John Fante: Ask The Dust

Fante, John (2002), Ask The Dust, Canongate
ISBN 978-1-84195-330-4

“Either I paid up or I got out”, this is the decision that Arturo Bandini, the protagonist of John Fante’s Ask the Dust is faced with as the book opens. And he doesn’t do either: “I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed.” This is quite symptomatic not just of Bandini’s behavior in general, but also of the way the book as a work of art, operates. Although Fante is respectful of the general rules of ‘proper’ writing (such as they are), his book often takes oddly original decisions, and fascinating flights of tone to arrive at a point in literary history that no other book quite occupies. Originally published in 1939, Ask The Dust is singular in that it has acquired a huge amount of fans, is found in many well-stocked bookshops, yet has appeared to be flying under the radar consistently. The novel has been re-discovered a few times now, most notably when it was reprinted by Black Sparrow Press in 1980, with an introduction by Charles Bukowski which pointed out how much of a debt he as a writer owed to the example of John Fante and Fante’s original and surprising work. Today, despite still being reviewed and perceived as underrated, Ask the Dust, John Fante’s second novel, is actually quite well known, and almost universally liked. As it should be.

Ask The Dust is humorous, entertaining, moving, and written with a careful pen and an alert mind. A book about a writer struggling to get published and to get by, it’s also a very clear-eyed view of the strictures and possibilities in the craft of writing prose. Actually, apart from writers like Joyce, it’s quite rare that a writer can exemplify in the structure and rhythm of his own prose the aesthetic demands that he has a character or the narrator make within the novel itself. At best, there’s a contrast involved, as with Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist (cf my review here) which featured a ‘knowledgeable’ protagonist, whose knowledge was limited and curiously slanted. Contrasts like these are much easier to accomplish, which tritely explains why far more writers make use of them than there are writers who go down the way Fante chose. Based on this book alone, Fante is a creator of perfect prose. Not in the way that every sentence of his sings or is particularly quotable or poetic. No, his achievement is larger than that: Fante writes an exquisitely calibrated prose that is perfectly tailored to the subject matter, mood and register of the book. It’s lean, not spare. The language is not simple, but it’s draped snugly around the muscles of the narrative and Fante’s swirling thoughts. Ask The Dust is an excellent work of art, well made and moving.

Fante’s protagonist is young Arturo Bandini, who has recently published a short story in “J.C. Hackmuth’s journal”, a publication that’s never explicitly named (but bears a striking resemblance to H.L. Mencken’s American Mercury), and is very proud of this achievement. The story is a simple love story, as Bandini falls in love with a waitress, who’s not just in love with another man, but who also takes drugs and is sexually attracted to men who treat her badly. Although Fante develops the plot in a straightforward enough fashion, one can’t help but feel that it’s not very central or important to the book as a whole, which is more about Bandini and his writing. He appears to suffer from a dry spell of sorts, although he is overflowing with an almost manic creative energy, it’s just that he doesn’t appear to be able to sit still enough for long enough a period of time to compose a story. Bandini is well aware of how to compose prose well, he’s not waiting for inspiration to just flow out of him. True, he does need (and currently lacks) a spark to set off his writing, but once underway, he works hard on his prose. He’s a tough reader of prose, both his own and that of others, an attitude that is also evident in the way he’s writing. This is one of many interesting incongruities in Ask the Dust. While it’s written with many of the usual markers of Romanticism, presenting, for example, a hero torn by desires, emotions and his (self-)destructive urges, there’s actually a rather distinct sense of form and tradition in the novel, both explicitly, through Bandini and his thoughts, as well as implicitly, through John Fante’s excellent and balanced writing.

While we do hear echoes of the Romanticist poet who is tortured by a white page, and suffers from hunger, madness and one or two debilitating diseases, the substance of the book is untouched by this. And it’s not even just the fact that Bandini does not suffer from any problematic illness or the fact that he isn’t mad. Bandini’s mind is clear and remarkably focused, as far as his work is concerned or that of others. He is a writer, someone who makes use of the world that happens around him, someone who reads the world in certain contexts and transfigures his reading into art, and the novel is soon suggested to be a means by which Bandini goes about his task: the book is narrated in the first person, by Bandini, and although it’s never made explicit, the novel as a whole doesn’t just loosely exemplify Bandini’s poetics, it is his book, written by him, or at least that is the underlying suggestion. Fante, in 1939, doesn’t need the crutch of postmodern self-referential games for this. There is, I think, a tendency in much postmodern prose to externalize thought. External to the central narrative that is. Framing, wrapping, packaging the book in explicit self-reference allows especially weaker writers (one thinks of Paul Auster) to simplify the central narrative, to seek complexity by assembling one’s book from simpler parts, without ever really making the thought work through the resulting mosaic of simplicities, an aesthetic that seems to have become rather popular these past decades (although of course better writers can take the same method and be tremendously successful with it. Adam Levin’s recently published debut novel The Instructions is a good example of this).

Of course, an L.A. native might read the book much more realistically than I did: Fante’s language is realistic, transporting a vivid sense of place and time, making us feel, directly, unmistakably, Bandini’s despair, confusion, his hunger, or, for example, his delight at holding in his hands two cold bottles of milk. Yet at the same time, the book has its sights on much more, and achieves more, as well. The book is about romanticist ideals just as much as it depicts them. Arturo Bandini, the hungry writer, is mirrored in another character, Sammy, the untalented (but gainfully employed) writer, and the disdain and rejection that Bandini suffers at the hands of society is mirrored in the character of a Latino waitress called Camilla Lopez, whom even Bandini himself now and then attacks with racist slurs. Although we know little about Bandini’s first short story (called “And the little dog laughed”), we do know quite a bit about his subsequent fictional endeavors. His very next story is derived from a letter he wrote to his editor, a letter that Bandini toiled and worked over for a long time, that ran to several pages and through several drafts. His editor, J.C. Hackmuth himself, decides to cut off the salutation at the beginning and the end and print the rest as it is. There’s a whiff of Hunter S. Thompson in all of this, but the amount of work that Bandini spends on his letter, and the amount of work that Thompson claimed to do on his post-Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas publications couldn’t be further apart.

Like Thompson, however, Fante’s novel is propelled forward by a strong and distinctive literary voice, clear and musical syntax. Starting with the first chapter, there always seems to be a sub-clause more than usual, a turn, quirk, lilt of voice. Right from the start, we are served a narrative voice that is easy to read, yet not simply constructed, and as the book continues, the prose perfectly adapts to the exigencies of the story, injecting false pathos into it when praising America. The prose is one of the reasons why the book is better than it may sound at first. A book about a starving writer in the depression is not a subject matter that seems awfully original, and so it’s not here, either. Fante elevates the dour themes of his story by writing a book that is a fun, quick read, and that, at the same time, comments on the fact of its being a book about a well-trodden topic. The idea of epigonic writing is used in the book quite a few times, in different ways. There is, for example, Sammy who writes odd, derivative Western stories, there is Bandini who adapts a stanza from a poem by Ernest Dowson (another mirror: Dowson, too, was, for much of his life, a hungering poet, who eventually died penniless) to impress a girl (a stanza, by the way, that is the source of the title of Margaret Mitchell’s gargantuan epic Gone with the Wind, published four years earlier), and many more. Fante answers the Romanticist concept of originality with a writing of repetition.

Although the plot of the book is pretty direct, ideas keep circling and repeating. For example in its basic use of place. Many depression era novels talk about migration of one kind or another and that is true to an extent of Ask the Dust as well. Bandini has moved from Colorado to Los Angeles and has been living in hotels ever since. Yet as far as the novel is concerned, the picture is slightly different: Bandini may travel to various places in the book, both in memory as well as in the book’s present, but the novel starts in Los Angeles and ends with Bandini’s return there (which, oddly, is another repetition of his first move to California). More examples of repetition can be found in the uses the book makes of characters who mirror other characters, and in the way that racism makes an appearance. Racism is depicted (as it commonly is) as a vicious circle. When Bandini arrives in California, the Italian-American writer is subjected to racist looks and comments, and is almost thrown out of a hotel because its owner thought Bandini looked Mexican. The fear and the poverty at the time bred a racist response to newcomers (as it always does) and Bandini, in his interactions with the beautiful waitress, reproduces it. Some critics have taken the book to task for being racist, but it merely depicts racism that was prevalent at the time. The fact that some of the xenophobia is related to us in Bandini’s voice directly, without the qualifying frame of dialogue or comment seems to aggravate the problem for some.

But here is where the metafictional structure of the novel becomes important. See, in Bandini’s work, his own life and his writing are entangled, and so, implicitly, in the book itself, as well. His second published story did not start out as fiction, and wasn’t framed or worded to be fiction, yet Hackmuth (and presumably the readers of his magazine) saw it as fiction and re-framed it as such. Another instance of life being turned into art is Bandini’s first novel, based on an affair he has in the course of the book, and published towards the end of the book. Given his literary proclivities, it’s not a stretch to read Ask The Dust as a later novel authored by Bandini, as I pointed out earlier. And Bandini is very self-obsessed, yet artfully so: many of the book’s circles and repetitions revolve around its maudlin protagonist, a method that is not explicitly referenced by the book since it appears to be all Bandini’s; as a creation by Fante, however, the book directly comments on the limitations of its narrator. It’s not that Bandini is in fact an unreliable narrator, but the text is an extension of his character, an expression just as revealing and important in any reading of Bandini, as individual lines of dialogue are. The more one ponders the book, the more it unfolds like a precious flower. Ask The Dust is a very good book about a budding writer, which uses the historical context well and precisely and while it shows itself conscious of various clichés and problems with a genre too often marred by self-importance, it doesn’t fall prey to any of them.

Fante maneuvers his book expertly between the dangers of his chosen mode of writing. He is accessible without becoming cheap, and nuanced without losing any readability. Additionally, apart from one or two outdated lexical choices, the book seems, to use that dreaded cliche, timeless. Comparing it to books clearly influenced by it, and published 30 or more years later (am I wrong in seeing a strong reflection of Ask the Dust in John Barth’s debut novel The Floating Opera?), I daresay one would be hard pressed to decide, deprived of information, which was published first. Its topics range far wider than this review has been able to show. There are whole slates of topics, from Catholic sexual guilt to gender issues, that I haven’t been able to touch upon despite their importance for the book. And at the end of the day, centrally, there’s Los Angeles, the heat, dust and air of which permeates every page of the book. It’s hard to imagine the reader who would not be taken by this book.

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