{REVIEWED} Ask the Dust

By René Georg Vasicek
Ask the Dust is a dangerous book. Arturo Bandini, the narrator, is a terrorist of the mind. He explodes reality and makes you believe in the urgency of now: “Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.”

I didn’t think literature was possible in Los Angeles, and then I read Ask the Dust (1939) by John Fante. At the time I thought I was finished with American novels, too busy devouring the Europeans: Knut Hamsun, Robert Musil, Bohumil Hrabal, Thomas Bernhard, W.G. Sebald. Then one day I was killing time at the New York Public Library and there it was…Fante’s novel. I pulled Ask the Dust off the shelf. Bang! Everything changed.

Janet Maslin observed in The New York Times: “Either the work of John Fante (1909-1983) is unknown to you or it is unforgettable. He was not the kind of writer to leave room in between.” Fante’s obscurity is an enigma to me because Ask the Dust is an American classic, a novel that belongs on the same shelf as Moby Dick, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Great Gatsby. The name Arturo Bandini should be as familiar to readers as Holden Caulfield, Scout Finch, and Sal Paradise.

And yet Fante intrigues me precisely because he is unknown. Oblivion is the fate of most writers. A sort of madness must be necessary to go on…a pathological confidence, a manic optimism. Arturo Bandini is full of literary bravado after having published one short story, “The Little Dog Laughed.” He imagines winning the Nobel Prize for Literature: “My advice to all young writers is quite simple. I would caution them never to evade a new experience. I would urge them to live life in the raw, to grapple with it bravely, to attack it with naked fists.”

Recently arrived in Los Angeles, the young Arturo Bandini, an Italian-American from Boulder, Colorado, wants to write a novel: “I was twenty then. What the hell, I used to say, take your time, Bandini. You got ten years to write a book, so take it easy, get out and learn about life, walk the streets. That’s your trouble: your ignorance of life. Why, my God, man, do you realize that you’ve never had any experience with a woman? Oh yes I have, oh I’ve had plenty. Oh no you haven’t.” As a storyteller Bandini is always changing gears…first-person, second-person, third-person…the result is an unexpected intimacy, a stranger whispering your own thoughts.

Bandini falls for Camilla Lopez, a Mexican waitress, who serves him a bad cup of coffee at a bar on Spring Street. She loves somebody else (a terminally ill bartender), but that doesn’t stop the great Bandini. A peculiar friendship develops. Cruising around L.A. in Camilla’s topless 1929 Ford roadster, they fight like cat and dog. He calls her “a filthy little Greaser.” She calls him a “dago sonofabitch!” What keeps them together is a profound loneliness, a shared feeling of not belonging…to America, to God, to Los Angeles.

Published a year after Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea (1938) and two years before Albert Camus’s The Stranger (1942), Ask the Dust is arguably one of America’s first existential novels. Listen to Arturo Bandini: “At a hamburger stand I stopped and ordered coffee. It crept upon me-the restlessness, the loneliness. What was the matter? I felt my pulse. It was good. I blew on the coffee and drank it: good coffee. I searched, felt the fingers of my mind reaching out but not quite touching whatever it was back there that bothered me. Then it came to me like crashing and thunder, like death and destruction. I got up from the counter and walked away in fear, walking fast down the boardwalk, passing people who seemed strange and ghostly: the world seemed a myth, a transparent plane, and all things upon it were here for only a little while….”

1939 was a bad year to publish a novel (the eve of World War II). Then again John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath was released by Viking that same year, and it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1940. John Fante’s publisher, Stackpole Sons in New York, had big plans to promote Ask the Dust. It never happened because Adolf Hitler sued Stackpole (in an American court) for publishing an unauthorized copy of Mein Kampf. Hitler won. Stackpole Sons went bankrupt in 1941. Ask the Dust was forgotten. Almost.

It was out of print for thirty years when Charles Bukowski encouraged his editor at Black Sparrow Press to read Ask the Dust. The editor was blown away, and in 1980 Fante’s novel was resurrected by Black Sparrow.

“Fante was my God,” Bukowski declares in the introduction. He describes his own first encounter with Ask the Dust as a young man “starving and drinking and trying to be a writer” at the downtown L.A. Public Library. “I stood for a moment, reading. Then like a man who had found gold in the city dump, I carried the book to a table. The lines rolled easily across the page, there was a flow. 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.”

Fante’s writing is precise, remarkably nimble: “In silence we reached the Palisades, driving along the crest of the high cliffs overlooking the sea. A cold wind sideswiped us. The jalopy teetered. From below rose the roar of the sea. Far out fogbanks crept toward the land, an army of ghosts crawling on their bellies. Below us the breakers flayed the land with white fists.”

The saga of Arturo Bandini lives on seventy years later. Fante wrote a trilogy of novels in the 1930s: The Road to Los Angeles (completed in 1936, published posthumously in 1985), Wait Until Spring, Bandini (1938), and Ask the Dust (1939). And now the books have attracted a small cult of readers (including Johnny Depp). In 2006, Robert Towne directed a film version of Ask the Dust starring Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek. But Hollywood can only tell us what happens on the surface. As Milan Kundera reminds us: “The novel’s sole raison d’être is to say what only the novel can say.”

Some say, don’t write about being a writer. But as a writer I have to say, I like reading about writers. It makes me feel less alone. I especially like books about young writers: Knut Hamsun’s Hunger, Milan Kundera’s Life is Elsewhere, Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives. Now that I am almost forty, I need a sense of urgency (if only to move beyond adolescence). Arturo Bandini came out of nowhere, startled me…he makes me want to write.


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