Black Sparrow Press, $30 (cloth), $17 (paper)
While researching Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante, a loving, bare-knuckled portrait of the troubled and troubling writer who couldn’t resist the temptations of alcohol, gambling, and Hollywood,Stephen Cooper worked with Fante’s widow, Joyce, who had carefully kept all of her husband’s papers. In the treasure trove of material, Cooper found a cache of previously unpublished and uncollected fiction, enough for one last posthumous volume by the great Fante.
At first glance, The Big Hunger could be viewed with skepticism–the scrapings of the bottom of the barrel. After all, Black Sparrow had already published, in 1985, The Wine of Youth: Selected Stories of John Fante, which included the stories from his one previously published collection, Dago Red, from 1940, when Fante was at the height of his fiction productivity and power. It was the year after Fante had completed Ask the Dust, the second volume in his quartet of autobiographical novels about Aruturo Bandini, a poor, young, cocksure Italian American who moves from Boulder, Colo., to Los Angeles with the certainty that he is a great writer. Knowing he is going to be a star, yet hating the stars, the hoi polloi, Bandini embraces his fellow immigrants while telling his–and their–stories: "Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town."
Fante was ahead of his time with his raw, unvarnished writing about the underbelly of the Golden State, and although his fiction had a certain cult following, his books were never commercial successes and Fante wound up making his living as a screenwriter. It wasn’t until the mid-1970s that Fante found his angel in the unlikely form of Charles Bukowski. Bukowski, who discovered Ask the Dust (arguably Fante’s greatest single book) when he was a down-and-out bum, claimed Fante as his literary father and later was instrumental in having his publisher, Black Sparrow, reissue Fante’s entire fiction output. Since 1980, Black Sparrow has brought out ten volumes of Fante’s fiction and two volume of letters, finally bringing publishing success to the writer; sadly, Fante, who died in 1983, wasn’t able to see the revival of his neglected work.
The Big Hunger includes sketches, chapters from a failed, abandoned novel, and later stories from Fante’s fictional dark ages, when he was making good money banging out scripts for the studio system. And there are gems. Sparkling, tough, distinctively Fante.
The genius of John Fante lies in his ferocity, his savage wit, desire, and in his conflicted rage toward his overbearing Catholic bricklayer father. The first six stories in The Big Hunger feature a youthful narrator and are portraits of small-town, working-class immigrants from Fante’s childhood in Boulder, with his sprawling first-generation Italian family center stage. Fante is already adept at showing the subtle and unsubtle family pressure to succeed, to marry well, and, most importantly, to honor the family. For example, in "The Bad Woman"the young narrator tells of the family turmoil when Uncle Mingo decides to marry a woman who may be involved with a whorehouse. When Mingo’s brothers and sisters conspire to have an anti-marriage intervention by inviting Mingo and his fiancée to an impromptu dinner, the claustrophobia and oppression are palpable: "They sat around, the men of our family. Uncle Julio, the butcher; this was his house. Uncle Clito, the barber. Uncle Pasquale, the stonecutter. Uncle Tony, the truck driver. Uncle Attilio, the laborer. My father, the bricklayer. Squashed into that ornate little parlor, they drank wine and smoked cigars, and beneath their tight Sunday clothes their short square bodies chafed and sweated."
With "To Be a Monstrous Clever Fellow" we enter Bandini territory, the place where Fante’s legacy does and should rest. The clever narrator works on the docks, has rough, calloused hands, yet also quotes Nietzsche and tells himself that he is going home to write his "thousand words"–but can’t help getting caught up in the chase for women at the local dance hall. It is classic Fante that the narrator lusts after the well-bred yet idiotic girl, passing himself off as a professor until she notices his horrible hands. In "Washed in the Rain" the laborer dreams of getting his boss’s sister, the golden girl who is off at Stanford dating the star quarterback. The narrator cheers for USC in the big USC-Stanford football game, but nevertheless buys a Stanford letter sweater in an ill-fated attempt to set himself apart and get the attention of the girl.
In "I am a Writer of Truth," the setting is the familiar Fante locale of Bunker Hill, the tumultuous Los Angeles neighborhood where Fante lived in a ramshackle boarding house filled with dreamers and losers from all over the world. It is here that the barely controlled fury of the Bandini period fairly leaps off the pages. Fante’s alter ego tries to get the attention of the airhead broad across the hall, the only way he knows how: "But in one way or another all things come from my typewriter, and I could do nothing more, so I hit the keys even harder." In this remarkably illuminating story, the vain, arrogant narrator runs circles around the girl with his storehouse of autodidactic knowledge, but she still prefers the rich oaf with the car, leaving the narrator pining not to be a starving writer but a fat, blissfully ignorant bourgeois slob with a fancy car and a dopey, loving babe to go with it.
"Prologue to Ask the Dust," originally a letter to Fante’s editor at Stackpole, is reason enough to buy The Big Hunger. "You don’t think I have a novel? Listen, Goddamnit," Fante writes. "Do I speak of Hollywood with its tinsel blah? Of the movies? Do I speak of Bel Air and Lakeside? Do I speak of Pasadena and the hot spots hereabouts?–no and no a thousand times. I tell you this is a book about a girl and a boy in a different civilization." It is here that you can see why Bukowski was shocked into action by Fante’s buzzsaw-like use of words that damned the rich and told of the reality of the working class, how Fante prefigured the Beats, how reading Kerouac’s people burning like Roman candles sounds an awful lot like Fante’s intensely passionate characters roaming the streets of Los Angeles looking for ecstasy.
The two chapters of Fante’s failed novel about a Filipino migrant worker are intriguing, but don’t have the immediacy of the preceding stories. "Bus Ride" and "Mary Osaka, I Love You" deal with some of Fante’s favorite themes–racism and cultural tradition conflicting with the desire to embrace everything American and leave one’s national baggage behind. Yet the Filipino saga pales in comparison to the nakedly autobiographical stories about the Italian-American experience.
The later stories in the collection are–to damn them with praise–professional and well-constructed. There are a couple from the late-1940s when he was trying to regain his touch after years of strictly bashing out scripts, then a few more that appeared in big-name magazines, Woman’s Home Companion, Collier’s, Esquire. They are fine stories, stories that you could imagine seeing in the New Yorker in the 1970s or ’80s. In "The Taming of Valenti," a successful writer gets sucked into the violent battles between jealous newlyweds, everything played for laughs, the narrator hardly invested in the outcome, Fante sounding frighteningly like late, well-paid Fitzgerald. In "The Case of the Haunted Writer," a screenwriter moves his family fifteen miles away from Hollywood for some peace and quiet only to be tormented by the deaths his new house has seen.
These smooth, neat stories are mainly interesting for the information they contain, like the episode in "Mama’s Dream" when the aging, hard-drinking father tears apart the Fante character’s novel, which portrayed the writer’s father as a philandering drunkard. But mostly these later stories work to illuminate how good the early Bandini material is, how singular, how Romantically passionate his writing was, why John Fante so deserves to be read and placed among the great American voices of the twentieth century.
If only we could go back to the late-1930s and force Fante to turn his back on Hollywood, to keep going with Bandini, to keep pushing, one can only imagine the brilliant novels that the hard-working Fante would have produced. Or not. As Fante writes in "Prologue to Ask the Dust": "Do I speak like a lunatic? Then give me lunacy, give me those days again."