Study Guide

John Fante

John Fante Essay - Critical Essays

Fante, John

Introduction

John Fante 1911–-1983

(Full name John Thomas Fante) American short story writer, novelist, and scriptwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Fante's short fiction career through 2002.

Fante is noted for his autobiographical short stories and novellas that explore the Italian American experience. Several of his stories focus upon Jimmy Toscana, a young Italian American boy growing up in a devout Catholic family in Colorado. At the time of their publication, Fante's short stories were critically praised but commercially ignored, and after a few years his work fell into obscurity. But in the 1980s, with the encouragement of other writers such as Charles Bukowski, his novels and short stories were republished, which resulted in a resurgence of critical attention.

Biographical Information

Fante was born in Colorado to working-class Italian immigrant parents. His father, a stonemason who suffered from alcoholism, and his mother, a devoutly religious woman, served as models for characters in several of Fante's stories and novels. Fante left for Los Angeles in the early 1930s intent on becoming a successful writer. He lived in poor conditions while working numerous odd jobs and writing short stories. In 1932, Fante's first published story, “Altar Boy,” appeared in H. L. Mencken's celebrated magazine American Mercury. Over the next decade Mencken acted as Fante's mentor, printing many of his stories, suggesting that he write screenplays for the cinema, and helping him to find a publisher for his first novel, Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938). That book, as well as his next two, did not prove to be commercially successful. As a result, Fante began to work as a screenwriter in Los Angeles in 1940, work that he found financially satisfying but intellectually and creatively deadening. He died from complications from diabetes on May 8, 1983, in Woodland Hills, California.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Dago Red (1940) is Fante's only short fiction collection published during his lifetime. The stories trace the maturation of Jimmy Toscana, a young man growing up in Colorado. Thematically the pieces focus upon family life, growing up Catholic, sexual initiation, the assimilation of immigrants in America, and the role of artist in society. In the opening story, “A Kidnaping in the Family,” Jimmy is preoccupied with a youthful, beautiful picture of his mother and cannot reconcile that image with that of the older, worn-out woman he knows. He fabricates a story: she must have been kidnapped and forced into marriage by Jimmy's father, a brutish man. This fictional tale satisfies his need to absolve his mother of her role in her fate. In “A Wife for Dino Rossi,” Jimmy's father, Guido, resolves to find a wife for his wife's former suitor, the shy barber Dino Rossi. The intended bride, Carlotta, is a flashy, brash woman who is having an affair with Guido. After Jimmy's mother runs Carlotta off, things return to normal. In the novella The Orgy, which was published in West of Rome (1986), Jimmy discovers his father and his friend having sex with a prostitute at a deserted mine.

Critical Reception

Critics praise Fante's lyrical, dynamic prose, vivid evocations of place and character, and ability to create ironic yet sympathetically humorous fiction. Several reviewers have lauded his warm and sensitive portrayal of family life and childhood. Although his stories originally received little critical or popular attention, many of them have enjoyed an enthusiastic reevaluation following their republication in the 1980s. His narrative style is thought to most resemble that of William Saroyan and Sherwood Anderson, although he has also been compared to Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, and the early Henry Miller. Fante was often viewed as a regional writer, and his stories discussed in terms of their setting (Colorado and Los Angeles). Recently, critics have begun to assess his influence on other contemporary writers. With this revival of interest in Fante's work and legacy, he is now recognized as one of America's leading Italian American writers.

Principal Works

Dago Red 1940

The Wine of Youth: Selected Stories of John Fante 1985

*West of Rome (novellas) 1986

The Big Hunger: Stories 1932-1959 2000

The John Fante Reader (short stories, novels, letters) 2002

Wait Until Spring, Bandini (novel) 1938

Ask the Dust (novel) 1939

Full of Life (novel) 1952

Full of Life (screenplay) 1957

Bravo, Burro! [with Rudolph Borchert] (juvenilia) 1970

The Brotherhood of the Grape (novel) 1977

Dreams from Bunker Hill (novel) 1982

1933 Was a Bad Year (novel) 1985

The Road to Los Angeles (novel) 1985

Fante/Mencken: John Fante and H. L. Mencken: A Personal Correspondence, 1930-1952 [edited by Michael Moreau] (correspondence) 1989

Selected Letters: 1932-1981 [edited by Seamus Cooney] (correspondence) 1991

*Comprised of the novellas My Dog Stupid and The Orgy.

Criticism

Iris Barry (review date 29 September 1940)

SOURCE: Barry, Iris. “The Raw Juice of Life.” New York Herald Tribune Books (29 September 1940): 2.

[In the following positive review, Barry praises Fante's portrayal of childhood and family life in Dago Red.]

There was a great deal of pleasure and excitement in meeting the Bandini family when they first introduced themselves in Mr. John Fante's Wait Until Spring, Bandini a couple of years or so ago. They are a vociferous bunch who wring the juice out of life instead of whiting it to come to them in hygienic cartons. Father is a bricklayer, a violent and passionate creature but not in actuality as passionate as Mother who—for all her gentleness and profoundly religious faith—is a tornado when roused. By now we have got to know the whole family intimately. They are in a sense, the antithesis of the Day family but they are just as characteristically American. It is fun to hear more of their doings in this new group of short stories [Dago Red].

The best tale is “One of Us,” which most delicately and movingly describes the funeral of a small child from the point of view of another child about the same age. This boy is fascinated by the fact that the father of his dead comrade does not weep as every other one of the large Italian-American family does with abandon. The effect that his curiosity has on the bereaved father is beautifully indicated.

...

(The entire section is 519 words.)

Basil Davenport (review date 29 September 1940)

SOURCE: Davenport, Basil. “Toscana Saga.” Saturday Review of Literature 22 (29 September 1940): 18.

[In the following review, Davenport finds the stories in Dago Red to be in the same vein as the subject matter and tone of Fante's novel, Wait until Spring, Bandini.]

John Fante will be remembered for his Wait until Spring, Bandini, a novel about a family of Italian-Americans in Denver, evidently drawn from the author's own childhood experiences. The present volume of short stories [Dago Red] is almost entirely made up of pieces cut from the same bolt. Almost the only exception is the last piece, “Hail Mary,” the reflections and recollections...

(The entire section is 449 words.)

Harry Sylvester (review date 18 October 1940)

SOURCE: Sylvester, Harry. “Fiction.” Commonweal 32 (18 October 1940): 533-34.

[In the following unfavorable review, Sylvester derides the stories comprising Dago Red as dull and inconsequential.]

Mr. Fante has been likened to an Italian Saroyan, and the disservice of the comparison is all to Mr. Fante. He began to write at a time when there was a cult of the naïve prevalent in American letters, and while he has never been consciously naïve like Mr. Saroyan, he perhaps used the child's point of view in his stories a bit too much. This is noticeable in most of the early stories. It was a difficult task Mr. Fante set for himself, to use a child's psychology...

(The entire section is 413 words.)

Jonathan Kirsch (review date 24 March 1985)

SOURCE: Kirsch, Jonathan. “Paper Weight.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (24 March 1985): 8.

[In the following laudatory assessment, Kirsch deems The Wine of Youth “a heady distillation” of Fante's “marvelous powers of observation, his generous spirit and his enduring talent.”]

“All those weeks, the things I had to say, the things I wanted to write—I could write them now, the feelings in my blood; they would mix with ink and stretch themselves across fields of white paper,” wrote John Fante in “The Dreamer,” a short story about love, redemption and the mysteries of the heart. “I rushed back to my room and sat down before my typewriter, and...

(The entire section is 316 words.)

Carol A. Crotta (review date 30 November 1985)

SOURCE: Crotta, Carol A. Review of West of Rome, by John Fante. Los Angeles Times Book Review (30 November 1985): 4.

[In the following review, Crotta offers a mixed assessment of the two novellas comprising West of Rome.]

John Fante's screenplays (Jeanne Eagels, Walk on the Wild Side) may have garnered him more recognition than his short stories and novels, but since Fante's death in 1983, Black Sparrow's reprints and first printings have thankfully kept his vivid and expertly crafted fiction from slipping into obscurity. This latest, a pairing of two never-before-published novellas, should by all rights attract new blood to the growing Fante cult....

(The entire section is 300 words.)

Gerald Mangan (review date 20 March 1987)

SOURCE: Mangan, Gerald. “Artist of the Fallen World.” Times Literary Supplement (20 March 1987): 303.

[In the following review, Mangan traces Fante's literary development.]

I decided to eat at Jim's Place, because I still had some money. I ordered ham and eggs. While I ate, Jim talked.

He said “You read a lot. Did you ever try writing a book?”

That did it. From then on, I wanted to be a writer.

“I'm writing a book right now”, I said.

...

(The entire section is 1901 words.)

Richard Collins (essay date summer 1994)

SOURCE: Collins, Richard. “Stealing Home: John Fante and the Moral Dimension of Baseball.” Aethlon 12, no. 1 (summer 1994): 81-94.

[In the following essay, Collins investigates the role of baseball in Fante's novels and short fiction.]

One of John Fante's early claims to fame was being portrayed as the pinball maniac Willie in William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life (1939). But long before he became a writer, gravitated to Hollywood, where he met Saroyan, and turned to more sedentary activities like pinball, gambling and golf, John Fante's first love was baseball. Growing up in Colorado, Fante attended Regis College, a Jesuit boarding school, where the...

(The entire section is 5691 words.)

Donald Weber (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Weber, Donald. “‘Oh God, These Italians!’: Shame and Self-Hatred in the Early Fiction of John Fante.” In John Fante: A Critical Gathering, edited by Stephen Cooper and David Fine, pp. 65-76. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Weber contends that Fante's early fiction “offers a rich testament to how the often disabling powers of shame and self-hatred can somehow inspire the literary imagination.”]

Gay Talese created something of a literary-political stir a few years ago when he asked, on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, “‘Where Are the Italian-American Novelists?’”...

(The entire section is 5203 words.)

Leonardo Buonomo (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Buonomo, Leonardo. “Masculinity and Femininity in John Fante's ‘A Wife for Dino Rossi’.” In John Fante: A Critical Gathering, edited by Stephen Cooper and David Fine, pp. 88-94. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Buonomo asserts that Fante successfully challenges traditional masculine and feminine models in “A Wife for Dino Rossi.”]

John Fante's “A Wife for Dino Rossi” is, on the surface, the story of a misguided and finally unsuccessful attempt at forming a couple, at bringing together two Italian-American singles: the Dino Rossi of the title and Coletta Drigo. Another couple, the one formed by...

(The entire section is 2929 words.)

Publisher's Weekly (review date 27 March 2000)

SOURCE: Review of The Big Hunger: Stories 1932-1959, by John Fante. Publisher's Weekly 247, no. 13 (27 March 2000): 51.

[In the following review, the anonymous critic finds The Big Hunger to be an uneven collection of Fante's short fiction.]

Fante, who died in 1983, is receiving some belated recognition for novels like Ask the Dust and Wait Until Spring, Bandini. His biographer, Stephen Cooper, has unearthed 18 previously uncollected stories [collected in The Big Hunger] that Fante wrote over 27 years, ranging from derivative and self-indulgent juvenilia to intelligent and meaningful tales of the immigrant experience. “Prologue to...

(The entire section is 297 words.)

Fred Gardaphe (review date 16 April 2000)

SOURCE: Gardaphe, Fred. “A Man of the Ages.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (16 April 2000): 21-2.

[In the following review, Gardaphe praises Fante's portrayal of the Italian-American experience in his fiction and assesses his literary accomplishments.]

If the Italian immigrant experience has a presence beyond the mythic Mafia of Mario Puzo, it is through the short stories and novels of John Fante. While he has never been a highly recognized American writer, by 1940 when he was 21, Fante had already published two novels, Wait Until Spring, Bandini and Ask the Dust, as well as half of his lifetime production of short stories in national magazines such...

(The entire section is 1610 words.)

Richard Collins (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Collins, Richard. “Fante's Confessional: Stories or Plain Fiction.” In John Fante: A Literary Portrait, pp. 51-72. Toronto: Guernica, 2000.

[In the following essay, Collins delineates the major thematic concerns of the stories comprising Dago Red.]

DAGO RED

When you go to Confession you must tell everything.

—Jimmy Toscana in “The Road to Hell”

The individual stories collected in Dago Red (1940) show Fante practicing the basic elements of his craft, testing his voice for its tonal capabilities, and organizing his experience for its unifying...

(The entire section is 7533 words.)

Richard Collins (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Collins, Richard. “The Legacy of John Fante.” In John Fante: A Literary Portrait, pp. 261-73. Toronto: Guernica, 2000.

[In the following essay, Collins addresses the reasons for the recent critical and popular rediscovery of John Fante's work, investigates the influence his work has had on other writers, and places him within the tradition of Italian American writers.]

To feel that you have a destiny is a nuisance.

—John Fante

In 1932 H. L. Mencken published the first story of an unknown writer living in obscurity in Los Angeles named John Fante, the son of a bricklayer from the...

(The entire section is 8687 words.)

Jonathan Kirsch (review date 3 March 2002)

SOURCE: Kirsch, Jonathan. “Down and Out in the City of Angels.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (3 March 2002): 2.

[In the following review, Kirsch maintains that The John Fante Reader provides a useful introduction to the works of John Fante.]

John Fante is one of those tragic figures of arts and letters whose best work was coldly and cruelly overlooked in his own lifetime, only to be “discovered” and celebrated long after his death. When Fante died at 74 in 1983, he had earned a bed in the Motion Picture and Television Hospital in Woodland Hills by reason of his work as a journeyman screenwriter in the old studio system—“the most disgusting job in...

(The entire section is 816 words.)