Like many readers I first heard of John Fante from Charles Bukowski, who regularly praised his works. I’m sure that I read something by Fante during my Bukowski period but I’m now not sure which books I read at the time…it may have included Wait Until Spring, Bandini but after reading it recently I can’t say that I recognise it. Anyway, as ‘Bandini’ was published in 1938 this is my first contribution to the week-long event called The 1938 Club hosted by Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Stuck in a Book.
Wait Until Spring, Bandini is a story of an Italian immigrant family living in a small-town in Colorado called Rocklin. The father, Svevo, came to America in his early twenties; he’s now in his forties and is struggling to make ends meet as a bricklayer, especially during the winter months, which is when this novel is set.
Svevo Bandini’s eyes watered in the cold air. They were brown, they were soft, they were a woman’s eyes. At birth he had stolen them from his mother — for after the birth of Svevo Bandini, his mother was never quite the same, always ill, always with sickly eyes after his birth, and then she died and it was Svevo’s turn to carry soft brown eyes.
Svevo’s wife, Maria Bandini, loves him still, after twenty years of married life. Maria lacked a high school education, she’s religious, sickly, and she’s dominated both by Svevo and her mother, Donna Toscana, who pays infrequent visits. Svevo and his mother-in-law openly detest each other. Whenever Donna arrives Svevo has to escape from the house as her presence is intolerable to him.
Svevo and Maria have three sons; Arturo is twelve (or possibly fourteen), August ten and Federico eight. Arturo is a bit wayward and he’s often getting into trouble; at the beginning of the book he has smashed Federico’s head through the window in a fit of rage and throughout the book he often shows a temper as the frustrations of his life get to him. At one point he throws a bit of coal at a chicken and accidentally kills it, he often verbally and physically abuses his brothers, curses his parents and swears a lot. Arturo resents being called an Italian by others and wants to be considered a true American. At times he hates his mother for being so weak and foolish but his father’s brash, Italian peasant, behaviour could irritate him as well.
Breakfast was ready. He could hear his father asking for coffee. Why did his father have to yell all the time? Couldn’t he talk in a low voice? Everybody in the neighborhood knew everything that went on in their house on account of his father constantly shouting. The Moreys next door — you never heard a peep out of them, never; quiet American people. But his father wasn’t satisfied with being an Italian, he had to be a noisy Italian.
‘Arturo,’ his mother called. ‘Breakfast.’
As if he didn’t know breakfast was ready! As if everybody in Colorado didn’t know by this time that the Bandini family was having breakfast!
August is more timid. He aims to be a priest when he grows up, much to his mother’s delight and his father’s disgust. Federico is still a child, and is doted on by Maria.
Although the novel begins with Svevo as the central character, we soon get to see events through Arturo’s and Maria’s eyes. Arturo’s frustration with life is made bearable with his love of baseball and his love of Rosa Pinelli, whom he’s loved from afar for nearly two years now. Maria has only one solace, and that is her religion.
She had no need in her heart for either book or magazine. She had her own way of escape, her own passage into contentment: her rosary. That string of white beads, the tiny links worn in a dozen places and held together by strands of white thread which in turn broke regularly, was, bead for bead, her quiet flight out of the world.
With a visit from Donna Toscana imminent, Svevo goes missing; he usually goes on a drinking spree with his friend Rocco Saccone, whom Maria loathes. When her mother has left and Svevo still hasn’t returned home, Maria has to try to feed the family. But when news reaches Maria that Svevo has been seen with another woman, a rich widow called Effie Hildegarde, she becomes increasingly moody and listless, spending the day in bed, wandering about the house aimlessly and letting her sons fend for themselves. Up until now she had not had any reason to doubt her husband’s fidelity, but now she’s not so sure.
I won’t reveal any more of the plot except to say that the novel switches back to concentrate on Svevo for a while and also on Arturo’s attempts, both amusing and sad, to attract Rosa’s attention. The novel was a great read about a dysfunctional immigrant family trying to survive the depression. I liked the way that Fante let us into the heads of the three main characters of the story; all three characters love each other but events and frustrations with life force them to act in ways that antagonise each other; they act in ways that are detrimental to themselves and each other but the novel ends on an optimistic note as it looks like they may be able to resolve their issues.
Wait Until Spring, Bandini is actually the first book in a quartet; the second book in the series is The Road to Los Angeles, which was written in 1936 but not published until 1985; the third book is Ask the Dust which is probably Fante’s most famous book, published in 1939; and the final book is Dreams From Bunker Hill published in 1982, a year before his death. I shall aim to read these others as soon as possible. Have you read anything by John Fante?