Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Brotherhood of the Grape, by John Fante

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

If you enjoy the comedy and pathos of writers like Charles Bukowski and David Sedaris, then this perfect short novel by John Fante about a squabbling family and its tyrannical father is sure to please.

Many years ago I read John Fante’s best known and loved book, Ask the Dust (1939). I enjoyed it, but wasn’t bowled over, and thought that it would be my first and last Fante novel. Then when I started reading Charles Bukowski, I learnt that he was a huge Fante fan. This raised my interest a little bit. Then recently, just by luck, a copy of his 1977 novel The Brotherhood of the Grape, came into my possession. (Interestingly, this seemed to be his first work after 25 year absence from publishing.) Well, I was totally won over from the very first page to the last and am looking to read other Fante novels.

The brilliance of this novel is its simple, clean language and vibrant portraits. All the characters are so real they simply leap off the page. You quickly find yourself building emotional relationships with  the novel’s wild cast. They’re all nuts, some terrible, but despite this you care and want to find out what happens to them. Fante concentrates on what’s true and strips everything else away. He’s also wonderfully funny. The comic scenes and dialogue are polished gems. What’s interesting in Fante’s writing is that he writes The Brotherhood of the Grape from an autobiographical perspective, the narrator being a mildly successful novelist, yet Fante manages to achieve balance and perspective.

Like all great works of literature, The Brotherhood of the Grape is at heart a family drama. Henry Molise, the narrator, learns from his brother Mario that his parents are planning to separate after five decades of marriage. It’s all ridiculous, of course, but the siblings must band together to try and get the parents back together. Making this task a nightmare is Henry’s incredibly cantankerous and pig-headed father, Nick Molise. Another toxic ingredient is the fractious relationship of the siblings themselves. None of them get along. Things go from bad to worse when Nick insists his son go away with him to do a job creating a smokehouse for a friend. (Nick is a stonemason.) Against his better judgement, and under some pressure from his mother, Henry agrees. Events take a dramatic turn when Nick’s health problems catch up with him and he winds up in hospital.

The Brothers Karamazov (Henry Molise is a big Dostoyevsky fan) this novel is not, but I’d give it a 10 out of 10 anyway. It’s a perfect little gem that breathes real life on every page. You greedily read it as though your life depended on it. Fante strives to give as accurate a portrait of life as he can. The result is an aesthetic experience that works like a balm for the soul. I envy anyone who’s about to pick up The Brotherhood of the Grape and enjoy it for the first time..

The Brotherhood of the Grape, by John Fante. Published by Canongate. ISBN: 9781841956190  RRP: $19.99