Ask the Dust by John Fante

Me again. No worries, Kim will be back for the next two weeks. Anyway, on to this week.

Like many Fante aficionados, I came to the works of John Fante by a winding route. I was obsessed with the beats for a while, leading someone to clue me into Charles Bukowski. An eventual obsession with Bukowski of course led me to Fante, one of the writers he looked up to most. In fact, I’m not sure anyone would be reading Fante now if Bukowski hadn’t worked so hard to rescue Fante’s work from obscurity. Bukowski himself seemed to think Fante’s work was superior, and his advocacy for continued attention to it was perhaps the purest thing Bukowski ever did. Regardless, that all led to Fante’s Ask the Dust.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 9th for Douglas Coupland, 9th for Heidi Julavits, and 4th for George Pelecanos.)

In Ask the Dust, Arturo Bandini is a young struggling writer living in a Los Angeles slum during the depression. He isn’t going anywhere fast, but neither is anyone else at that time.

One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the very middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I got out: that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed.

*****

“I just got a letter form my agent,” I told her. “My agent in New York. He says I sold another one; he doesn’t say where, but he says he’s got one sold. So don’t worry Mrs. Hargraves, don’t you fret, I’ll have it in a day or so.”

But she couldn’t believe a liar like me. It wasn’t really a lie; it was a wish, not a lie, and maybe it wasn’t even a wish, maybe it was a fact, and the only way to find out was watch the mailman, watch him closely, check his mail as he laid it on the desk in the lobby, ask him point blank if he had anything for Bandini. Bit I didn’t have to ask after six months at that hotel. He saw me coming and he always nodded yes or no before I asked: no, three million times; yes, once.

He falls in love with a waitress named Camilla. Camilla is herself in love with a co-worker who can’t stand her. Bandini struggles to stay alive, struggles with himself, and struggle with his love for Camilla as she disintegrates. He tries to rescue her, but she continues following the co-worker who hates her. Eventually, the co-worker drives her away and she walks off into the empty desert.

I left him standing there and walked out a quarter of a mile to the top of the ridge. It was so cold I pulled my coat around my throat. Under my feet the earth was churning of course dark sand and little stones, the basin of some prehistoric sea. Beyond the ridge were other ridges like it, hundreds of them stretching infinitely away. The sandy earth revealed no footstep, no sign that it had ever been trod. I walked on, struggling through the miserable soil that gave slightly and then covered itself with crumbs of grey sand.

After what seemed like two miles, I sat on a round white stone and rested. I was perspiring, and yet it was bitterly cold. The moon was dipping toward the north. It must have been after three. I had been walking steadily but slowly in a rambling fashion, still the ridges and mounds continued, stretching away without end, with only cactus and sage and ugly plants I didn’t know marking it from the dark horizon.

Personally, Ask the Dust is one of my favorite works by John Fante. It’s gritty in a way that is very different from more testosterone focused male writers. Bandini is imperfect, but in a personal way rather than an admonishing way. The sentences are tight and clean, but there is a soulful beauty that seems most important. Life is hard, but people struggle anyway. One of the ever-present themes seems to suggest the title of one of Bukowski’s books of poetry, What Matters Most is How Well You Walk Through the Fire. If I were ever able to choose a list of favorite books, one of Fante’s would almost have to make it. Ask the Dust might be that one.

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