October 22, 2008
John Fante: Wait Until Spring, Bandini
John Fante is one of those writers I thought I didn’t need to read, so easily summarised is he by those who have never opened one of his books. Perm three from poverty; Italian-American; slacker; Bukowksi; Los Angeles. Then I read his most famous novel Ask the Dust, and was shamed by my prejudices. Even so, one of the abiding characteristics I remembered was that it was a breeze to read, and so it was to Fante that I returned recently when my head was filled with non-literary concerns and I wanted something digestible to get down.
Wait Until Spring, Bandini  was Fante’s first novel, and was – as they didn’t say in those days – the prequel to Ask the Dust, which was published a year later. The speedy production of the books, and their fluent readability, might fool the reader into thinking them lightweight or disposable. In fact their durability and longevity is simply proved by the fact that they are still being read and written about 70 years later.
(Even that is a half-truth. The books are still in print and being read now, but they weren’t for most of Fante’s life until shortly before his death in 1983, when his work was rediscovered with the help of Charles Bukowski. His son Dan Fante, in an introduction to this edition, attributes the initial failure of Ask the Dust to the fact that Fante’s publisher was penniless from being sued by Adolf Hitler around the same time.)
The book brings us into the bosom of the Bandini family, Italian-Americans eking their way through the Depression in California. They run up credit with their neighbourhood grocer, who “pitied [them] with that cold pity small businessmen show to the poor as a class.” Fante concentrates on father and son, Svevo and Arturo Bandini. Svevo is a chancer, dodging obligations legal, social and holy:
Svevo said, if God is everywhere, why do I have to go to church on Sunday? Why can’t I go down to the Imperial Poolhall? Isn’t God down there, too?
He struggles to make ends meet for his family, and “his only escape lay in a streak of good luck.” Well, he has luck of a sort with the Widow Hildegarde, for whom he does well-paid odd jobs (“Eight o’clock, and he was at the Widow’s again. In a blue dressing gown he found her, fresh and smiling her good morning”). He still finds time to pay attention to his wife, Maria.
The big bubble they chased toward the sun exploded between them, and he groaned with joyous release, groaned like a man glad he had been able to forget for a little while so many things, and Maria, very quiet in her little half of the bed, listened to the pounding of her heart and wondered how much he had lost at the Imperial Poolhall.
Meanwhile son Arturo has an obsession, a girl named Rosa, for whom “he felt a streak of electricity in his stomach. He caught his breath in ecstatic fright.” Anyway
she hated him. He was an altar boy, but he was a devil and hated altar boys. He wanted to be a good boy, but he was afraid to be a good boy because he was afraid all his friends would call him a good boy.
And he is conflicted between his Catholic upbringing and his worldly thoughts for Rosa (“he was gasping not only at the horror of his soul in the sight of God, but at the startling ecstasy of that new thought”).
What all this makes clear is that even when the subject matter is well-trodden ground – coming-of-age, grinding poverty, domestic blitz – Fante invests it with a simplicity and force which is invigorating. It’s an unfair comparison, and I know I’m slaughtering a sacred cow here, but as tales of the Depression go, I found it a lot less stodgy and sentimental than The Grapes of Wrath. From miserable subject matter, Fante makes cheering reading. The plain beauty of his language for most of the book makes the occasional fine phrase stand out all the more vividly, as when Arturo laments his “face spotted with freckles like ten thousand pennies poured over a rug.”