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.

A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul

Mr. Biswas wants a house (making the title of A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul pretty apt). He hopes for a lot of things, but mainly getting an even break. As an Indian born poor in Trinidad, that probably isn’t going to happen.

(For those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 8th for both Heidi Julavits and Claire Messud.)

Mr. Biswas strives throughout the book, but the reader always knows that only so much is going to come of it. He’s born under very poor omens, and ends up being the unintentional cause of his father’s drowning death. His life becomes difficult, his mother shunting him around to different places trying to do something with him in life, usually with poor results. He yearns more and more to make a decent way in life and have a permanent home.

Then, somewhat intentionally but mostly by accident and machinations of others, Mr. Biswas gets married. He’s dependent on his wife’s family, which is not particularly pleasant. Still, he makes his way in life.

Now, before you get the idea that this is a ‘poor Mr. Biswas’ story, it isn’t really. Though his chances are pretty poor, he does a lot of things to himself. Arrogance, ignorance, stubbornness, and poor judgment, Mr. Biswas is instrumental in the way that life throws him around. And, for everything that others do to him, he mistreats someone (his wife, his children, and so on) himself.

Of course, not that he’s a bad person either. He’s just imperfect. It’s just life.

A House for Mr. Biswas is a happily tragic story. The details are thorough, vivid, and beautiful. I kind of felt the story was already told when things got started, but it was still a pleasure to read. In one man’s life, A House for Mr. Biswas manages to capture what seems to be the story for most. That gives the writing a great deal of power.

I hate to just give a giant block quote instead of mixing smaller pieces into a review, but the first section of the opener is such a perfect encapsulation of the book (perhaps it tells everything and makes the book a little unnecessary other than for the enjoyment of reading?). There is no other way that would convey the whole book better. Thus, the entire first section of the opener:

Ten weeks before he died, Mr Mohun Biswas, a journalist of Sikkim Street, St James, Port of Spain, was sacked. He had been ill for some time. In less than a year he had spent more than nine weeks at the Colonial Hospital and convalesced at home for even longer. When the doctor advised him to take a complete rest the Trinidad Sentinel had no choice. It gave Mr Biswas three months’ notice and continued, up to the time of his death, to supply him every morning with a free copy of the paper.

Mr Biswas was forty-six, and had four children. He had no money. His wife Shama had no money. On the house in Sikkim Street Mr Biswas owed, and had been owing for four years, three thousand dollars. The interest on this, at eight per cent, came to twenty dollars a month; the ground rent was ten dollars. Two children were at school. The two older children, on whom Mr Biswas might have depended, were both abroad on scholarships.

It gave Mr Biswas some satisfaction that in the circumstances Shama did not run straight off to her mother to beg for help. Ten years before that would have been her first thought. Now she tried to comfort Mr Biswas, and devised plans on her own.

‘Potatoes,’ she said. ‘We can start selling potatoes. The price around here is eight cents a pound. If we buy at five and sell at seven —’

‘Trust the Tulsi bad blood,’ Mr Biswas said. ‘I know that the pack of you Tulsis are financial geniuses. But have a good look around and count the number of people selling potatoes. Better to sell the old car.’

‘No. Not the car. Don’t worry. We’ll manage.’

‘Yes,’ Mr Biswas said irritably. ‘We’ll manage.’

No more was heard of the potatoes, and Mr Biswas never threatened again to sell the car. He didn’t now care to do anything against his wife’s wishes. He had grown to accept her judgment and to respect her optimism. He trusted her. Since they had moved to the house Shama had learned a new loyalty, to him and to their children; away from her mother and sisters, she was able to express this without shame, and to Mr Biswas this was a triumph almost as big as the acquiring of his own house.

He thought of the house as his own, though for years it had been irretrievably mortgaged. And during these months of illness and despair he was struck again and again by the wonder of being in his own house, the audacity of it: to walk in through his own front gate, to bar entry to whoever he wished, to close his doors and windows every night, to hear no noises except those of his family, to wander freely from room to room and about his yard, instead of being condemned, as before, to retire the moment he got home to the crowded room in one or the other of Mrs Tulsi’s houses, crowded with Shama’s sisters, their husbands, their children. As a boy he had moved from one house of strangers to another; and since his marriage he felt he had lived nowhere but in the house of the Tulsis, at Hanuman House in Arwacas, in the decaying wooden house at Shorthills, in the clumsy concrete house in Port of Spain. And now at the end he found himself in his own house, on his own half-lot of land, his own portion of the earth. That he should have been responsible for this seemed to him, in these last months, stupendous.

That is A House for Mr. Biswas. The next 562 pages really just elaborates on that perfect encapsulation…though you should still read it.

The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon

I’m not a huge one for books that are collections of observations and notes, essentially diaries, but I do have to respect the beauty of the writing in The Pillow Book by Sei Shōnagon and how it conveys this corner of 10th-11th century Japanese life.

(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 5th for Heidi Julavits.)

As I see it, The Pillow Book is a diary of sorts. It is composed of a series of musings and observations written by Sei Shōnagon while she was a court lady to Empress Consort Teishi in the late 10th century to very early 11th century Japan.

With no seeming overall ordering or linking (in fact, any original ordering and even complete original manuscript appears likely lost by the time it was first printed), there are lists:

17. Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past

            Dried Hollyhock. The objects used during the Display of Dolls. To find a piece of deep violet or grape-colored material that has been pressed between the pages of a notebook.

            It is a rainy day and one is feeling bored. To pass the time, one starts looking through some old papers. And then one comes across the letters of a man one used to love.

            Last year’s paper fan. A night with a clear moon.

musings on nature:

84. I Remember a Clear Morning

            I remember a clear morning in the Ninth Month when it had been raining all night. Despite the bright sun, dew was still dripping from the chrysanthemums in the garden. On the bamboo fences and criss-cross hedges I saw tatters of spider webs; and where the threads were broken the raindrops hung on them like strings of white pearls. I was greatly moved and delighted.

            As it became sunnier, the dew gradually vanished from the clover and the other plants where it had lain so heavily; the branches began to stir, then suddenly sprang up of their own accord. Later I described to people how beautiful it all was. What most impressed me was that they were not at all impressed.

descriptions of court life:

10. I Enjoy Watching the Officials

            I enjoy watching the officials when they come to thank the Emperor for their new appointments. As they stand facing His Majesty with their batons in their hands, the trains of their robes trail along the floor. Then they make obeisance and begin their ceremonial movements with great admiration.


Smoothly runs the river of Yoshino

Between Mount Imo and Mount Se.

Yet, should those mountains crumble,

The river too would vanish from out sight.


and many other similar pieces.

As you can see from the above, the language is quite beautiful and Shōnagon’s thoughts are interesting. She was clearly very educated and talented. Though she sometimes seems a bit obsessed with proper form and class rank, she also seems to be a surprisingly free thinker. Talking about taking lovers, adamant in her own opinions and aesthetics (to the point of being a little catty at times), she does not come across as particularly demure…regardless of how she may or may not have behaved outside of her notebooks.

I generally prefer things with a central narrative, but I still enjoyed The Pillow Book. Even the non-poem portions clearly show the hand of a poet and all of the disparate fragments have a essential unity to them. Diaries and journals may not be my favorite sort of book to read, but I was certainly happy to read The Pillow Book.