The Brotherhood of the Grape (#3 in 52)

Last week I committed myself to the 52 in 52 project.  This week I put forward #3 of 52: The Brotherhood of the Grape.

As a young man, I hung around the libraries during the day and the bars at night. I read and I read and I read. Then I ran out of things to read. I kept pulling the books out of the shelves again and again. I could only read a few lines and I felt the fakeness and I put them back. It was a real horror show. Nothing related to life, at least not to mine and the streets and the people I saw in the streets and what they were forced to do and what they became. And one day I happened to pull out a book by somebody named Fante. The lines leaped at me. Fire. No bullshit. But I’d never heard of Fante, nobody spoke of Fante. He was just in there. A book. It was called Ask The Dust. I didn’t like the title but the words were simple and honest and full of passion. Holy shit, I thought, this man can write! Well, I read all of his books that I could get hold of. And I knew that there were still some magic people on the earth.

So spoke Charles Bukowski from a long ago interview in Beat Scene/ Transit Magazine. I’m going to assume that like many others, I came to John Fante through Bukowski. In 1990, while teaching English in Turin, Italy (pre-Olympics, pre-McDonald’s, pre-corporate mass marketed Turin), I found the Luxemburg Bookstore: the only place you could buy English literature.  It was there that I purchased a copy of Ask the Dust (I was intrigued by the title).

Fast forward 4 years (1994) and I’m sitting in Main Library at UBC, I’ve just finished writing a paper on Edith Wharton’s, Custom of the Country, and as a result of having spent three months immersed within an examination of the Gilded Age, I am experiencing the disquieting sensation of wanting to politely ask the student next to me for the grey poupon.  To rescue my own sanity, I reached into my knapsack to grab my Bukowski Reader and was once again reminded of how the author, as a young man, first discovered the work of Jon Fante in the Los Angeles Public Library. In stumbling across a copy of Ask the Dust by accident, he immediately knew that he’d discovered something special:

Each line had its own energy and was followed by another like it.  The very substance of each line gave the page a form, a feeling of something carved into it.  And here, at last, was a man who was not afraid of emotion.

I walked into the UBC stacks looking for Fante and found The Brotherhood of the Grape.  Rather than acquainting myself with the character of Arturo Bandini, I immersed myself in the world of his more mature autobiographical counterpart, Henry Molise.  I sat down and spent the afternoon reading the novel and, like Bukowski, felt “like a man who had found gold in the city dump.”

This past week, I reread The Brotherhood of the Grape and found that what moved me at 28 continues to resonate with me at 47.

If you’re Italian, know an Italian or for some crazy reason are considering mating with one, this is the book for you! The novel follows Fante’s character, Henry Molise, a 50 year old, successful writer, who returns to the family home in Colorado to help with the latest drama; his aging parents want to divorce. Henry’s tyrannical, brick laying father, Nick, though weak and alcoholic, can still strike fear into the hearts of his sons. His mother, though ill and devout to her Catholicism, still has the power to comfort and confuse her children. Typical of Fante’s novels, it’s autobiographical, and brimming with love, death, violence and religion.

Much of the passion in the book finds it’s setting within the family kitchen:

The kitchen. La cucina, the true mother country, this warm cave of the good witch deep in the desolate land of loneliness, with pots of sweet potions bubbling over the fire, a cavern of magic herbs, rosemary and thyme and sage and oregano, balm of lotus that brought sanity to lunatics, peace to the troubled, joy to the joyless, this small twenty-by-twenty world, the altar a kitchen range, the magic circle a checkered tablecloth where the children fed, the old children, lured back to their beginnings, the taste of mother’s milk still haunting their memories, fragrance in the nostrils, eyes brightening, the wicked world receding as the old mother witch sheltered her brood from the wolves outside.

Maria Molise, like any Italian mother worth her salt, engages in histrionics, only tells half of any story and is a master at projecting Catholic based guilt on to her kids.  The father, Nicholas, a fictional representation of Fante’s own father, is much more straightforward:

He disliked almost everything, particularly his wife, his children, his neighbours, his church, his priest, his town, his state, his country and the country from which he emigrated. Nor did he give a damn for the world either, or the sun or the stars, or the universe, or heaven or hell. But he liked women.

Henry returns to Colorado and gets hoodwinked into helping his father build a stone smokehouse up in the woods at a friend’s cabin.  We follow Henry’s efforts to come to terms with his past and in a funny scene, his failed attempt at reconciliation with his mother-in-law, Hilda, who pronounces his last name ‘Malice’ and believes “that all Italians propagate large and offensively dark families and build Roman churches to administer to their primitive superstitions.” Henry’s revenge on this woman is, in itself, worth the read.

The father/son strain in the novel ends with the death of Nicholas Molise as a result of a diabetic coma (I’m not really giving anything away here in that this knowledge in no way takes away from the enjoyment of the novel). The description of the wake at the family home, for anyone who has attended an Italian funeral, is sheer brilliance:

Italians loved their living, but sometimes they loved their dead even more, specially like these womenfolk gathered in every room of the house, swarming about my black-draped mother like dark ants around their queen, sobbing, rattling their rosaries, rolling their necks, embracing the distraught widow, pumping grief into her and intoxicated by the grief she pumped back.

Charles Bukowski wrote that “Fante was [his] god.”  Like Bukowski, I too tend to throw out the small “g” god designation for writers that move me: novelists that, to borrow from David Daiches, “understand that aesthetic significance is human significance, a way of presenting insights into the human situation, so that there is no simple and mechanical means of divorcing one’s attitude as a reader of a work from one’s attitude as a contemporary human being.”

John Fante is one of these novelists: one who, through his characters, reveals to us that the business of art is not reinforce conventional morality but to test it.

The Brotherhood of the Grape – well worth the read.