Friday, February 21, 2014

1933 Was a Bad Year

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

John Fante's posthumously published novella, 1933 Was a Bad Year, is a funny yet sad story about the great gulf between reality and illusion, between the poverty of the Great Depression and the impossibly high hopes of the American dream.

Since reading John Fante's The Brotherhood of the Grape (1977), I've become an absolutely devoted fan of this American great. The only pitfall of hero worship is that, sooner or later, you're sure to come across something that fails your high expectations. So far, however, so good. Having just finished 1933 Was a Bad Year, I can report another brilliant read.

Everything I've read by Fante so far follows a similar path. In fact, his books seem to concentrate on the same main characters over and over again: his father, his mother and siblings. Fante's fiction is one obsessive quest to make sense of his personal family history. It's his honesty and vulnerability that makes reading him such a cathartic experience.

1933 Was a Bad Year is a short novel at 127 pages, published posthumously. It tells the story of Italian-American Dominc Molise and his deluded belief that he is destined to be a great baseball star. The reality is quite different. His family is poor, his father is deep in debt and his mother is a long suffering wife to her unfaithful husband. For comic relief Dominic also lives with his blunt and opinionated Italian grandmother.

Dominic is a 17-years-old and going through all the usual teenage problems. He's in love / lust with his best friend's sister, Dorothy. When the two get together on a sort-of date, she does a bit of amateur psychoanalysis on Dominic. Her breezy manner and clear indifference to him makes for many hilarious scenes.

In an attempt to get to California to fulfill his dreams, Dominic does a shameful thing. Realising the error of his ways, he tries to make amends, and things are resolved in a rather messy and unsatisfactory way. Grand American dreams of success, fame and money are only there to mock the poor who grind away in poverty. Dominic and his family remain humiliated and stuck in a hopeless cycle.

This is a funny, sweet and honest short novel that reads like a perfect little slice of American life. It seems extraordinary that it was published posthumously. I don't know how well John Fante is read in America, but it seems a shame more people don't know about him in Australia. He's almost a literary little brother to such classics as Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar and J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye.

1933 Was A Bad Year, by John Fante. Published by Black Sparrow Press. ISBN:  9780876856550 $19.95