“The Wine of Youth” by John Fante – Stories from Fante’s Childhood

“The Wine of Youth” by John Fante (1940) – 211 pages

Southern California novelist John Fante’s most popular novel by far was “Ask the Dust” which was published in 1939.  At that point in order to cash in on his popularity, his publishers asked him to put together all the stories he had written, so that they could publish a collection in 1940. This collection of stories was published as “Dago Red”.  Over time, the title “Dago Red” fell victim to political correctness, even though Fante, an Italian-American himself, used the term “Dago” with affection.  In 1985 “Dago Red” with a few additional stories was republished as “The Wine of Youth”. 

In order to get enough stories for a collection, Fante had to reach back to his very earliest stories.  For a more literary person, these stories would probably be called juvenilia, but Fante’s father was a brick layer, and books were not a big part of Fante’s childhood home.  Fante must at some point have realized that he was a born storyteller, yet he did not have the writing skills at that point to accomplish that goal.   I believe these early stories were written in his twenties.  In the early stories in this book, the writing is very basic, almost crude, made up of short sentences consisting of subject, verb, and object.  There is no attempt to fictionalize the stories; they are reminiscences from his early childhood.

Here is an example from one of these early stories, “First Communion”.

    “How well I remember my first Confession and Communion! I was nine years old then. The day is high and clear in my mind. I remember that I had six sins to confess. I had to tell my confessor that I had used bad words six times. I didn’t want to tell him. I didn’t want to name the words. He was a holy man.”

I suppose one could argue that since the story is about a boy of nine at school, a more sophisticated sentence structure would be inappropriate   But it’s excruciating to read an entire story, indeed several stories, where the sentences are primitive and have such little variety.  Still even with the rough short sentences, Fante’s honesty and vivacity as a storyteller partially shine through.

Around page 80, something extraordinary happens to the writing in this book.  The sentences become longer and more well developed and convey more subtlety and energy.  Fante must have worked hard to develop his writing to the level of his storytelling. 

Here is an example from “Home, Sweet Home”.  

      “And of course then we will all listen to my father’s story of his boyhood when he had nothing to eat but garlic for a week, and long before he has finished we will have gone ahead of him in his story and said aloud the words which he will laboriously, eventually come to, and he will threaten to kill us, and my mother will try to be composed and impartial, but she will not be able to resist the feathers which tickle all but my father, and soon the table will shake with our laughter, and my father will roar like a wild beast.”

Ultimately the enthusiasm, simplicity, and honesty of these stories of his childhood win out over the primitive writing at the beginning of this book, but if you are new to John Fante, I would still recommend starting with “Ask the Dust” or “Wait Until Spring, Bandini” rather than “The Wine of Youth”.

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10 responses to this post.

  1. I do love old book covers like this one!

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  2. Hi Lisa,
    Yes, I too like many of the older covers where real objects are pictured in realistic fashion rather than more abstract images. The problem with abstract design in book covers is that every cover seems to blur together without any distinction for any given book. In Dago Red, the artist who did the cover also added a picture on the first page of each story that also was a good image for the story.

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  3. I have not read this volume or any of Fante’s early stories, so your description was much appreciated (they do rather come off as leftover school exercises). I have read some of the later ones and I think he shares a trait with Richard Yates — he tries out themes and scenes that he will develop more fully in later novels. That leads me to support your suggestion that the novels should be read first, with the short stories attended to later if Fante really gets to you.

    And I would urge newcomers to Fante to commit to all four books in the Bandini Quartet (Waiting is book one, Dust book three). They are worth it and are best read in order of Bandini’s life since it is a true saga. Given Fante’s own difficult life, that certainly was not the order in which they were published but readers will find very good character development.

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  4. Hi Kevin,
    When I look at Fante’s career I find that he wrote several novels in the Thirties, then didn’t write much of any fiction until the Seventies. I know he was heavily involved as a screenwriter, but still, you would have thought he would have produced a novel or two. He did not seem to get much satisfaction out of being a screenwriter.
    Thanks for your interesting comments.

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  5. Tony: My impression is that he did not stop writing so much as publishing stopped. He seems to have had publisher troubles until Black Sparrow adopted him, which is when the Fante “revival” started. As someone who loves Western American fiction, I like his work very much — his characters are not as destitute as Steinbeck’s, nor as glib as Chandler’s, but somewhere in between. There’s also an element of Stegner in them — once your search has hit the coast and you still haven’t found what you were looking for, there isn’t much option but to start wandering around in circles.

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    • Kevin –
      Interesting. Are there any famous western Canada (Vancouver, etc.) writers? I’d like to see a post from you about them.

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      • Tony: There are but I am afraid I read them all more than once before I started blogging — I will get back to them eventually. In the meantime, check out Max’s review of Guy Vanderhaegge’s The Englishman’s Boy at Pechorin’s Journal and Kerry’s recent review of Who Has Seen the Wind (W.O. Mitchell) at Hungry like the Woolf. What your comment does suggest to me is a post about Canadian fiction that “comes from the other direction” — we have a number of Asian emigre writers who explore Vancouver (Wayson Choy immediately comes to mind but there are others). I’ll think about a post that comes from that direction.

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  6. A writer I have never heard of – you’ve written a useful introduction here. Like Lisa I prefer the old cover. The other comments are interesting aren’t they.

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