Fontana novel more than just a car-lover’s dream

Zoey Duncan

As a child, James Fontana was in awe of a prodigious single-lap road race he watched in Italy in 1950.
It was the “Mille Miglia”—a non-stop, 1,000-mile race around the country on public roadways that rocketed right through the town where he was staying.
The thrum of the engines and speed of the sleek cars captured him, and he brought that infatuation home to Fort Frances, a hockey town through-and-through.
He was likely the most die-hard race fan in town, if not the only one, so the local radio station accommodated his love by letting him read the “Mille Miglia” results right off the teletype as they were coming in from the other side of the world.
“They used to put it out on the international [news] wire about once an hour, what the relative positions were—almost like the leaderboard at the bass festival,” Fontana recalled.
“And it was interesting, but certainly nobody around here gave a damn about it.”
The race was cancelled following a horrific accident in 1957, but before then it was a spectacle that revived Italian racing.
The “Mille Miglia” stuck in Fontana’s heart for years—through a move to Ottawa, law school, and the publication of a handful of non-fiction law books.
“It was a crazy mix of professionals, amateurs, car manufacturers, individuals with money to spend, grandma and grandpa in the family sedan, that sort of thing,” Fontana said.
“It was sort of a festival, but it was run at extremely high speeds.”
“[The idea to write about the ‘Mille Miglia’] had been with me for most of my life, but I got sort of serious about it when I retired six years ago and then it took me another year, year-and-a-half to break the inertia,” he noted.
“I started writing with a burst of enthusiasm,” he added. “I got about two-thirds of the way through it and I sort of reached a plateau.”
But Fontana moved past the period of stagnation after editing a friend’s book. The friend encouraged Fontana to get the book written and he complied.
He came to Fort Frances from Ottawa last summer to clear his mind and, eventually, finish the book.
“There was still a lot of editing to do as it turned out, but I at least got it out of my system,” he reasoned.
As hard as the writing was, Fontana hit a bit of a barrier when it came to marketing “The 1,000 Mile Dream.”
“A number of the publishers that I submitted the manuscript to said, ‘You know, we’re tempted but . . . motorsports books have never been particularly successful, especially fictional motorsports books.’”
But the book—Fontana’s first fiction novel—was picked up by Ottawa-based publisher, Borealis Press.
And it’s far more than just a “fictional motorsports book.” The story swings back and forth amongst characters’ back stories and their participation in the “Mille Miglia” during the fictional 1958 race that never took place due to the 1957 accident.
Breaking from the linear storytelling he’d used before in racing articles for newspapers and in his first book, “No Cause of Death,” took some practice, Fontana admitted.
His longtime editor, Ivana Baldelli, once told him: “Jim, don’t be afraid to scramble the egg . . . it engages the reader because it forces the reader to think a little bit, rather than just presenting it to them A, B, C, 1, 2, 3.”
With that in mind, Fontana interwove the stories of young goatherd-turn-driver Sergio Delbello with the manipulative Viscontessa da Montefiori and her estranged playboy husband, Alessio Villalta.
When American journalist Art Devens is added to the mix, he’s both relatable and practical as the man who knows nothing about racing and doesn’t know what he’s gotten himself into in covering the iconic race.
His quest to pump out a few colourful stories for the Kansas City Dispatch is an opportunity for not-so-racing-savvy readers to learn the history and character of the race.
Along with Devens, we are practically put into the driver’s seat after hearing a retired race navigator’s description of the non-stop, 1,000-mile quest:
“Shift up and down the gears ten thousand times, apply the brakes four or five thousand times, watch for pedestrians and dogs wandering across your path and hay wagons coming out of nowhere.
 “And come home alive.”
 There’s enough talk about downshifting into the apex of a turn to satisfy racing fans, but not so much that the casual reader will be sent hopelessly to Google at each turn of the page.
The novel is sprinkled with Italian, which Fontana has picked up “by osmosis,” plus Italian television and a few CD lessons.
And while Fontana’s ’50s-era Italy won’t engage lovers of retro fashions quite as deeply as “Mad Men,” the liquor-toting characters may tempt you to pour a glass of Sangiovese to enjoy while you follow the characters on their hopeful journeys to glory.