Review by Graham Johnstone
Noah Van Sciver’s Saint Cole (2015) was a down-beat story of a man struggling with work and responsibilities, already feeling his age and pining for a lost youth. The same year’s Fante Bukowski, at a mere sixty pocket-sized pages, might seem a brief satiric interlude for the prolific Van Sciver, but also reads as an uptempo remix of his ongoing concerns. The genuine pathos is underscored by sharp humour.
Saint Cole, opened with expository narration, whereas here, the splash panel alone (featured image) gives us a far more pithy introduction to the character, a well as the costumes (a T-shirt emblazoned ‘Careful or you’ll wind up in my novel’), settings (grotty room, bare mattress) and props (a book called ‘Women’, a bottle labelled ‘cheap wine’).
‘Fante Bukowski’ is the protagonist’s pen name, homaging Charles Bukowski, and the latter’s less famous ‘God’ John Fante, with all three being hard-living semi-autobiographical writers. Van Sciver’s character swings, at the slightest cue, between hubris and self-loathing. He walked out on a job at Daddy’s law firm, so our sympathy is tempered by knowing his woes are self-inflicted, moreover, he may have flown the nest, but it turns out he’s still living off the parental chequebook. ‘Fante’ (born Kelly Perkins) spends less time writing than drinking, lounging in bed, or ranting about his own genius, and the failure of editors to recognise it. “This story is too […] fresh and great,” he imagines a jaded deskman rationalising, “I’ll just concoct some false reason [for…] rejection”. Fante’s privileged background, and resultant sense of entitlement, underscores the irony of his self-pity: “23 years old and never published?! I’m a failure!”
Numerous, hilariously quotable moments feature. Attempting to schmooze an agent he suggests the man provide a book idea: “How about: ugly loser writer struggles for fame and fortune?” Later the agent stands beside an acclaimed client he ‘discovered’. Fante responds to this fortuity in typically perverse fashion, quipping across the client to the agent, “I never could get into his writing, but you know, it has that now-ness about it”. Equally laugh/cringe aloud are the samples of FB’s writings: a poem illustrates his supposedly ‘individual’ themes, beginning, “Nothing I do is good enough for my Dad”, concluding, “…everyone who has power is a jock”. Still there are upbeat, if equally unlikely, moments. A performance of that same poem, attracts a young woman, who is not only a published writer, but wants to have sex with him, then introduce him to her agent. One can imagine Van Sciver in tears of laughter at both the miseries he inflicts on his character, and the ways he finds to destroy, squander, and hide from, his opportunities.
The semi-autobiographical, struggling creator is a well-worn literary genre (Künstlerromane), but Van Sciver’s treatment is keenly observed, entertaining, equal parts hilarious and moving, and earned him an Eisner Award nomination.
Visually, Van Sciver remains recognisable from the precise illustration, and painstaking rendering of his early work. He channeled, and in turn was endorsed by, Robert Crumb and Chester Brown, but, there’s no need here for the exacting figure studies, historically credible mise-en-scène, and general gravitas of his fact-based debut The Hypo: The Melancholic Young Lincoln. Fante Bukowski, is drawn in a simpler, rougher style, (similar to Jeffrey Brown), as if it were drawn by, well… Fante Bukowski’s visual artist equivalent. Still, Van Sciver remains an assured storyteller, and the lively and uncluttered rendering suits both these small pages, and the Fante Bukowski ethos. A sequel followed, and what eventually extended to three stories are compiled in The Complete Fante Bukowski.