetry) has a stroke. Their final encounter could have been mawkish, but Van Sciver once again deftly juggles poignance and humour.
By the end of the third volume, it’s almost too well plotted as Van Sciver gives us a cause and effect for everything, and ties up every last loose end. Nevertheless, he sustains both poignancy and humour over the three volumes, with countless killer lines, and moments of real charm and pathos.