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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The Ice Age by Margaret Drabble

Anthony Keating is bored at his house in the English countryside. He had been bored with his life in the world of television and had gotten wrapped up in property development. However, the property world, and indeed much of England’s economy, is crumbling in the 70s. He’s trying to take it easy after having a mild heart attack at a young age, but the economic shakeout may make him lose everything and his love is off in Wallacia trying to deal with a rebellious daughter in prison for a fatal traffic accident. In the midst of all this, Keating is trying to figure out his life and what he wants to do with it. This is The Ice Age by Margaret Drabble.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 3rd for Douglas Coupland.)

If it seems like I’ve poured out a lot of detail without a lot of forward motion, this is kind of how The Ice Age felt for me. By the 49th page we’ve had a ton of backstory and Keating has gotten as far as cooking some sausages. Then more backstory:

The sausages were now burning on the outside. He cut one in half to see what it looked like on the inside. Rawish, still. God, he though, I need a drink. But he had vowed, promised himself not to.

Len would not be getting a drink in Scratby, either. Unless all those television series which showed prisoners secretly brewing liquor in the kitchen from yeast and old apple peelings were accurate documentaries rather than fantasies.

The fail in which Jane Murray had found herself did not sound as lenient as Scratby. Nor was the concept of bail much appreciated in Wallacia, according to Alison. Four weeks she had been there, without even a formal charge. Whereas Len, after the warrant had been issued, had had some months to rearrange his affairs, to sell this and buy that and transfer the other, before standing trial.

Anthony had never been fond of Jane. Sultry, sulky, she had resented his existence, his relationship with her mother, and had been rude and offhand whenever he spoke to her. It was largely on her account that he had never tried to live with Alison: they had been going to wait, till Jane left school, left home, before setting up house together. Perhaps she had had the accident on purpose, to keep them both apart? He recalled with distaste meals in Alison’s house, with Jane picking petulantly at her plate with a fork, making hostile comments on the cooking if ever she spoke at all and often walking off, leaving the room without a word as though Alison and Anthony’s joint presence was too much for her to be expected to deal with. A petty, childish creature. Nothing ever satisfied her. She criticized everything; Alison never retaliated. She was a pretty girl, heavier in build than her mother, with a heavy, sulking, pre-Raphaelite mouth: when she was older, he guessed she would look rather like Janey Morris, and just as destructively dissatisfied. He wondered what kind of treatment she was getting in the Krusograd jail. It would do her good to eat some disgusting meals, he unkindly reflected.

The sausages did not taste too bad. He had them with a tin of baked beans. Take it easy, the doctor had said. But it wasn’t very easy to take it easy. Mustard helped.

Frankly, most of the book appears to be a contemplation of the changes going on in England in this era. That’s interesting stuff, but the characters and story seemed a bit like decoration on top. I’m sure others would disagree, but it would have seemed better to me to leave the characters out of it and just talk about the changes in the world. Or, have more go on with the characters. That’s just me, though.

Just so little actually happens with the characters. They do some things, but most of the book seems to be backstory. 90% of the book appears to be revealing the status quo, and then suddenly at page 270 out of 320, something actually happens. Keating becomes a spy, goes to rescue Alison’s daughter in Wallacia, and ends up in a Wallacia prison camp.

Boom, extreme sudden burst of action at the end of a slow moving, dense book. Where the hell did that come from? I know the girl has been there from page 1, but this change was really sudden, and really strange given the rest of the book. I really don’t understand the motive for it much at all.

I still put that on just me, though. My tastes.

From all my whining, you might get the wrong idea. I did enjoy reading The Ice Age, but it’s just that it was a bit of a slog.

The writing is solid and it’s crafted well, but the pacing is really strange to me. There’s a little forward motion, then tons of backstory. Most of the motion must be in the backstory, but it didn’t feel like it moved very much at the time. Then, sudden action all at the end. I’m sure it’s due to my personal taste in not caring as much for endless lines of detail mashed together, which I recognize is not the way everyone feels, but that’s where I come out. The Ice Age a solid work, but it really was quite a slog for me.

Answered Prayers by Truman Capote

I want to say at the start that I generally don’t like reading unfinished books. There just doesn’t seem to be much of a point until things are done; the magic hasn’t been set into place yet. Given that, I probably shouldn’t have decided to look at Answered Prayers by Truman Capote. However, I did. I am a fan of Capote’s work and I wanted to see.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 1st for Douglas Coupland)

This is Capote’s famous unfinished work. He first contracted to write the book in 1966. This kept getting moved and it was still unfinished in 1984 when Capote died. In fact, there are only (as far as anyone knows for sure) the three sections that he’d pretty much written right away and published individually. Nothing more (as far as anyone knows for sure) was every written. Given the Proustian goals Capote supposedly had for the book, I have a hard time considering what we have as any significant portion at all. Whether it completely stalled because of the reaction by the rich against what Capote revealed, other projects, or his own self-destruction, there just isn’t much there.

So what is there? As I said, three sections. We have P.B. Jones, a man supposedly trying to be a writer but by his own admission more a bisexual hustler and hanger on of the rich. He is always mindful of what he can use people for, which isn’t so bad considering the kind of people he uses. He observes and reveals.

For example, Jones meets an important editor and figures out that the editor is attracted to him. He goes to the editor’s office hoping to play that to help his writing career. The editor’s words about the work Jones shows him are polite, but certainly not good. They are also accurate.

Nevertheless, the gentleman had knee-punched me with aching accuracy. He had my number; I was no longer so sure I had his. At the time I was immune to the mechanical vices—seldom smoked, never drank. But now, without permission, I selected a cigarette from a nearby tortoise-shell box; ad I lighted it, all the matches in the matchbook exploded. A tiny bonfire erupted in my hand. I jumped up, wringing my hand and whimpering.

My host merely and coolly pointed at the fallen, still-flaming matches. He said: “Careful. Stamp that out. You’ll damage the carpet.” Then: “Come here. Give me your hand.”

His lips parted. Slowly his mouth absorbed my index finger, the one most scorched. He plunged the finger into the depths of his mouth, almost withdrew, plunged again—like a huntsman drawing dangerous liquid from a snakebite. Stopping, he asked: “There. Is that better?”

The seesaw had upended; a transference of power had occurred, or so I was foolish enough to believe.

“Much; thank you.”

“Very well,” he said, rising to bolt the office door. “Now we shall continue the treatment.”

Good? Yes. One of the best books of all time? I don’t see how given the tiny fragments we have of what was intended. This is actually first on Douglas Coupland’s list. I understand that even less. There just isn’t enough of Answered Prayers to evaluate.

There is still some great writing in Answered Prayers, but it is so definitely unfinished. I can see this as interesting for studying Capote, or what happened in Capote trying to write the book, or any of that…but not much more. I don’t care so much about what he reveals about the rich, and I think that’s part of the interest for some. The phenomenon of the Answered Prayers is simply more interesting than the book itself. As for the book, we never got enough of it for it to be really that interesting to me. It’s important if you want to be complete on Capote, but Answered Prayers will never be on any of my favorite lists.

Breaking and Entering by Joy Williams

Change up in the routine, folks. Kim’s book for this week is taking longer than she expected, so I’m going twice in a row. Kim will be back next week, and the week after, so no worries. Anyway, on with the show:

Willie and Liberty rent a home of their own. However, they spend much of their time breaking into vacation homes of the wealthy in Florida. They don’t really steal anything; they just live there for a while. Sooner or later, they leave and break in somewhere else. This is the basic set up for Breaking and Entering by Joy Williams.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 10th for Douglas Coupland)

Willie and Liberty broke into a house on Crab Key and lived there for a week. The house had a tile near the door that said CASA VIRGINIA. It was the home of Virginia and Chip Maxwell. It was two stories overlooking the Gulf, and had been built with the trickle-down from Phillips-head screw money. Willie achieved entry by ladder and a thin, flexible strip of aluminum. Crab key was tiny and exclusive, belonging to an association that had an armed security patrol. The houses on Crab Key were owned by people so wealthy that they were hardly ever there.

Liberty and Willie saw the guard each morning. He was an old, lonely man, rather glossy and puffed up, his jaw puckered in and his chest puffed out like a child concentrating on making a muscle. He told Willie he had a cancer, but that grapefruit was curing it. He told Willie that they had wanted to cut again, but he had chosen grapefruit instead. He talked quite openly to Willie, as though they had been correspondents for years, just now meeting. Willie and Liberty must have reminded him of people he thought he knew, people who must have looked appropriate living in a million dollar soaring cypress house on the beach. He thought they were guests of the owners.

There doesn’t seem to be much point to what Willie and Liberty are doing, but perhaps that’s because we see this through Liberty and she doesn’t really seem to think there is a point. She’s just following Willie. They’ve been together since they were children and her parents dumped her with Willie’s family. However, Willie is drifting further and further away from her as time goes on:

Willie stood up and leaned toward Liberty, his hands on the table. His hands were tanned and strong and clean. His wedding band was slender. Liberty remembered the wedding clearly. It had taken place in a lush green tropical forest in the time of the dinosaurs. “I’ve got to shake myself a little loose,” he said. “Do you want the truck?”

“No,” Liberty said.

“Just a few days,” Willie said. “Later,” he said to Charlie. He left.

“A butterfly vanishes from the world of caterpillars,” Charlie said.

Liberty saw Clem get up and look after the truck as it drove away. He trotted over to the restaurant and peered in, resting his muzzle on a window box of geraniums. Liberty waved to him.

Much of the book seems to center on isolation. Willie seems isolated unto himself, unreachable. Liberty is isolated from everyone but Willie, and increasingly from Willie. Everyone they run into seems terribly isolated and needing connection, connection they seem to want to fight by connection to Liberty. For the most part, she isn’t interested. It just happens and Liberty and Willie continue to drift:

“Okay,” the woman said, rolling the beer can across her midriff, “I will tell you the worst thing that happened to me. I was just a little kid like you and I was at the circus. I was having such a wonderful time at the circus. The thing I liked best were the aerialists. I didn’t like the clowns and I didn’t like the man who caught the lead balls on the back of his neck and I didn’t like the tigers, I liked the aerialists. I loved seeing them up so high, flying through the air, sequins on their costumes flashing. I wanted to be an aerialist. Well I was at the circus and a man on a trapeze missed the net and fell into the audience. He fell on me and broke my collarbone. He smelled terrible. I mean, really terrible, like a big mouse or something.”

The woman chuckled. This little group depressed her. She wanted to tell them everything. The truth was, she was worried. She could still bleach her hair and meet a man in a bar, maybe even manage a little water-skiing, but before her lay increasingly untrustworthy memories, hangovers, and pain during intercourse. A tooth had cracked the last time she ate barbecue. Innuendoes were being made. Diagnoses were being written.

“That actually wasn’t the worst thing,” she said. She really was high as a kite. “That happened to a little kid. The worst thing that happened to the lady you see before you was that she was robbed. She was robbed, but the didn’t take anything. Broke into her house and didn’t take a goddamn thing.” She folded her beer can in half with a pop. “I’m going to turn the light off on you now,” she said. Turning out the light on them, standing there, shutting the door on them, their worst things unsaid, unknown, unaccounted for, made her feel a little better.

Breaking and Entering is a challenging book to evaluate. Much of what is significant movement is subtle and difficult to pin down. There isn’t a neat cycle of conflict and resolution, but there is movement, interesting characters, and a surprising amount of human grace inside. A lot of people want things wrapped up simpler and get frustrated by Breaking and Entering. It’s good, though. If you can be patient and not insist on the book working a way that it just doesn’t simply because other books work that way, you might come to love Breaking and Entering. I’m not exactly an adoring fan here, but I was highly impressed with what I found.