Immigrant artists frequently describe their adopted homes with superior insight. Dawn Powell (1896-1965), a refugee from Ohio, nailed the excitement, ambitions, and pretensions of New York City — and especially her fellow Greenwich Village denizens — with rare forbearance as well as wit. Yet she died in obscurity, her novels and stories long out of print, before her reputation was revived a little over a decade ago, first by celebrity champion Gore Vidal, then by editor and biographer Tim Page.
Now it’s John Fante’s turn.
Like Powell before him, Fante (1909-83) busted out of a small place for more creative room. Born in Colorado, the son of a poor bricklayer from Italy, he left Boulder for Los Angeles, where he spilled out muscular stories about poverty and possibility in the capital of self-reinvention. He became a Hollywood screenwriter — the route of so many California dreamers. Fante also died largely forgotten, a self-described ”sell-out.” Yet in Full of Life, The Brotherhood of the Grape, and particularly his great series of autobiographically inspired novels including Wait Until Spring, Bandini, and Ask the Dust, Fante speaks in a voice as riveting as that of Nathanael West.
His devoted admirer Charles Bukowski was the author’s steadiest champion, abetted by the independent Black Sparrow Press of Santa Rosa, Calif. (which has elegantly reprinted eight of Fante’s novels since 1980). But Stephen Cooper has advanced Fante scholarship this year with two valuable projects: In editing The Big Hunger: Stories 1932-1959, the Cal State professor has assembled 18 shorter unmistakably Fante-voiced fictions. Cooper has also written a fervently researched biography, Full of Life — full of hope that at least one other under-recognized regional American artist will attract new admirers who appreciate literary originality far off the heavily traveled best-seller superhighway.