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 Dust. Dreams 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.