Rereading John Fante’s “Ask the Dust”
By Rob SternbergDecember 22, 2016
THE YOUNG MAN throws a copy of his first novel out into the Mojave Desert, where the woman he loves has disappeared. The book is inscribed in vain: To Camilla, with love, Arturo. Then he gets into his 1929 Ford and drives back to Los Angeles, alone.
His novel, we have to assume, is the same one we’ve just finished reading — Ask the Dust, whose narrator, Arturo Bandini, is an obvious stand-in for the author, John Fante. The metafictional trick of turning the book we’re holding into the same one our narrator has just published makes the denouement all the more affecting: it gives life to a novel already full of it.
Throwing his book into the desert is both an affirmation of his art and a rejection of it: an affirmation because he’s showing his love for Camilla by giving her, symbolically, the deepest expression of himself; a rejection because he understands that the desert will outlast his novel, and him. “You could die,” he thinks, moments before writing the inscription, “but the desert would hide the secret of your death, it would remain after you, to cover your memory with ageless wind and heat and cold.” It’s amusing that Bandini here admits the insignificance of his life and art, given that only a few pages earlier, when he received the contract for his book, he claimed bombastically that his achievement was more important than the war in Europe, which had just begun with Hitler’s invasion of Poland. But by this point in the novel, readers have gotten used to the caprices of our young writer-protagonist.
Still, we can be forgiven for thinking that perhaps Bandini has grown up a little bit. For the entire novel, he’s been monstrously self-obsessed. When an earthquake erupts, for example, he’s convinced he provoked God’s wrath by being intimate with a married woman. Now, confronting the sublime desert, and the tragic disappearance of the woman he loved who could never love him back, Bandini seems to have finally come to terms with the puniness of his grandiosity.
Bandini’s gesture of throwing his book into the desert at daybreak is the culmination of 165 breathless, inspired pages. We begin at the hotel Alta Loma, at the top of Bunker Hill, where our protagonist, who’s traveled west from Colorado to fulfill his dream of becoming a writer, rents a room on the sixth floor. His window is level with the hillside, and through this opening that he comes and goes. It’s a dream of independence. Outside, down the 140 steps of Angel’s Flight, waits the restless city. “Los Angeles,” Bandini apostrophizes, “give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.” This passage, with its mixture of quaint vocabulary and unrestrained emotion, is typical of the novel; it borders on sentimentality but is saved by its undercurrent of pathos. For Bandini is a tragic figure, and his novel is a tragic love story — about the love he has for himself, for the city, and for Camilla.
Tragic is an inadequate label, however, because the novel is very funny, too. Bandini is frequently the punch line of his own jokes. He arrives at the Alta Loma with two suitcases, one of them filled with copies of the Atlantic Monthly issue where his first and only story, “The Little Dog Laughed,” was published. It’s not long before everyone in the building hears about the great writer in their midst. Bandini grasps that his one story offers paltry evidence of his vocation, but that doesn’t stop him from using it as his calling card. For much of the novel, he’s in a constant state of striving, and there’s a painfully obvious gap between what he wants to be and what he is. To compensate for this, he puffs himself up comically, both in public and private, like a little man goading a giant, who only out of disinterest withholds from retaliating.
The one person who recognizes Bandini’s talent is the editor of The Atlantic, J. C. Hackmuth — a figure based on H. L. Mencken, who published Fante’s first stories, and with whom he shared a correspondence. For Bandini, Hackmuth is a savior — the term mentor would be insufficient — and he bestows on him embarrassing amounts of gratitude. He keeps a photo of Hackmuth in his room, to which he often supplicates himself: “I’d stand before Hackmuth’s picture crying out of both eyes, telling him he picked a good one this time, a great one, a Bandini, Arturo Bandini, me.” Such mawkish, groping displays are never absent of irony. The inauspicious title of his first published story is enough to show that Bandini’s literary pretensions border on the ridiculous.
Despite this, Bandini — like his creator — is a great writer. We can discern his talent in his lyrical descriptions of downtown Los Angeles and his vivid portraits of the outcasts who populate the Alta Loma and all the dingy establishments — cheap restaurants, saloons, dive bars, and Filipino dance halls — that he visits during his wanderings. Of these misfits, three stand out: Mr. Hellfrick, an always-broke neighbor with an insatiable appetite for meat; Vera Rivken, the pitiful married woman whom Bandini follows to Long Beach Pike, and who may or may not have survived the earthquake; and Camilla Lopez, the unattainable Mexican waitress at the Columbia Buffet on Spring Street.
It’s not that Camilla doesn’t love Bandini. In fact, she gives herself to him during what might be the novel’s greatest scene, a night swimming escapade in the Pacific Palisades. Lust deserts Bandini, however, because he’s far more comfortable idealizing Camilla in his imagination — she’s his “Mayan Princess” — than communing with her in real life. After Bandini balks, she devotes herself fully to Sammy, a bartender at the Columbia, who by the end of the novel has exiled himself to a shack in the Mojave Desert, penning hackneyed westerns as he wastes away from TB.
One of the novel’s indelible images is the palm tree outside Bandini’s hotel window, “blackish at its branches, stained by carbon monoxide coming out of the Third Street Tunnel, its crusted trunk choked with dust and sand that blew in from the Mojave and Santa Ana deserts.” In a single image, Fante evokes the cruel indifference of man and nature. The blackened palm also serves as a harbinger of what awaits Bandini and Camilla at the end, in the desert. After a stint in a mental institution, Camilla goes out there to be with Sammy, who turns her away. Bandini arrives a couple of days later. By then it’s too late.
When I first read it 15-odd years ago, the novel’s ending was seared into my memory by the rising desert sun that accompanies those final moments. Instantly, Ask the Dust not only became my favorite book but also confirmed my ambition to be a writer, just like Arturo Bandini, and just like John Fante. Fante fit comfortably alongside Bukowski and Miller in my youthful pantheon of literary bohemians. At the time, I wasn’t reading to appreciate or analyze technique but to seek out the company of other writers (I hardly knew any real ones). I was especially drawn to authors who chronicled and romanticized the writing life through thinly veiled alter egos. Of all the books that influenced me then — Factotum, Tropic of Cancer, Hunger, to name just a few — it was Fante’s novel that left the strongest impression. I went on to read all the author’s books, bought at a bookstore that no longer exists.
I had always been reluctant to return to Ask The Dust, fearing that it would have lost its hold over me. During a recent move, I went so far as to relegate all of Fante’s titles — with those austere Black Sparrow Press jacket designs — to basement storage, along with the other books from that time in my life. Yet I’ve always known I’d have to return to it someday, which is probably why I laid Ask the Dust gently across the top, for easy access.
Rereading the book, I found that the prose still possesses the same restless, ecstatic quality I remembered. There’s something I’d forgotten that dates the novel, however, and that’s Fante’s hysterical treatment of marijuana — specifically, his depiction of Camilla as a “hophead.” It’s a pity that her downfall is attributed so explicitly to the effects of the drug. I can only assume Fante was influenced by Reefer Madness–style propaganda.
There’s another reason why I hadn’t returned to Ask the Dust — one that’s hard for me to admit. Simply put, Fante made writing a novel — and becoming a writer — look easy: it was just a matter of living your life, like Arturo Bandini did. Not only that, your life could be your novel, its events and people the same ones you experienced and encountered every day. This assumption on my part led to many unpublishable stories. There was one called “Slave to King Duck,” long since destroyed, its title borrowed from a meaningless line of graffiti I’d seen on my way to work as a comedy club usher. I don’t recall much of this story other than a climactic confrontation between the irreverent, capricious narrator (a comedy club usher-cum-writer) and his 300-pound boss (a comedy club manager). So much of what I wrote in those days was in imitation of Bandini/Fante.
Because it took me so long to be disabused of the notion that writing a novel is no different than writing a glorified diary, I think I built up a kind of resentment toward Ask the Dust, for leading me astray. Maybe I even began to blame my scant publishing history on it as well. And in my late 20s and early 30s, as my literary tastes continued to evolve, I scorned the enthusiasms of the previous decade. All of which is to say that picking up Ask the Dust again, I knew, would constitute a kind of reckoning with my own literary disappointments.
Bukowski, in his admiring preface to the novel, relates his discovery of Ask the Dust in the LA Public Library to finding “gold in the city dump.” He goes on to praise the energy and flow of the writing. “And here, at last,” he writes, “was a man who was not afraid of emotion. The humor and pain were intermixed with a superb simplicity.” Writing the preface to the 1980 Black Sparrow edition — Bukowski himself spearheaded the reissue — caused him to pick up the book again after 39 years, and he writes about how he, too, as an impressionable young man and aspiring writer, had modeled his life and art after Arturo Bandini. His verdict is one I now feel relieved to share: “It still stands.”
Rob Sternberg is a writer and post-secondary teacher based in Toronto. His fiction and nonfiction have been published in Riddle Fence, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Millions, Dublin Review of Books, and other publications.
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