John Fante’s “Ask the Dust” is a conservative and cynical, short poetic novel. It’s poetic because its episodic movement is tense and packed, its diction deliberate, satisfying Ezra Pound’s definition of poetry. It’s cynical because of its unrelenting brutality posing as reality. Must one always suppose that to live in seediness and squalor means to live unhappily? The antonym climb from the seedy leads too often to the high-class, which breeds its own pot of seed. And it’s cynical because it views unrequited love a mean and debasing disease; it’s cynical as Nietzsche is cynical – it’s nihilistic. It’s conservative because the characters are portrayed as hypocrites who get what they deserve, base characters whose tasteless origins explain their bad decisions. It’s conservative because its hopes are grounded in middle class values, where shame is used as a tool to control, even to control oneself. It’s conservative for its traditional views locating alcohol and drug abuse at the heart of human decline and misery, where lust is confused for love, and abuse for affection, and greed for dreams. At the same time, it’s possible to read the novel as an American proletariat satire, a tragicomedy, but first you have to allow tragedy off its pedestal. Then again, maybe it’s just farce, the difference between satire and farce being that satire has a point.
The action takes place during the Great Depression. The year is 1933. The young, first person narrator and main character, the hyperbolic, capricious, and vindictive Arturo Bandini, has relocated from Colorado to Los Angeles to win fame and money as a writer. The character would today remind us of the 1968 Hal David lyric, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” which references wannabe actors who are employed at the bottom of the Hollywood food chain, literally. The prototype gets off the bus at Hollywood and Vine, cardboard suitcase in hand, expecting to walk onto a movie set, but soon finds himself running hotel shuttles to the airport with aspirations to work his way up to a bellhop job. Except in the great Bandini’s case the stereotype is true. He sells a couple of magazine stories and then a novel. But he knows not frugality, the temperamental Bandini. He spends lavishly, wastefully, funnily – buying, for example, two new suits, only to yank the clothes off in frustration for their ill fit and general unsuitability, as he digs his old but comfortable duds out of his trash.
Bandini’s (if you can take his word for it) extensive reading has done nothing to soothe his scorched brow as he types feverishly away at his torched stories. He claims familiarity with Joyce, whom he’s going to give a run for his money, and while he hasn’t read Lenin, he’s heard him quoted, and claims allegiance to Lenin’s idea that religion is opium for the people (22). He apparently hasn’t read Marx either. He’s read Emerson and Whitman, though, but no help there either for our lovelorn antihero. And Bandini has read Mencken, which is where he might have acquired his idea of a sense of superiority. Mencken plus Nietzsche plus greed – now there is a formula for the will to power. But: “You have read Nietzsche, you have read Voltaire, you should know better. But reasoning wouldn’t help” (96). Bandini is a hypersensitive, mood swinging, hypercritical victim of unrequited love, determined to get revenge by writing his way out of the storm and win his love by twisting her arm and knocking out her humiliating boyfriend.
In the middle of the book, Bandini follows the mysterious Vera Rivken down to Long Beach. So far, he’s not capitalized on his chances with women. Something always goes wrong, usually with his mood. He’s easily insulted, and his own tongue is so brazen and quick and uncontrollable that what offends his ear causes a whiplash to fly out of his mouth. He’s a braggart, but his wit and aim usually hit the target, yet he’s prone to even the score immediately through his self-loathing. His every resolution is betrayed in his next breath. In Long Beach, he’s caught in the earthquake, which scares him back to church, and he even “gave up cigarets [sic] for a few days” (104). He’s a human yo-yo: “This interested me. A new side to my character, the bestial, the darkness, the unplumbed depth of a new Bandini. But after a few blocks the mood evaporated” (108).
“Nothing like it since Joyce” (113), Bandini says. Nothing like it before, either. Consider the trip into the Valley with Hellfrick, who bludgeons a calf and drives it back to their hotel in LA where he promises Bandini “a lesson in butchering” (111). It’s scenes like that one that give the short novel its episodic and spasmodic structure. Time dances. In places, the writing is like something out of a comic book. This idea is even made explicit: “take that, Sammy boy, and that, and how do you like this left hook, and how do you like this right cross, zingo, bingo, bang, biff, blooey!” (118). And then comes the set piece, the letter criticizing Sammy’s efforts to write, which indeed is “devastating” (119). But that’s ok, because before dropping it in the mailbox, Bandini changes his mind yet again and rewrites it to give Sammy some legitimate help. Besides, Bandini’s in love, and “Who cares about a novel, another goddamn novel?” (146), this one included, the one we’re reading.
In the end, “Something was wrong, everything was wrong” (160), and we wonder why bother with any of it, the flip flopping, the depression, the indecisiveness and lack of commitment, the vengeful, childish fantasies. Well, because that’s just where things begin to ring true, and you can hear the noon Angelus bells ringing throughout the Basin. This acceptance that this is really how people behave, including, perhaps particularly, people in love, is apparently what attracted Charles Bukowski to the book. In his short introduction to the 1980 reissue of the book (originally published in 1939, then out of print), Bukowski suggests he liked “Ask the Dust” because it seemed to be about the street from the street. He says Fante was an influential writer for him.
And who was John Fante, and what did he do after “Ask the Dust”? As it turns out, Fante may not have been as interested in the street as in getting off the street. This is what Bandini wants. Interested readers will benefit from a series of interviews (about four hours worth) conducted by Ben Pleasants at Fante’s place in Malibu in the late 70’s. The link is to 3:AM Magazine. The first interview mentions Edmund Wilson, and Pleasants and Fante wonder why Wilson didn’t review “Ask the Dust,” particularly since Wilson had shown the special interest in California writers. Pleasants suggests Wilson’s “The Boys in the Back Room” (about California writers James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Richard Hallas, John O’Hara, William Saroyan, John Steinbeck, and Hans Otto Storm) came out before “Ask the Dust.” But my copy of Wilson’s “A Literary Chronicle: 1920-1950” indicates, at the end of the chapter on California writers, “These notes were first written during the autumn and early winter of 1940” (245), so after “Ask the Dust” was published and out. Wilson then adds a postscript after F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West die within a day of one another in late December, 1940, where he seeks to “make the California story complete” (246), and the end date for the whole chapter is then given as 1940-1941. Maybe Wilson excluded Fante deliberately, or maybe he simply had never read him. Wilson’s opinion about Hollywood was clear, “…its already appalling record of talent depraved and wasted” (249), but for the Fante of “Ask the Dust,” that apparently was still ahead.
John Fante, “Ask the Dust,” 1939. With an Introduction by Charles Bukowski, 1980 (Black Sparrow). First Ecco edition, 2002, and with Archival Material (24 pages) in First Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition, 2006. The text of the novel is 154 pages in the Harper edition.