The Big Hunger
by John Fante, edited by Stephen Cooper
(Black Sparrow Press)
I'm always suspicious of the quality of stories published after a successful author's death. The Big Hunger, a recently released collection of previously unpublished stories written by John Fante between 1932 and 1959, isn't new work; my first thought is that most likely there's a reason the stories weren't among those published while the author was alive. But after reading The Big Hunger, all I feel is thrilled to be back in the world of Fante again, particularly with the linked stories of Fante's character Arturo Bandini, aspiring writer and son of a poor bricklayer.
Bandini gives voice to everything it means to be human, and to be poor, and to want to be a great writer. These are stories of desire for both eternal greatness and for the immediate rewards of love, or at least recognition. It comes together most clearly in the story, "I Am a Writer of Truth," a first-person narrative in which Bandini insists he has no interest in the foolish Jenny, his neighbor. Yet when Jenny is home, he types furiously, admitting, "...there are some who will know a writer is in a room by the noise of his typewriter, and they will like the sound and come to the door and ask him if he writes, and what he writes...the business of violently whanging a typewriter is invariably successful, invariably bringing someone, a man or woman, often enough a woman who is lonely and curious; and sometimes, oftener than not, a man, a man in a rage who tells you to cut out the racket so he can get some sleep."
It's longing, loneliness and failure all poured into the act of writing. Bandini says, "In one way or another all things come from my typewriter, and I could do nothing more, so I hit the keys even harder."
Bandini struggles with the writer's conflicted stance of consciously not choosing a more traditional route toward financial success, but still wanting approval, while watching the world validate money over all else. Jenny is in love with a working man who owns a car. Bandini says, "I should like to tell her that in my time I have been an automobile owner...It didn't last long, for the finance company soon put an end to it.
But I didn't mind for I had already tired of it, and there were a flock of new stories I wanted to write....And yet, in spite of it all, I wish I had my Plymouth...I would take Jenny for a ride in it some evening. As supercilious as possible I would sit beside her, my hands on the wheel, and saying nothing, not a word. I would let the Plymouth do all the talking...Jenny would tell others she knew a writer with a Plymouth. Not a mere writer, but a writer with a Plymouth."
Fante has given voice to every writers' fantasy--to win on all accounts, with love, material rewards and artistic achievement. When Bukowski first came across Fante's writing in the public library, Bukowski believed he'd found "gold in the city dump." I have to agree. Fante's books, so often shoplifted by those pained with longing, are about deep value and the human condition, and the truth of how it feels to need nothing short of unconditional love, publication and the certainty of a new Plymouth.