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:
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.
“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?”
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.
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.