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John Fante: 1933 Was A Bad Year

As the opening to Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina makes clear, unhappy families are unhappy in their own way, and in dealing only with its own families it leaves a wealth of stories about unhappy families to be told. 1933 Was A Bad Year (1985), a posthumously published novel by John Fante, concerns one such unhappy family: the Molises, a three generation family with its roots in Italy and branches in the United States.

It should be noted that Fante himself was the son of an Italian immigrant and his fiction bears a  semi-autobiographical signature. The hardships of life in the Depression and his Catholic upbringing are readily present in his fiction, and in a life that stretched over seventy years he produced a paltry amount of it: not because he took his time, but that times were hard and he drifted into movies, penning scripts, like him, long forgotten, because the money was better. Indeed, it was only once Bukowski declared him “his God” that he was ‘remembered’ again.

As the title of the book makes clear, the action is set in 1933. At that time our narrator, Dominic Molise, is a seventeen year old with dreams of becoming an American sporting legend, a southpaw pitching for the Chicago Cubs. His poverty stricken situation doesn’t deter his dreams – after all, some of the most successful names he can rhyme off were once like him.

I could feel my future making waves around me, the promise of days to come, the exciting years that lay ahead. It was always this way with great men, a stirring in their bones, a mysterious energy that set them apart from the rest of mankind. They knew! They were different. Edison was deaf. Steinmetz was a hunchback. Babe Ruth was an orphan, Ty Cobb a poor Georgia boy. Giannini started with nothing. People thought Henry Ford was crazy. Carnegie was a runt like myself. Tony Canzoneri came out of the slums. Poor young men, touched with magic, lucky in America.

Molise’s left arm is his ticket to the big time, so much so that it’s a character of its own, which he refers to as Arm throughout ( “Oh, Arm! Strong and faithful arm, talk sweetly to me now.”). While he would use it for baseball, for “fame and fortune and victory”, his father has other ideas – like training him up in the family trade, bricklaying, so that they can be father and son, working together, paying debts and, with their savings, some day going into the lumber business.

So, there it was. The whole book. The Tragic Life of Dominic Molise, written by his father. Part One: The Thrills of Bricklaying. Part Two: Fun in a Lumber Yard. Part Three: How To Let Your Father Ruin Your Life. Part Four: Here Lies Dominic Molise, Obedient Son.

Molise has had a stint working for his father before, a summer job, and what he recalls most is that “the Arm resented it and was sore all the time”. To his mind, it wouldn’t make sense to toil away with bricks chasing a dream of lumber yards when, observing his father, he notes:

He himself was a very good bricklayer, laying them as expertly as he shot pool, fast and neat and with a rhythm, but he stayed poor just the same, no matter how hard he worked, until it was plain that being poor was not his fault but the fault of his trade.

Why put your back out when other dreams are less intensive? Molise, with his friend, Ken Parrish, a richer kid from the other side of town, contrive a plan to earn the cash to travel east from Colorado. The only problem is that in raising the cash, the effect on the family could be catastrophic, especially such a tightknit family living in a single house, all dependent on the income of an ailing business.

The focus on family, another of Fante’s staples, is drawn well in 1933 Was A Bad Year. Molise’s siblings come and go, more than can be said of his father. The tensions brought about by debts (“‘the rent, the lights, the gas, the butcher, the doctor, the bank, the lumber yard'”) threaten to implode the family. And, always at home, never making things any easier, are Grandma Bettina (“She had not wanted to come to America, but my grandfather had given her no other choice.”), and Molise’s mother, too rapt in religion to truly care for what’s going on around her:

Prayer! What good was it? What had it done for her? My father beside her in bed every night, listening to the clicking of her rosary, finding her on her knees, shivering in the cold, what the hell are you doing down there, come to bed for Christ’s sake before you freeze to death, her prayers a snapping whip at his ass, reminding him of his worthlessness, his wife like a child writing letters to Santa Claus, collapsing from life into the arms of God, of St Teresa, of the Virgin Mary….God’s victim, my father’s victim, her children’s victim, she walked about with the wounds of Christ in her hands and feet, a crown of thorns about her head…I longed for the day of revolt when she would break a wine jug over my father’s head, smack Bettina in the mouth and beat us children with a stick. But she punished us instead with Our Fathers and Hail Marys, she strangled us with a string of rosary beads.

Reading Fante is always a joy, his prose punchy, breezy, and warm with humour. That he can, seemingly without effort, make a light work of a time in history where life was downright miserable brings to mind Erskine Caldwell’s Tobacco Road, although the two could hardly be any further from each other in style. Like Fante’s Wait Until Spring, Bandini, this novel is also a coming-of-age novel – bricklayers, poverty, Depression – but then, as I noted before, unhappy famililes are different in their own way, and, even though both books follow Fante’s themes, the Bandinis and the Molises are unhappy in their own way.

November 16, 2008

9 responses to John Fante: 1933 Was A Bad Year

  1. John Self said:

    Yes, Fante is great. Funny you should mention Caldwell – someone recommended him to me when I wrote recently about Fante – … hey, wait a minute…!

  2. Stewart said:

    Yes, John, Caldwell is worth a read. I’ve been meaning to get round to God’s Little Acre for a long time. Then again, I’ve been meaning to get around to a lot of books. From what I understand God’s Little Acre and Tobacco Road are the ones to read, since Caldwell wrote many novels, most of which seem a little pulpish, although that’s probably just the covers of old I regularly see on eBay.

    Interestingly, when looking at the Wikipedia entry for John Fante, it mentions that 1933 Was A Bad Year was an incomplete novel. Knowing that Wikipedia isn’t the trustworthy source it aspires to be, I’m surprised I can’t find much else on the internet to this matter. I had made the assumption that, like Fante’s The Road To Los Angeles that it was a book that he just didn’t – or, more likely, couldn’t – publish in his lifetime. If it is unfinished, then it’s surprising, as it feels like a complete read. Saying that, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is supposedly incomplete in some way, but it hasn’t stopped it being reviewed very favourably almost everywhere this last week.

  3. KevinfromCanada said:

    It is interesting that another book about Italians in the midwest in this period — The End by Salvatore Scibona — is on this year’s National Book Award shortlist. From Stewart’s review, I would say that Fante appears to have produced a much better book. They do appear to share some themes, however. Particularly interesting are the women who were basically forced to immigrate — it was the only part of The End that I found engaging. The search for streets of gold seems to be a male phenomenon.

  4. When two great book blogs recommend one author, it’s time to check it out. After John Self’s Fante review, this one seals the deal for me. Thanks Stewart. Where to start?

  5. Stewart said:

    Where to start?

    Take your pick, there’s not much to choose from. With 1933 Was A Bad Year, you’ve got a one off story, all told in just over a hundred pages. The Brotherhood Of The Grape is a standalone, too.

    The Bandini novels are a mess of chronology in so far as the order that my collection, titled The Bandini Quartet, was published. Fante wrote The Road To Los Angeles first, never being able to publish it. Then he wrote Wait Until Spring, Bandini, which was published, followed by Ask The Dust. Then, years later, right before he died, Dreams From Bunker Hill. The Road To Los Angeles, despite being the first one, was published posthumously.

    While on the subject of Fante, let me introduce you to his son, Dan Fante, also a writer.

    Particularly interesting are the women who were basically forced to immigrate — it was the only part of The End that I found engaging.

    Kevin, it’s not really a theme here, just the old lady’s major gripe. So I wouldn’t suggest reading this if that’s a theme that interests.

  6. KevinfromCanada said:

    Thanks, Stewart. It still seems a book that I should read.

  7. KevinfromCanada said:

    I finally got around to this today and what a wonderful afternoon it was. Fante’s book may be set in the Depression but the result is anything but depressing. Dom’s struggle to find a definition for himself beyond The Arm is a story that is both human and humane. The prose is marvelous and the characters, while they are sketched sparingly, all come to life. An excellent book.

  8. The similarities to Wait until Spring, Bandini are striking. Bricklayer father, check. Italian immigrants, check. Grumpy grandmother, check. Religious mother counting rosaries, check. Dreams of playing for the Chicago Cubs, check.

    I note this wasn’t published, is there any chance he reused some of it in Wait, or is just that as you say he has certain themes he likes to explore and return to?

    Not that it really matters, it really is wonderful prose. As you know, I was recommended Fante by Kevin, but he got his recommendation from you so many thanks from me too. I thought him marvellous, and definitely plan to read more.

  9. Fante was a wonderful discovery and I owe Stewart for it (although I have since discovered an acquaintance did the design for two of the Quartet). I have every intention of returning to the Bandini Quartet for a reread.

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9 responses to John Fante: 1933 Was A Bad Year

  1. John Self said:

    Yes, Fante is great. Funny you should mention Caldwell – someone recommended him to me when I wrote recently about Fante – … hey, wait a minute…!

  2. Stewart said:

    Yes, John, Caldwell is worth a read. I’ve been meaning to get round to God’s Little Acre for a long time. Then again, I’ve been meaning to get around to a lot of books. From what I understand God’s Little Acre and Tobacco Road are the ones to read, since Caldwell wrote many novels, most of which seem a little pulpish, although that’s probably just the covers of old I regularly see on eBay.

    Interestingly, when looking at the Wikipedia entry for John Fante, it mentions that 1933 Was A Bad Year was an incomplete novel. Knowing that Wikipedia isn’t the trustworthy source it aspires to be, I’m surprised I can’t find much else on the internet to this matter. I had made the assumption that, like Fante’s The Road To Los Angeles that it was a book that he just didn’t – or, more likely, couldn’t – publish in his lifetime. If it is unfinished, then it’s surprising, as it feels like a complete read. Saying that, Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is supposedly incomplete in some way, but it hasn’t stopped it being reviewed very favourably almost everywhere this last week.

  3. KevinfromCanada said:

    It is interesting that another book about Italians in the midwest in this period — The End by Salvatore Scibona — is on this year’s National Book Award shortlist. From Stewart’s review, I would say that Fante appears to have produced a much better book. They do appear to share some themes, however. Particularly interesting are the women who were basically forced to immigrate — it was the only part of The End that I found engaging. The search for streets of gold seems to be a male phenomenon.

  4. When two great book blogs recommend one author, it’s time to check it out. After John Self’s Fante review, this one seals the deal for me. Thanks Stewart. Where to start?

  5. Stewart said:

    Where to start?

    Take your pick, there’s not much to choose from. With 1933 Was A Bad Year, you’ve got a one off story, all told in just over a hundred pages. The Brotherhood Of The Grape is a standalone, too.

    The Bandini novels are a mess of chronology in so far as the order that my collection, titled The Bandini Quartet, was published. Fante wrote The Road To Los Angeles first, never being able to publish it. Then he wrote Wait Until Spring, Bandini, which was published, followed by Ask The Dust. Then, years later, right before he died, Dreams From Bunker Hill. The Road To Los Angeles, despite being the first one, was published posthumously.

    While on the subject of Fante, let me introduce you to his son, Dan Fante, also a writer.

    Particularly interesting are the women who were basically forced to immigrate — it was the only part of The End that I found engaging.

    Kevin, it’s not really a theme here, just the old lady’s major gripe. So I wouldn’t suggest reading this if that’s a theme that interests.

  6. KevinfromCanada said:

    Thanks, Stewart. It still seems a book that I should read.

  7. KevinfromCanada said:

    I finally got around to this today and what a wonderful afternoon it was. Fante’s book may be set in the Depression but the result is anything but depressing. Dom’s struggle to find a definition for himself beyond The Arm is a story that is both human and humane. The prose is marvelous and the characters, while they are sketched sparingly, all come to life. An excellent book.

  8. The similarities to Wait until Spring, Bandini are striking. Bricklayer father, check. Italian immigrants, check. Grumpy grandmother, check. Religious mother counting rosaries, check. Dreams of playing for the Chicago Cubs, check.

    I note this wasn’t published, is there any chance he reused some of it in Wait, or is just that as you say he has certain themes he likes to explore and return to?

    Not that it really matters, it really is wonderful prose. As you know, I was recommended Fante by Kevin, but he got his recommendation from you so many thanks from me too. I thought him marvellous, and definitely plan to read more.

  9. Fante was a wonderful discovery and I owe Stewart for it (although I have since discovered an acquaintance did the design for two of the Quartet). I have every intention of returning to the Bandini Quartet for a reread.

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