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