Thursday, January 15, 2009

Full of Life

In the Manchester Guardian’s book blog, Rob Woodard looks back at John Fante’s Ask the Dust, a 1939 novel which has been described as a masterpiece. Everyone seems quite taken by the novel’s influence upon Charles Bukowski, who called Fante “my God” and was single-handedly responsible for getting his work back into print. (The sorry thought that there would have been no Bukowski without Fante is almost enough to make you wish there had been no Fante.) Ask the Dust is the second volume of a trilogy—or perhaps a tetralogy, if his late-in-life novel Dreams from Bunker Hill, dictated to his wife four decades later, after Fante had gone blind from diabetes, is included—of vaguely proletarian novels about a second-generation immigrant’s struggle up from poverty and fight for a piece of the American pie.

Mark Athitakis linked to Woodard’s post on Fante yesterday, which is how I came upon it. And in one of those marvelous coincidences that blogging seems to encourage, earlier today Athitakis wrote about the novelist Ron Rash, mentioning his “notion that strong female characters are lacking in American fiction.” It’s a fairly stupid notion (did I mention Isabel Archer, Mrs Todd and her mother in The Country of the Pointed Firs, Cather’s Ántonia, Glenway Wescott’s Grandmothers, Janet Lewis’s Wife of Martin Guerre? Just how many names do you want?). By coincidence, however, John Fante also contributed a strong female character to American fiction. In what is, to my mind, his real masterpiece.

Originally published by Little, Brown in 1952, Full of Life was Fante’s third published (fourth written) novel. Upon its publication, the critic Joseph Henry Jackson warned in the Los Angeles Times that it was “in danger of being underestimated.” And that is exactly what happened. Even in the fifties, the novel was probably better known as the source for the 1956 film starring the incomparable Judy Holliday. Released by Columbia Pictures, it was directed by Richard Quine, who later made Sex and the Single Girl and How to Murder Your Wife. Although its screenplay was written by Fante himself, the film almost entirely de-Catholicizes the story. (Is that even a word?) It removes the Catholic subplot from Fante’s novel and drains it of (most) its Catholic meaning.

John Fante (the narrator bears the author’s name) is a thirty-year-old writer with three novels under his belt. He lives in “that jumbled perversity called Los Angeles, right off Wilshire Boulevard,” with his 24-year-old wife Joyce. She is pregnant with their first child. And they have recently bought their first house.

One morning when he is upstairs in the bathtub, Fante hears a scream (“a theater scream, Barbara Stanwyck trapped by a rapist”), and he rushes downstairs to find that Joyce has fallen through the termite-infested kitchen floor to the ground three feet below. Strapped for cash, Fante decides to return home to the small town of San Juan in the Sacramento Valley and enlist Papa, “the greatest bricklayer in California, the noblest builder of all!” “He’ll do it for nothing,” Fante crows.

It’s not that simple. An exile’s return never is. Mama and Papa are first-generation immigrants from Abruzzi. They offer their son food, prayer, advice. Now, Fante has tried his best to shed all evidence of his Italian ethnicity, including his Catholicism, and to assimilate into L.A., where he enjoys “the temper of our time,” “the snarl of cars and the hooting of busses.” He angrily rejects his parents’ beliefs and practices: “Superstition,” he says. “Ignorance.” But when Papa agrees to return with Fante to L.A., he brings the superstition and ignorance with him.

The clash between Fante’s modernity and Papa’s traditionalism turns the L.A. house upside down. Papa takes one look at it and will have nothing further to do with the kitchen repair. “That’s no job for me,” he says. “Get a carpenter.” He is a stonemason. What he wants is to build Fante and Joyce a new fireplace—a massive structure of Arizona flagstone, six feet high and ten feet across. “For my grandson,” Papa says, dreaming of Fante’s unborn child. “It’ll last a thousand years. Nothing in the world’s gonna knock down that fireplace. Last longer than anything in Los Angeles.” Fante reflects:

I pictured the scene, not a thousand years hence, but only ten or fifteen, when our house would doubtless be torn down to make room for a parking lot, cars driving in and out, but always around Papa’s indestructible fireplace, because it defied all efforts to tear it down.Fante is opposed, but Papa finds an unlikely ally in Joyce. Although she is seven months pregnant, she throws herself into the project. She mixes the mortar for Papa: “All day long she prodded the mortar with a hoe, kneading it, stroking it, adding water. She was like a child making mud pies.” She shovels sand into the mortar box, carts it indoors. Fante is appalled. “Keep this up and you’ll have a miscarriage,” he warns. “Won’t hurt her,” Papa disagrees. “Back in Abruzzi, woman works right up to the last day, washing clothes, cleaning house, fixing the land.” “Look, Papa,” Fante says. “This isn’t Italy.”

But it is. By building the massive fireplace, Papa transforms the house into an Italian sanctum. And its influence upon Joyce is deep and unsettling. She begins to find herself drawn to the Church of Rome.

At first Fante is amused, dismissing her religious stirrings as a phase of pregnancy which will “pass as soon as her figure returned.” Joyce had always been an atheist, which made things easy for him. He knows how hard it is to be a good Catholic. “To be a good Catholic,” he muses, “you had to break through the crowd and help Him pack the cross.” Joyce is serious, though. She reads her way from Chesterton and Belloc and Thomas Merton and François Mauriac to canon law, Aquinas, Thomas à Kempis, St. Augustine, the papal encyclicals, and the Catholic Encyclopedia.She went shopping for rosaries, a statue of Saint Elizabeth, and a number of crucifixes. She brought little bottles of holy water and attached a bronze font inside the door of her bedroom, within easy reach of her hand, so that she could make the sign of the cross with consecrated water whenever she entered the room. The statue of Saint Elizabeth went on an elaborate knick-knack shelf in the corner. She heaped flowers before it, lit candles, and read the saint’s works.Joyce takes instruction. And she ends by deciding to convert. Fante goes to church with her. It all comes back to him, “the memory of the old days when [he] was a boy and this cool and melancholy place meant so much,” and because he wants to please his wife by consecrating their marriage in a church ceremony, he agrees to an interview with a no-nonsense priest who, like him, is of Italian descent, establishing between them a “violent familiarity.”     “Well, let’s get down to business. Fante, your wife intends to join the Holy Roman Catholic Church. Any objections?”
     “No objections, Father. . . .”
     “And what about you? Your father here, this great and wonderful man, tells me that he sweated and toiled to give you a fine Catholic education. But now you read books, and, if you please, you write books. Just what do you have against us, Fante? You must be very brilliant indeed. Tell me all about it. I’m listening.”
     “I don’t have anything against the Church, Father. It’s just that I want to think—”
     “Ah, so that’s it! The infallibility of the Holy Father. So you want to know if the Bishop of Rome is really infallible in matters of faith and moral. Fante, I shall clear that up for you at once: he is. Now, what else is bothering you?”
And one by one, the priest dispatches Fante’s doctrinal hesitations with the rapidfire logic and delivery of Groucho Marx. One of the funniest scenes in postwar American fiction ends with Fante concluding that the priest will “never be a bishop” and his wife’s agreeing, although she adds that “he’s really a saint.”

Despite himself, Fante discovers that “it was not so easy to come back to your church, that the Church changeless was always there, but that [he] had changed.” He finds that he is just not ready.Born a Catholic, I could not bring myself to return. Perhaps I expected too much; a shudder of joyful recognition, the dazzling splendor of faith reborn. Whatever it was, I could not return. There before me was the road, the signposts clearly marking the direction to peace of the soul. I could not take the road. I could not believe that it was so easy.Four days before her child is born, Joyce enters the Church. Fante immediately feels the change in her—“a maturity, a quality of womanhood not associated with her pregnancy; a tradition, rather an identification with Mother Church, with the Church’s high reverence for women. . . .” He tries again, but again finds that he is not ready for confession. Papa attempts to force him. “Get in there.” He pushes his son toward the confessional, but Fante clings to a pew and refuses to budge.

Because of its artless candor, Full of Life is the most probing account I have ever read of the religious return. Fante is honest about his doubts, but he is equally honest about the highs and lows, the joy and tedium, of Catholicism. He does not withdraw from the religious experience into a well-armored skepticism. As a consequence, he finds himself surprisingly moved to tears by the ceremony in which Joyce is accepted into the Church.

The novel eschews any ambition to be “profound.” Its surface appears to be shallow, quick-paced, dialogic rather than discursive. It does not worry theological problems; it strokes the ordinary nap of domestic intimacy. But it also knows the depth of intimacy which religious feeling opens up and reveals. There are other reasons to prize the novel. Italian-American novelists like Mario Puzo, Hamilton Basso, and Paul Gallico may have achieved a larger readership, and poets like Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and Diane di Prima may have received more respectful critical attention, but no one has ever improved upon Fante’s portrait of the tension between two generations of Italian-Americans and the mixed-blessing debt that the second owes the first. Precisely because of its humor and lightness of tone, Full of Life is that unexpected thing—not The Power and the Glory, but a great religious novel that appears out of nowhere, while you thought you were watching Father Knows Best or I Love Lucy.

The novel is in print, in paperback, from Harper Perennial.