The Saga of Arturo Bandini, by John Fante

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Wait Until Spring, Bandini

The Road to Los Angeles

Ask the Dust

Dreams from Bunker Hill — all by John Fante

There is an interesting gap in realist American fiction from the mid-twentieth century.  One the one side, in the school of Sinclair Lewis, Erskine Caldwell and John Steinbeck, the economy is tough, nature is tougher and the people and conventions are probably toughest of all.  On the other, in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, the landscape is urban and nature is pretty much absent — the people, however, are equally tough and life may be even more seamy.  And in both cases, reflecting the U.S. experience, the story moves West.

If you look carefully, there is a suspension bridge — one of those affairs where the hand ropes are frayed and about to break and every third footboard is missing — between the two schools.   Peer even more closely and you will see the figure of John Fante making his way across the bridge.   The four novels in The Saga of Arturo Bandini are the record of that journey.

If you will forgive me for abusing the metaphor, Fante has “fallen between the cracks” in terms of reputation among American authors.  It is easy to blame the movies — Steinbeck has 17 movie adaptations and everyone knows both Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe.  Fante struggles behind as from his works only Wait Until Spring, Bandini  and Ask the Dust ever became movies (edit thanks to Myrthe).

There is a more logical explanation, based on the absurd publication history of his novels.  Fante’s first published work was Wait Until Spring, Bandini in 1938, followed by Ask The Dust in 1939.  His publisher was keen on them and there was supposed to be great marketing support (in modern times, where have we heard that?) but a copyright dispute with Adolph Hitler (I kid you not) got in the way.  By 1940, Fante was just another impoverished writer and that’s the way he spent most of his life.

Bandini disappears for some decades after Ask The DustDreams From Bunker Hill was published in 1982 — after Fante’s diabetes left him blind and legless, he had dictated it to his wife.  The Road to Los Angeles, the first novel he started to write, appeared a few years later after his wife discovered the manuscript in his papers.

So there are numerous reasons that he fell through that crack.  What do we make of his novels and is there a reason to read this tetralogy?  My answer to that last question is definitely yes.

Wait Until Spring, Bandini opens in Rocklin, Colorado (later to become Boulder, where Fante grew up — he mixes up details a lot in these books) with an Italian family facing the Depression (enter, Steinbeck).  Svevo, the bricklayer father, is out of work for the winter, the credit accounts with the grocer are stretched to the full and Arturo is a horny high school teenager.  Here is where Fante starts to break from the norm — there are a lot of Italian-American novels, but not many set in Colorado; the Depression is a favorite subject, but again not mainly in Western mining towns.  Nature is almost absent.

Svevo is also beset by his mother-in-law, who feels (probably correctly) that her daughter has married badly.  She presages each visit to the family with a letter — Svevo has decreed that only he can open these letters.  Each time one comes, he heads off on a bender:

In the kitchen Maria washed the dishes, conscious of one less dish to put away, one less cup.  When she returned them to the pantry, Bandini’s heavy battered cup, larger and clumsier than the others, seemed to convey an injured pride that it had remained unused throughout the meal.  In the drawer where she kept the cutlery Bandini’s knife, his favorite, the sharpest and most vicious table knife in the set, glistened in the light.

The house lost its identity now.  A loose shingle whispered caustically to the wind; the electric light wires rubbed the gabled back porch, sneering.  The world of inanimate things found voice, conversed with the old house, and the house chattered with cronish delight of the discontentent within its walls.  The boards under her feet squealed their miserable pleasure.

Bandini would not be home tonight.

I offer that as an example of Fante’s prose — it is spare, direct, but has its share of images.  He is a wonderful author to read because his words proceed at a pace that few authors can match.  I’d put him much more on the Chandler side of the gap (I admit to a personal problem with a lot of Steinbeck’s prose).

Svevo is a failure, there is no work;  but  he eventually finds both work and succour with the Widow Hildegarde, who owns most of the town and, eventually, Arturo’s father.  In the meantime, in terms of the rest of the saga, Arturio is falling in love in a most inappropriate way (he will continue to do this), running into conflicts with his Catholic heritage (another recurring theme) and contemplating the impossiblity of his future.

Wait Until Spring, Bandini is the most conventional and accessible of the four novels in this saga and is every bit as good as anything that Steinbeck wrote — but it is only a start.

Fante started his writing with The Road to Los Angeles and obviously filed it — it fits second in Arturo’s chronology so that’s why I place it here.  It is a first novel, it does have first novel problems, but it is a worthwhile read.  Arturo, mother and his sisters have relocated to Los Angeles, not the Santa Monica of Chandler but the San Pedro and Port of Long Beach — grinding poverty and grinding work.  Also, his father is dead (although he is alive again in the last volume of the saga).

This is the book that, for me, most bridges the two images I introduced at the top of this review.  The Bandini’s have left the poverty of Colorado for the poverty of Los Angeles — not the Hollywood or Santa Monica of Chandler, but the mackerel canneries of Long Beach, which is where Arturo finds his job.  He wants to be a writer, but his life is stacking cans of sardines.  Without going into any more detail, this is a book about the downside of the dream of moving to the great West Coast.  Getting discovered at a soda shop at Hollywood and Vine is the dream; this novel chronicles the reality.

Moving on to volume three, Ask the Dust is probably Fante’s best-known work (and only movie adaptation), likely because it is the easiest to understand.   In the Los Angeles topography, he has moved north to Bunker Hill — if you don’t know the city, it is a bluff that overlooks “downtown” Los Angeles.  It is only about 25 miles east from Chandler’s Santa Monica coast as the crow flies — it is half a continent away in terms of culture.

Ask The Dust has two themes — a love story involving Arturo’s infatuation with Camilla Lopez (or Lombard — you get to choose which is the alias) and his overwhelming ambition to be a writer.  He doesn’t make much progress of the former front (mainly his old hangups); his correspondence with J.C. Hackmuth and the publication of a couple of short stories (with cheques for $150) marks a new beginning on the later.  The love story, tragic as it turns out to be, drives the novel; Arturo’s “career” as a writer drives the saga.  Ask The Dust is a very good book as a stand-alone novel but it is even more important in what it does for the bigger story.

When you know the background of Fante’s career  it is hard not to look at Dreams From Bunker Hill in a totally different light.  A struggling, blind, legless author who has lived through mid-century America and migrated to the West Coast to seek (and not find) his fortune dictates a final novel to his wife.  It is  a bitter book, with a lot of satire and sarcasm, and a fitting conclusion both to this saga and to Fante’s story.

Bandini is still on Bunker Hill in downtown L.A. but a series of circumstances lands him in a couple of very lucrative screen-writing jobs in Hollywood — that’s his shot at Chandler and company.  The main task in these jobs is not to write a word — the $300 a week cheques arrive precisely because of that.  His problem, much like Fante’s, is that he still wants to be a writer.  Alas, there is no money in that — complications ensue and the tetralogy finally draws to a close.

Does Fante rank with  Steinbeck or Chandler?  In the final analysis, no — but they are exceptional authors and that statement in no way is an argument against reading him.  Does he deserve to be read?  The answer must be yes — he lived, experienced and chronicled an important period in American literary history and has produced a concise record of what that meant.  There may be four volumes in this saga but they are short and to the point — and Fante never wastes a word.  If your reading time is short, by all means overlook these works.  If you want a complete picture of twentieth century American fiction, you need to read them.

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27 Responses to “The Saga of Arturo Bandini, by John Fante”

  1. Isabel Says:

    I’ve never heard of Fante; thanks for writing about him.

    I like that the start of the anthology is about an Italian family in CO. Most Italians in novels are based on the East Coast.

    I imagine that Svevo’s family felt isolated.

  2. Rob Says:

    Good to hear about Fante again. I read these a few years back, and liked them very much. There was a book of his letters, I think published by Black Sparrow, which was interesting too.

  3. Trevor Berrett Says:

    After John and Stewart wrote about Fante a few months ago, I think I commented somewhere that I knew I needed to go pick up his books. This review serves as a great reminder of that pledge I failed to make good. I also appreciate the depth you go into here. I was already interested, but this helped me move it up from those I’m “interested in” to those I need to find sooner rather than later.

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Isabel: I did find the Italian-American in the West aspect particularly interesting — perhaps because I live in the West and my wife has an Italian background. It is a real phenomenon that has not been written about often and I think Fante does it well.

    Trevor: I too was initially drawb to Fante by John and Stewart’s reviews. If you only have time for one book, I would pass on these four and head to 1933 Was A Bad Year. Having said that, only reading the one book will give you a very incomplete picture. These four, because they are short (about 600 pages in total and the type is well spaced out) do say much more than the single book does. I certainly appreciate the story but I think even more I appreciate Fante’s cryptic style.

  5. Stewart Says:

    Good stuff, Kevin. I really must read the Bandini novels. It’s been too long since I read Wait Until Spring, Bandini. After that, I suppose it’s picking up the few other pieces out there: the two novellas, the short stories, and The Brotherhood of the Grape.

    When it comes to Fante, I suppose we have Charles Bukowski to thank for championing him when he was long out of print and getting him back on store shelves. I’ve not read Bukowski myself, but I have read some Dan Fante, who supposedly writes more like Bukowski than his father.

    Trevor, if you are going to get the four Bandini novels, I would recommend you get them all in one nice volume…like this one.

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    I certainly owe it to you, Stewart for introducing me to Fante — it has been a most worthwhile experience. I do think I will eventually read the rest. One of the things that my review did not have room for is how much I appreciate his writing style.

    Thanks also for the link. It is interesting how you in the UK often get to buy these collections for far less money than here in North America — but the Book Depository and its excellent service mean that we can all take advantage of it. Thanks again.

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Fascinating, I missed Stewart and John’s discussions of Fante (or have forgotten them), but as described here this is very much a form of literature which interests me.

    I must admit, I have no love for Steinbeck, while Chandler is an author I absolutely adore, but the idea of there being a gap in experience is one that rings true and these sound very interesting.

    How much did the continuity errors cause problems? Did those jar at all for you? Nice prose in the quoted section, and I definitely agree that not being a Chandler is no reason not to read someone, that’s a high standard after all and many unique voices may not meet it but yet be worth reading.

  8. Trevor Berrett Says:

    Definitely thanks for the link, Stewart. While I’ve always loved a good book cover, I blame you for my current desire to make books by the same author match on the book shelf too. But I’m pleased with the result :).

  9. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I do find Fante’s style much closer to Chandler and that is one of the reasons that I quite like him. I will also admit that I have been a frequent visitor to Los Angeles and quite appreciated the way he wrote about parts of that metropolis that have not drawn the attention of other writers. The continuity issues are not a problem when you know the convuluted history of publication — it was only after he died that his wife put the whole thing together. That too is an interesting part of the story and I do think he represents a bridge between two important trends in American fiction.

    Trevor: Buying the four American editions is more expensive, but they are very well designed as the covers indicate. Ecco (which is a Harper Collins imprint) has done a very good job of capturing the California deco movement (that’s my term) on the covers and I quite like that. It also means that these very short books have a type size and limited words-to-page count that certainly suits Fante’s style. All of that observation does come from a person who gets to ignore cost considerations when it comes to buying books, however.

  10. Gillian Howard Says:

    Kevin,

    I couldn’t help but join the conversation as the designs for two of the Fante books (the geometric ones) are by Peter Sibbald Brown who has done a lot of design work for Black Sparrow Press which also published Charles Bukowski. Will now go and see whether I have an e-mail address for Peter so he can join the conversation.

    Gillian H.

  11. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for commenting, Gill. I had not realized that PSB had designed these books but you can see from my comment above that I think they are very, very well done. If PSB does join this conversation, we will be expecting contributions on Leacock — I’ve promised to introduce Canadian writers on this blog and I have to get to him at some point. Peter’s input would be welcome.

  12. Trevor Berrett Says:

    Those two designs happen to be the ones I’m most attracted to. I’d love to hear more about the book designing process.

  13. Myrthe Says:

    Ask the Dust is not the only one of Fante’s books that has been made into a movie: Wait Until Spring, Bandini was released in 1989, directed by Belgian director Dominique Deruddere. There’s more here: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0098615/

    Fante somehow seems to be on and off my radar, lately he’s been on it again, so maybe someone is trying to tell me I should get around to reading him.

  14. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for the update Myrthe — I thought when I was doing the post that I should do more research and obviously didn’t. Ask The Dust certainly has good movie potential. Fante is definitely worth reading when you have the time.

    Those were my favorite covers as well, Trevor. Getting Peter to comment is a challenge, but we’ll see if he’ll offer an opinion.

  15. herschelian Says:

    Thank you for introducing me to Fante, have just ordered the first one (I’m supposed to be tightening my book-buying belt – some hope!).
    Came to your blog via DGR, and will be a regular visitor I suspect. One of the best things about the interweb is being introduced to new readers and writers.

  16. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Thanks for visiting herschelian and I hope you become a regular visitor and commentor. I too appreciate the way that the web has introduced me to others who like books in the same way that I do.

  17. Trevor Says:

    Kevin, after several friendly reminders from your blog and others, I’ve finally broken into Wait Until Spring, Bandini. I’m not half-way through it yet, but it is satisfying whatever it was I was craving a while back. Thanks!

  18. KevinfromCanada Says:

    You are welcome, Trevor. My year-end review provoked a reminder from Stewart that I should read Charles Bukowski — and a post a few days later from Max at Pechorin’s Journal supplied another timely reminder. Post Office should pop through the mail slot in the next couple of days and will move to (almost) the top of the next-to-read pile. And you will note from my Upcoming Posts list that you have contributed to my holiday reading pleasure — it gives nothing away to say that A Month in the Country is an outstanding book. So my thanks in return.

  19. Trevor Says:

    I saw that A Month in the Country was upcoming, Kevin. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it! I look forward to remembering it through your review.

  20. The deep days, the sad days « Pechorin’s Journal Says:

    [...] of Asylum reviewed this novel here, and Kevin of kevinfromcanada reviews the whole Bandini quartet here. I’ve sought here not to duplicate their thoughts, and they both quote different passages [...]

  21. leroyhunter Says:

    I just finished Dreams From Bunker Hill yesterday Kevin. I thought it less intense then Ask The Dust, obviously the circumstances (and timing) of its writing have a role to play in the slightly different tone. The sarcasm and satire are exactly as you describe, but I didn’t get a sense of bitterness. I thought there was a real sense of peace at the end of the book, acceptance of the struggles and disappointments of Bandini’s personal and artistic lives, and a feeling of “I may as well get on with it”.

    Some really funny episodes, a some sadness and frustration as well, and I love the way Fante describes places and scenes in a way that makes them ever so slightly odd – not garish, but with an “enhanced” quality that makes his descriptions tangible and memorable. Bandini is such an endearing protagonist, I love the way his reaction to a crisis is to pen a heartfelt note (either amorous, pleading or insulting) to the object of his attentions.

    As a final point this seemed like more of an “LA” book then the others: Wilshire & Sunset, Chasens, Terminal Island. Maybe I was just looking out for that more though.

    A wonderful series of novels, Brotherhood of the Grape will be my next Fante I think (I’ve also read West of Rome, well worth a look).

  22. Rudy Martinez Says:

    Fante was close with the other young writers of his era, Louis Adamic(The Native’s Return), Carey McWilliams( Factories in the Fields), Albert Halper( Union Square), Carlos Bulosan( America is in the Heart) and William Saroyan(The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze) among others. Indeed, Fante was one of best of American writers, very underappreciated and unrecognized. A big thanks to Bukowski for bringing him to the attention of Black Sparrow, though he had been published in the 70s by Houghton Mifflin, “The Brotherhood of the Grape”. I first read him in 1975, when I was given detention, the task being (there was no sit-down detention at old Belmont High school in L.A.) cleaning up the school library. As I was eating my lunch, “Dago Red” caught my attention, and I couldnt put it down, so I of course fliched it. I looked for books from him around that time, but I couldnt find any, now I know why. “The Big Hunger, stories from 1932-1959″ is a good read. Its a Black Sparrow, so its rare, and I dont know if there any Ecco editions. Also, if you run dry or read everthing Fante wrote, and that sad time will come, my friends, you can always read Dan Fante, his son. The dude is alive and well and even has a Facebook and Twitter account.

  23. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Rudy: Thanks for that trove of Fante information — this post attracts consistent attention from visitors here. An entire new generation (perhaps even more than one) is discovered how good this overlooked writer is. It is rather fitting that you discovered him while on detention, isn’t it?

  24. Ridik Says:

    Anybody here,have Dreams from Bunker Hill in pdf or any other format.I can`t find it,and I can`t buy it,on my country there is no sign of John Fante.But i have read him through the internet,all 3 books
    Wait Until Spring, Bandini , The Road to Los Angeles and Ask the Dust.Twice all of them,but I can`t find the last one. I be damned. :(

  25. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Sorry, Ridik, I read a hard copy and have no idea if an e-version is available. Perhaps some other visitor here can help you out.

  26. radnidge Says:

    Fante is my Steinbeck and more… one of the greatest American writers.

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