October 22, 2008

John Fante: Wait Until Spring, Bandini

Posted in Fante John at 8:00 am by John Self

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 [1938] 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.”

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12 Comments »

  1. Stewart said,

    Brings it all back, this does. I read this a few years back and, from the opening page was hooked. As I recall, it was the style of narration: there was a real sense of voice to it.

    Talking of finding humour in the Depression, Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road is worth a shout.

  2. Lee Monks said,

    I do love ‘Ask The Dust’, and often find myself championing Fante and Bukowski to I feel slightly TOO enthused naysayers…what it the pervasive animus all about, I’ve often wondered? Both are exceptional writers at their best, and Bukowski’s poetry in particular has been shockingly undervalued.

  3. Perhaps The Grapes of Wrath stands in a different category altogether purely for being so unbelievably contemporary. Of course it’s moralizing and sentimental — because Steinbeck wanted to change the present, not chronicle the past! It’s fiction of historical significance, rather than historical fiction.

  4. John Self said,

    Thanks for the Caldwell recommendation, Stewart. Given that the media won’t let us forget we’re heading into a global recession, perhaps Depression-lit is appropriate now. (Then again, big events, either in life or in the wider world, have a way of infusing themselves into everything. I remember when my wedding was approaching and occupying much of my mind, suddenly every book, film and song seemed to be about marriage. Now they all seem to chime with financial hard times.)

    There’s a fine appreciation of Fante here, from a blog sadly no longer updated. It has recommendations for some of his shorter works.

    Lee, my own prejudice against Fante and Bukowski (and I like the latter too now) was a sort of cultural conservatism on my part, I think. I think it was a reaction against what I perceived to be their loosely ‘countercultural’ character. I’m not sure why that bothered me, but now I know that (a) it’s probably not true and (b) it definitely doesn’t matter.

    Jonathan, that’s a fair point. I have enjoyed other Steinbeck, but couldn’t stomach the Joads.

  5. brad said,

    I understand what you’re saying at the beginning of your review, John. Fante was recommended to me; he was someone I wouldn’t have gotten around to reading myself. The Road to Los Angeles, Ask the Dust, etc. blew me away. Definitely easy to burn though, but great, great stuff and a well-executed vision of the “real LA.”

  6. John, your ability to consistently introduce me to authors I’ve never heard of astounds me! I should have heard of Fante by now! Thanks for the introduction – and for being the cause of my own personal economic recession by keeping my pocketbook thin :).

  7. John Self said,

    Thanks brad and Trevor – and Trevor, consider this payback for Tim O’Brien and Annie Dillard!

  8. An interesting article on Fante can be found here:

    an interesting article on Fante

  9. I don’t think that worked did it.

    here’s the link:

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/booksblog/2009/jan/14/john-fante-ask-dust

    oops

  10. [...] blogosphere that deserving titles spread from blog to blog. John Self of Asylum reviewed this novel here, and Kevin of kevinfromcanada reviews the whole Bandini quartet here. I’ve sought here not to [...]

  11. Trevor said,

    I started this book this morning, John, and I am hoping to finish it tonight or early tomorrow. This is fantastic! I am a fan of Steinbec, reading almost all he wrote, but I’m with you: while this isn’t on the same scale as The Grapes of Wrath, there’s something much more personal and unsentimental here.

  12. John Self said,

    Yes, Trevor, he really has that je ne sais quoi (perhaps a lazy way of my avoiding having to think about it too hard or identify it!) which makes you realise, on reading him, that the hype for once is justified – and isn’t even really hype.

    I’ve read a few of Fante’s novels now, and some have recommended his stories to me. I must admit I’ve been waiting for those to appear in nice formats.


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