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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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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 of a struggling young author who is behind with his rent; and that, in its self-dramatization, self-pity, and its touches of light-headedness suggest that in it Mr. Fante was modelling himself on Mr. William Saroyan—a dangerous exemplar for any one with less than the vitality of Mr. Saroyan himself, which permits him to throw off twenty stories to write one good one.
For the rest, if instead of taking them as they are you changed Toscana to Bandini, and the other names to correspond, there is hardly a story here that could not be incorporated into Wait Until Spring, Bandini. There are a number of encounters with the awesome Church of Rome, in some of which it is impossible not to feel that the author is...
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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 and phraseology, even, and yet to give his stories the subtlety of distinguished fiction. He failed more often than he succeeded, and his self-appointed task has not made for a good style.
One tires somewhat of the same Italians, rendered in considerable detail; and despite his accuracy and frequent sharp observation, Mr. Fante's work can be pretty dull. Eleven of the thirteen stories in this book [Dago Red] concern the same family, and while Mr. Fante has written little that is untrue, he has managed to include much that is trivial. The twelfth story, “The Wrath of God,” seems definitely to mark a change for the better and is the best story in the book.
Whereas the frequent references to the...
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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 it flowed like magic.”
The magic that once flowed from Fante's typewriter now suffuses the pages of The Wine of Youth, an anthology of stories from the author's 1940 collection, Dago Red, as well as some of his later stories. Each of his well-told tales captures the little miracles of love, the passion in ordinary lives, the tender longings and lofty ambitions that animate even the most humble of souls. Largely autobiographical—and often set in Southern California in the '30s and '40s, where Fante studied and worked—these stories remind us of the achievements of a little-honored writer whose mastery of the short story is equal to Steinbeck's or Saroyan's.
Fante has been rescued from...
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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 first is the real gem here. In My Dog Stupid, we meet screenwriter/novelist Henry J. Molise: “Reputed to be insane, suffering from ulcers, no longer attends Writers' Guild meetings, regularly observed at the liquor store and the State Department of Employment. Or walking the beach with a large, idiotic and dangerous dog.” What Molise really suffers from is a bad case of Weltschmerz—he dreams of leaving his loyal wife, messed-up, yapping children and his Point Dume home for a pensione and a charming signorina—but he finds perverse comfort in the massive, black—and gay—dog who adopts him. This is a different Fante than fans are used to, still a master of the perfectly captured scene and...
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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.
He wanted to know what kind of a book.
I said “My prose is not for sale. I write for posterity.”
John Fante was twenty-two when he gave this dry account of budding aspirations, in an early chapter of The Road to Los Angeles (1933), a first novel that remained unpublished until after his death in 1983. The narrator is Arturo Bandini, the endearingly vainglorious hero of the trilogy now reprinted as the Bandini Saga, Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938), Ask the Dust (1939) and Dreams from Bunker Hill (1982). Reappearing under various names in the stories in The Wine of Youth (originally published in 1940...
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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 priests taught ethics in the classroom and stole bases on the playground. But Colorado, with its long winters, was a bad place for a baseball player, and the young John Fante longed for Spring and enough money to take him to California for a try-out with the Chicago Cubs at their training camp on Catalina Island, so that he could follow in the footsteps of Joe DiMaggio and the other Italian-American players who had given their people pride and hope.
Fante did eventually make it to California, but the closest he came to Catalina was working in the canneries around San Pedro and loading supplies onto the boats bound for the island. In time books took the place of baseball, and Fante was dreaming of seeing his name on bestseller...
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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?’” Talese spoke, perhaps with an aim towards provocation, of “we reluctant Italian-American writers,” of “the reticence of our forebears,” of the Italian-American “legacy of laying low.” Of course Talese was speaking personally, about his own attempt, early in his career, to translate his immigrant father's story into a novel. He eventually abandoned the project, he confessed, sensing that the revelation of private family matters “would bring [his father] unwarranted attention and perhaps even ridicule”—and therefore defeat the arduous struggle towards “Americanization” that his father had labored to achieve in the eyes of the American world in which he sought acceptance. “After 30 years of residence,” Talese writes, “he...
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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 Guido and Maria Toscana, plays a crucial role in the plot, with the husband acting as would-be match-maker and the wife strongly opposing the potential union. I say “on the surface” because what is actually at play here is a skillful regrouping of the four main characters, a regrouping in which what really counts is temperamental affinity rather than the terms of a social and legal contract. As in an intricate dance pattern, an exchange of partners originates in two new couples in which each of the four actors finds, however temporarily, his or her perfect match. In the process, moreover, traditional models of masculinity and femininity are called into question and potential alternatives are presented to the reader.
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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 Ask the Dust” is essentially a précis of the novel, displaying a savage energy and sense of immediacy. This and several other stories bring the Los Angeles of some 60 years ago to life. In the memorable “Mary Osaka, I Love You,” Filipino dishwasher Mingo Mateo falls in love with the daughter of his Japanese employer. Mingo's friends are violently opposed to the union, but Mingo and Mary argue that politics and race should not interfere with love. They elope to Las Vegas and marry on December 7, 1941. “Bus Ride” is another tenser tale of interracial attraction, this time between a Filipino man and a European-American woman. Fante himself was Italian and there are several stories about Italian immigrants. A family in “The Bad...
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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 as the American Mercury, Atlantic Monthly, Harper's Bazaar and Scribner's Magazine, many of which were published in his first short story collection, Dago Red. Until recently, there was little we knew about this author's life, aside from what we could glean from his highly autobiographical fiction.
Through Fante's work, I, like other Americans of Italian descent, came to understand the experiences of our grandparents. Much of this realization comes through his great Bandini novels, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, The Road to Los Angeles, Ask the Dust and stories like “The Odyssey of a Wop.” Because of Fante, I understood why my mother recoiled at the sound of words like dago and...
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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.]
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 themes. All the themes that appear later in the novels are tested here: an obsession with family, the Church, and the fate of the immigrant in America, as well as the writer's compulsion to absolve himself of his past sins against all three through the confessional of fiction. None of these conflicts exists in isolation, and in the best of the stories—“A Kidnaping in the Family,” “Altar Boy,” “The Odyssey of a Wop,” and “Hail Mary”—Fante shows how each of these conflicts aggravate the others, giving the collection as a whole a coherence that bears comparison to other more famous collections best seen in terms of their unity, such as Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio, Joyce's Dubliners, or Hemingway's In Our...
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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.
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 Abruzzi. Half a century later the author of “Altar Boy” had to be rediscovered by Charles Bukowski. Bukowski's preface to the 1980 reissue of Ask the Dust deserves credit for kick-starting the Fante revival. Recalling his own anonymous days in Los Angeles, Bukowski felt dissatisfied with the “very slick and careful Word-Culture” of the modern writers. “One had to go back to the pre-Revolution writers of Russia to find any gamble, any passion” (AD [Ask the Dust] 5). Then he found a few volumes by John Fante gathering dust on the shelves of the L. A. Public Library, just where Arturo Bandini had imagined his works being someday, “to sort of bolster up the B's” (AD 13). The author of these books, said...
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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 Christ's kingdom,” he once called it. But he also left behind a collection of novels and short stories so accomplished and so stirring that he is now compared favorably with Henry Miller and Ernest Hemingway.
“John Fante could not have known that less than two decades later he would be regarded as an important figure in 20th century literature,” writes Fante's biographer, Stephen Cooper, in his preface to The John Fante Reader, “nor that he would also be recognized internationally for his influence on younger generations of writers.”
Much of Fante's best-loved work is still in print, including such early novels as Wait Until Spring, Bandini (first published in 1938) and Ask the...
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D'Arpino, Tony. “Notes.” San Francisco Review of Books VII, no. 4 (spring 1987): 14.
Contends that Fante's novella My Dog Stupid is “arguably his finest work.”
Dunn, Geoffrey. “Fante's Inferno.” San Francisco Review of Books 17, no. 1 (1992): 38-9.
Offers biographical and critical information on Fante and his work.
Howard, Jennifer. “Paperbacks: Some Topical Reissues Remind Us How Far We Have Drifted from the Worker's Muse.” Book World—The Washington Post 31 (21 January 2001): 10.
Calls Fante's stories “the dark side of the golden dream.”
Maslin, Janet. “A Truly Famous Unknown Writer.” New York Times Book Review (28 February 2002): B1, B9.
Overview of Fante's life and work.
Additional coverage of Fante's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: American Writers Supplement, Vol. 11; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 69–72, 109; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 23, 104; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vol. 60; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 130; Dictionary of Literary Biography Yearbook, Ed. 1983; and Literature Resource Center.
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