Wait Until Spring, Bandini by John Fante (1938) Ecco (2002) 266 pp
For the last few years, ever since I started blogging, I’ve seen periodic posts on John Fante on my favorite bloggers’ pages (here, here, and here). Fante became the author I was going to check out next — always next. A bit before the holidays, I was in the bookstore with my wife trying to decide between purchasing a Richard Russo or a John Fante. I told her that I thought I would hold off on the Russo, that I wanted to read him closer to Pulitzer season, that it might be better to wait until spring. Wait Until Spring, Bandini was the title I saw when I picked up the Fante book. This unintentional repetition of phrase was enough to convince me to purchase Fante’s first Bandini book. Once I began it, I couldn’t stop reading it. It is remarkable.
I was born and raised in Idaho. Though I now live in the East, I’m proud of my western heritage. I have read a number of books by Western American authors (Fante was born in Colorado and died in Los Angeles). I even took a class on Western American authors at my Western American school (this doesn’t mean the books were “Westerns”). John Fante’s name never came up. And neither did this excellent book. I suspect there are several reasons for this. KevinfromCanada brought to my attention the fact that shortly after Wait Until Spring, Bandini was published Fante’s publishing house couldn’promote it due to a pesky lawsuit with Adolph Hitler. For much of his life, Fante’s novels were unavailable, basically unknown, so there’s a reason we didn’t discuss his books.
But I think there’s another reason, also brought up by KevinfromCanada: Western American literature is often known for its landscape. What’s Steinbeck without Monterrey Bay or Route 66? What’s Willa Cather without the New Mexico desert or the passing seasons on the open plains of Nebraska? Jack London just wouldn’t be Jack London without the Klondike — indeed, I remember rereading “To Build a Fire” on one hot summer day only to feel like I should put on a blanket. That’s only to name a few. Nature is a major character in these novels. Not so with Wait Until Spring, Bandini. This book takes place in Colorado during the 1920s, but other than the bitter cold, which could easily be situated elsewhere, this particular novel has almost no connection to the natural setting.
In another shift from the conventional Western American novel, this book focuses intimately on a family of Italian immigrants. Or, rather, the parents are Italian immigrants; the children are pure American. At least, that’s what they’d like to be perceived as. The problem of American identity in immigrant societies is, excepting the themes of Asian-American identity in more contemporary works, much more typical of Eastern American literature. While I’m sure there are many exceptions — possibly even enough to break down the categories entirely — such is the generalization. Even Cather’s Norwegian immigrants didn’t seem to struggle with identity when they were settling Nebraska. They struggled with the land.
Svevo Bandini works as a bricklayer in what is now Boulder, Colorado. The book begins in mid-December, and there is practically no work this winter. Svevo is defeated and ashamed.
He came along, kicking the deep snow. Here was a disgusted man. His name was Svevo Bandini, and he lived three blocks down that street. He was cold and there were holes in his shoes. That morning he had patched the holes on the inside with pieces of cardboard from a macaroni box. The macaroni in that box was not paid for. He had thought of that as he placed the cardboard inside of his shoes.
Fante uses an extremely close third-person narrator to present the rhythms in his characters’ minds. We get an incredible opening chapter where Bandini comes home and silently festers as his wife attempts to comfort him; he even silently festers abouthis wife’s attempts to comfort him. It is bitter, and the sentence structure matches the building tension, creating a wonderful tone wherein we can feel Bandini about to snap. Fortunately, that night he and his wife Maria find another way to release his tension.
The close narrator moves from Svevo to his wife Maria. She loves her husband deeply. She is very proud of him, and very attracted to his virility and his volatility. We also get a sense for her deep care and empathy for her three sons, Arturo, August, and Federico, fourteen, twelve, and ten respectively. She is a calming presence in a house full of male angst: Svevo is proud and bitter; Arturo follows after his father and can barely control his violent impulses even as he lusts after his classmate Rosa; August is a staunch Catholic, the most religious male in the household, destined to become a priest, and increasingly upset at how his brother and father act; Federico is just a little boy still, but we can feel the guilt already rising in him. Underlying all of this is the fact that the family cannot afford to feed itself:
So it was with all the debts of Svevo Bandini. There was no mystery about them. There were no hidden motives, no desire to cheat in their non-payment. No budget could solve them. No planned economy could alter them. It was very simple: the Bandini family used up more money than he earned. He knew his only escape lay in a streak of good luck. His tireless presumption that such good luck was coming forestalled his complete desertion and kept him from blowing out his brains. He constantly threatened both, but did neither.
As I said above, the writing is superb — economical, direct, well paced. But the story it is telling matches the writing in vigor and flux. In the face of an imminent visit from Maria’s terribly judgmental mother, Svevo Bandini deserts his family for ten days, finally returning only on Christmas Eve. During this time, Maria tries to keep her faith in him, but her faith in him wanes as there is more and more evidence that he is living with a rich widow. The internal pressure in the house continues to grow despite the fact that Bandini is absent. Here is a great but typical example of how well Fante builds up and controls the fluctuating emotions with his sentences and with his perspective:
Strange times. It was an evening of only living and breathing. They sat around the stove and waited for something to happen. Federico crawled to her chair and placed his hand on her knee. Still in prayer, she shook her head like one hypnotized. It was her way of telling Federico not to interrupt her, or to touch her, to leave her alone.
That last sentence — “not to interrupt her, or to touch her, to leave her alone” — with its increasingly frantic content and clipped pace, perfectly exemplifies the skill with which Fante controls this story. he passage continues:
The next morning she was her old self, tender and smiling through breakfast. The eggs had been prepared “Mamma’s way,” a special treat, the yolks filmed by the whites. And would you look at her! Hair combed tightly, her eyes big and bright. When Federico dumped his third spoonful of sugar into his coffee cup, she remonstrated with mock sternness.
“Not that way, Federico! Let me show you.”
She emptied the cup into the sink.
“If you want a sweet cup of coffee, I’ll give it to you.” She placed the sugar bowl instead of the coffee cup on Federico’s saucer. The bowl was half full of sugar. She filled it the rest of the way with coffee. Even August laughed, though he had to admit there might be a sin in it — wastefulness.
Federico tasted it suspiciously.
“Swell,” he said. “Only there’s no room for the cream.”
She laughed, clutching her throat, and they were glad to see her happy, but she kept on laughing, pushing her chair away and bending over with laughter. It wasn’t that funny; it couldn’t be. They watched her miserably, her laughter not ending even though their blank faces stared at her. They saw her eyes fill up with tears, her face swelling to purple. She got up, one hand over her mouth, and staggered to the sink. She drank a glass of water until it spluttered in her through and she could not go on, and finally she staggered into the bedroom and lay on the bed, where she laughed.
Now she was quiet again.
They arose from the table and looked in at her on the bed. She was rigid, her eyes like buttons in a doll, a funnel of vapors pouring from her panting mouth and into the cold air.
I marvel at the way Fante moves from that frantic “to leave her alone” to hopefulness and even to tenderness before forcing us to descend with the sons into a realization of how disturbed Maria is. The whole book is like this. Fante is such a superb close narrator that we go up and down with the characters, revising the narrative we’ve read as they are forced to revise the narrative in which they live. Fantastic writing. Fantastic book. I was propelled to the end, never wanting to put it down. I’m thrilled that this is the first book of a quartet (the rest, I believe, focusing on Arturo as he comes of age and embarks on a life as a writer in Los Angeles). But Wait Until Spring, Bandini stands on its own just fine.