John Fante’s “Ask the Dust”: A Review

A review of John Fante's acclaimed novel: 'Ask the Dust' ...

I’m fond of books that made few ripples when born into the world, but surface many years later to find fame and critical acclaim. A few years ago I came across one such novel: Paul Bowles’ A Sheltering Sky. Published in 1949, the book became a movie 51 years later in 1990, directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, and starring John Malkovich and Debra Winger. Bowles, then nearly 80, narrated the film and appeared in a cameo role. A Sheltering Sky now appears in collections of top 100 novels of the twentieth century. For Bowles, who died in 1999, I guess late success was better than none.

Last month I discovered another such gem: John Fante’s novel, Ask the Dust. First published in 1939, the book was made into a movie 67 years later in 2006 starring Colin Farrell. As Fante died in 1983, he did not see his novel adapted into a movie.

Fante’s fellow Los Angeles novelist, Charles Bukowski, provides an introduction to the 1979 edition of Ask the Dust, being the one I read. Bukowski accidentally discovered the novel as he trawled ′rows and rows of exceedingly dull books’ on the shelves of the Los Angeles public library wondering ′why didn’t anybody say something? Why didn’t anybody scream out?’ Bukowski said ‘Fante was my god’ and since the 1970’s Bukowski’s endorsement of Fante’s then out of print books has seen a resurgence in Fante’s popularity.

Having read and enjoyed Bukowski’s novels: Post Office, Factotum, Ham on Rye, and Women, I now see Fante’s influence in Bukowski’s prose. And in my novel East, I see Bukowski’s influence, and now realise Fante’s influence flowed through Bukowski’s work to also contribute to my own prose style.

Fante’s semi-autobiographical Ask the Dust was written in 1938 as war momentum built in Europe. Set in 1930′s depression-era Los Angeles, it has become known as the great Los Angeles novel. Among other things it deals with the theme of unrequited love triangles. The protagonist, young Italian American writer, Arturo Bandini, is in love with Camilla, a young Mexican waitress. Camilla is in love with Sammy, the bartender. And Sammy is in love with himself. The characters are well fleshed out. Camilla, in particular, stands out as totally real.

This 165-page novel builds slowly. Not much happens during the first half. There was just enough interest to keep me turning the pages. The book begins with Arturo behind on the rent for his hotel room. He solves the acute problem of the landlady’s note telling him to pay up or move out by ′turning out the lights and going to bed.′

As the story unfolds Fante develops themes within Arturo’s thought passages. At page 24, Arturo’s racial sentiments show less politically correct times:

The Mexican appeared. He stood in the fog, lit a cigaret, and yawned. Then he smiled absently, shrugged, and walked away, the fog swooping upon him. Go ahead and smile. You stinking Greaser – what have you got to smile about? You come from a bashed and busted race, and just because you went to the room with one of our white girls, you smile. Do you think you would have had a chance, had I accepted on the church steps?

Italian American Arturo has himself suffered racism. Among other things he has been called ‘wop‘ and ‘dago‘. And the racism he shows towards Mexicans, including Camilla, stems from those wounds. Fante makes this clear from Arturo’s thoughts at page 47:

Charles Bukowski

But I am poor, and my name ends with a soft vowel, and they hate me and my father, and my father’s father, and they would have my blood and put me down, but they are old now, dying in the sun and in the hot dust of the road, and I am young and full of hope and love for my country and my times, and when I say Greaser to you it is not my heart that speaks, but the quivering of an old wound, and I am ashamed of the terrible thing I have done.

The novel develops power in the second half. Camilla’s descent into mental illness and her fascination for Sammy, the one she can’t have, and the one who hurts her most, all ring true. I found myself recognising those traits in people I’ve known. Fante continues to develop the novel’s deeper themes within Arturo’s thought passages, as we see on page 96:

Bunker Hill, Arturo’s Los Angeles Home

… the world seemed a myth, a transparent plane, and all things upon it were here for only a little while, all of us, Bandini, and Hackmuth and Camilla and Vera, all of us were here for a little while, and then we were somewhere else; we were not alive at all; we approached living, but we never achieved it. We are going to die. Everybody was going to die. Even you, Arturo, even you must die.

At page 104 Fante returns to his theme of transient earthly existence: ‘The world was dust, and dust it would become.′ And again at page 120:

There came over me a terrifying sense of understanding about the meaning and the pathetic destiny of men. The desert was always there, a patient white animal, waiting for men to die, for civilisations to flicker and pass into the darkness.

I found exasperating Arturo’s inability to man-up at crucial moments and get it on with Camilla. Camilla is a hot young Mexican woman. Is Arturo not a young hot blooded Italian man full of male hormones? But you don’t have to like the characters to get what the novel has to give. I know this, my novel, East, is peopled with unsympathetic characters, including one who is unable to stop telling of his inability to man-up in bed with women.

Having read this book I was reminded how novelists build on each other’s work. Bukowski built on Fante’s work by extending Fante’s ‘tell it like it is’ style to also tell it like it is in the bedroom. Bukowski, who also read Henry Miller, leaves little to the imagination in his sex scenes. Fante is honest, but shows much more reserve. Take this scene from page 94 of Ask the Dust:

And I was glad for her tears, they thrilled me and lifted me, and I possessed her. Then I slept, serenely weary, remembering vaguely through the mist of drowsiness that she was sobbing, but I didn’t care.

Bukowski portrays a racist and abusive father in his autobiographical novel, Ham on Rye, but was somewhat reserved on the subject of race. Maybe it was hard for a German American like Bukowski to say too much about race. Within East, I went further than both Bukowski and Fante on the issue of race. Being a mixed race person helped with that. And my sex scenes are more detailed than Fante’s and a little less detailed than Bukowski’s.

Among other things Ask the Dust deals with the struggle of different races to fit into America and our common human struggle to find meaning within short and apparently meaninglessness lives. I was reminded of the need to be kind to one another given the short time we are all here. For that alone the book is well worth reading. And the novel gives much more than that. The fact it is still being read and enjoyed shows Fante tapped into timeless and universal themes.

All made of dust, we all go back to dust. So where to look for answers for our short and apparently meaningless lives? Ask the dust …


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