Wine of Youth, The

by John Fante (1940)

8/10

This has been on my to-read list for a while. I was waiting to find it used but never could, and finally I broke down and borrowed my friend’s copy, knowing full well that I’d probably love it and want to own it afterward anyway. I was right.

The stories are inconsistent in quality but there is enough magnificence to make the entire collection essential. They’re all autobiographical, mostly about his childhood in Colorado as an Italian Catholic, so they tend to blend together, something that also diminishes a story collection IMO. But the ones that hit their mark hit the center of the damn bullseye.

My favorites were “Bricklayer in the Snow,” “First Communion,” “Altar Boy,” “A Wife for Dino Rossi,” “One of Us,” “The Wrath of God,” “Hail Mary,” and “The Dreamer.” Fante is so good at endings, whether they be resolving a paragraph, a section, or a whole story. His clinching lines and passages, especially in the above stories, are unfailingly pithy and poignant. Here’s one of my favorites, from “Altar Boy,” wrapping up an entire section that recounts the saga of the “snitch baby” Harold Maguire (p.46):

They nearly kicked us out of school for what we did. I mean the nuns.

We had to apologize to them and to Father Andrew and to the whole school. We got lickings at home and in school. We had to stay every night until five for a month. We did not get to go to the altar boy banquet.

But we did not care a bit. We got even. You can ask any of the guys about Harold Maguire now. They will tell you he used to be a snitch baby, but he is not one now. He is a swell guy now.

The best stories here have the familiar, Ask-the-Dust-ian prose that is not exactly staccato but damn rhythmic and smooth, building momentum almost like a slowly accelerating steam engine. It’s full of masterful images and jaunty indiscretions. On display above is the repetition that he uses to such great effect. The dialogue is consistently funny and authentic. Fante is simply a master of prose. Twenty years before the Beats he did Beat better than any of them.

Conspicuously absent in my list of favorites above is what I consider by far the best story of the collection: “Home, Sweet Home”, a beautiful ode that uses almost mythological language to describe the familiar feeling of a young adult returning home after his or her’s first efforts at making it solo. The encounter starts out glowing and rapturous, full of cheer, then stumbles amidst some bitter or shameful memories, until finally settling on the returnee’s desire to get the hell out once more. The whole thing is glorious, and Fante’s language indescribably euphoric. “Hail Mary” uses similarly transcendent language, reading more like prose poetry than short fiction.

I was almost through the whole book when I thought that you could probably just get by reading Dago Red rather than the entire collection with the updated stories, just because the later additions weren’t very impressive. But then I got to “The Dreamer” and that made the last handful of stories worthwhile. If you can only get your hands on Dago Redthough, you won’t be missing out on too much.

I feel like if I keep writing about the book I’ll end up just having to cite whole page-long passages, so I’m going to go ahead and call it a review. Highly recommended to fans of good literature, Fante, Bukowski, or the Beat writers.  I thought this was going to be my last Fante read (just because I wasn’t overly impressed with The Road to Los Angeles or Wait Until Spring, Bandini), but now I’m gonna have to go ahead and have at The Brotherhood of the Grape and Dreams from Bunker Hill. Looking forward to it!

 

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