John Fante: An Appreciation

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John Fante grew up the son of poor Italian immigrant parents in 1920’s and 30’s America, an upbringing that was to feature greatly in his writing. Despite the objection of his rather overbearing father, Fante left home and headed to Los Angeles as soon as he could to begin a career as a writer, and, like others with similar dreams, the quality of his work didn’t make getting published and building a readership any easier. Eventually Fante drifted into writing screenplays for Hollywood, work he considered ‘hack’; but the money was good and the work far easier than the backbreaking toil of the world he’d come from.

Fante kept writing novels, novellas and short stories outside of his nine to five occupation in ‘the dream factory’ but it seemed that his was to be an overlooked talent, remembered by only a few. Fortunately, someone who hadn’t forgotten his work, and the effect it had on him, was the cult American poet Charles Bukowski, who never failed to mention him as an influence. Through Bukowski, people found Fante, and slowly, late in his life, recognition came his way, until now, where he is considered an important figure in 20th Century American literature.

But for all this, Fante is not for everyone. His work is rooted deep in the world he came from, and a harsh dog eat dog world it can sometimes seem. His protagonists often appear to be closely drawn on himself, and he never shies away from painting a less than flattering picture. For example, his alter-ego Arturo Bandini, the protagonist in a number of his novels, is an arrogant self-centred man, yet one you can’t walk away from as you’re having far too much fun observing him.

The flawed hero is a familiar figure in literature, but one that in the hands of many writers comes across as an elaborate conceit, an extension of the author’s ego. Look at me, it seems to cry out, I can create a character, make him cross ethical and moral boundaries that would stop you in your tracks and yet I can still make you empathise with him. It’s a trick that can sometimes leave a sour taste in the mouth. With Fante it is different, he is not giving you characters with flaws, he is giving you flawed human beings. People taken from Fante’s own experiences as a poor second-generation Italian immigrant, a ‘dago’ that society looked down on. It would be easy to play this for sympathy, but Fante prefers the route of a more painful truth; that those who are having mud kicked in their face by people higher up the ladder sometimes turn round and do the same to those they consider below themselves.

The reality of the world portrayed in his work is not their only draw, as Fante was a master storyteller and one with a beautiful, clean, writing style. I’m sure if you go though many of the classics you’ll find writers who are masters of prose; capable of curling language round every object in a room, every action taken, every emotion felt, until the whole scene seems to be laid out in front of you like a photograph. They are rightly lauded for their greatness. But there is another kind of greatness, writers who can describe a scene in 3 pages rather than 15 with no loss in clarity for the reader. Fante does this with a seemingly effortless skill. You can read a scene and be left with a crystal clear image of what happened and yet you can’t understand how, as there seemed to be no prose, no description. So you go back, and re-read, and you see how beautifully economic scraps of information are dropped into the narrative; just enough to allow you to create the scene for yourself. Fante doesn’t need reams of prose to create an image in your mind, he does something far more clever, he creates truthful situations that the readers own experiences can fill in; he has the genius of simplicity.

I should probably recommend the best of his work to you, and if someone’s really interested I will. Far better though if you try and find one of his books in the library or a shop. If you can find one, and it may be a struggle, just open it up and read a few pages; his work is pretty consistent, so any few pages of any of his works will give you a flavour of his writing. If you don’t like it, no problem, there are plenty of other books for you, but if you do, then I’ve just cost you a fair bit of money, as you’ll end up buying everything of his you can find.

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~ by ThatCricketBlogger on 1 November, 2007.

5 Responses to “John Fante: An Appreciation”

  1. I agree, Fante is the business. You say it may be a struggle to find his books in the shops. I’m not sure where you’re based, but in the UK quite a few of his novels are in print with Canongate publishers: the Bandini quartet, as well as The Brotherhood of the Grape and 1933 Was a Bad Year. I’ve only read a couple though so you have reminded me to get back to him.

  2. This was originally written about two or three years ago, and since then the situation has improved. But unless you’re in a large bookstore you’re unlikely to find more than the collected novels. They’re great but personally I believe that, ‘Ask the Dust’ apart, his genius is truly found in shorter works.

    I’d put forward ‘A Wife for Dino Rossi’ as his best short story. Originally in the ‘Dago Red’ collection so beloved by Bukowski, it can now be found in ‘The Wine of Youth: Selected Stories’.

    But my absolute favourite Fante story however, remains the unpromisingly titled ‘My Dog Stupid’, a novella that comprises almost all of ‘West of Rome’.

  3. I have just discovered John Fante in Abruzzi Italy.
    A cousin of mine recommended I read him.
    I love his writing! He’s great!

  4. He’s my most favorite writer of all time.

  5. A great writer

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