John Fante Critical Essays

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.