Los Angeles, give me some of you!

Ask the Dust, by John Fante

I was a young man, starving and drinking and trying to be a writer. I did most of my reading at the downtown L.A. Public Library, and nothing that I read related to me or to the streets or to the people about me. It seemed as if everybody was playing word-tricks, that those who said almost nothing at all were considered excellent writers. Their writing was an admixture of subtlety, craft and form, and it was read and it was taught and it was ingested and it was passed on. It was a comfortable contrivance, a very slick and careful Word-Culture.

That’s Charles Bukowski. This is the book he discovered in that library, the one that excited him as nothing else had managed. He was right to be excited.

Ask the Dust

Ask the Dust is the third in John Fante’s Bandini quartet; the second though to be published. I read the first, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, back in 2009. In my review at the time I talked about Wait’s emotional intensity and called it a triumph,  and I was particularly impressed with its depiction of the fetid inner experience of adolescence (something the Adrian Mole books got terribly, terribly wrong and that my current read, Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything, also captures well).

As a rule I’m not a fan of coming-of-age stories. It’s one reason I don’t read any YA fiction. I’m even less of a fan though of stories about the difficulty of being a writer. Yes, being a writer is hard. So is being a checkout assistant at Tesco.

If there’s any rule I do believe about fiction though it’s that with enough talent the topic doesn’t really matter. Danilo Kiš wrote a superb book about being a young writer – so well written that I didn’t just forgive the hackneyed subject matter, I embraced it. John Fante does the same thing with Ask the Dust.

Arturo Bandini is living dirt poor in Los Angeles. He survives by eating oranges, so cheap he buys them by the sackful and eats almost nothing else. He knows he’s a great writer – he’s had a short story published and he keeps a suitcase full of copies of the magazine it was published in so that he can hand them out when needed.

Fante captures the sheer exhilaration of youth – your whole future before you, laid out and glittering. Arturo veers between grandiose hope and utter despair, wracked by hunger and unfulfilled lust. His head is filled with fantasies of his name on the library shelves next to Dreiser and Mencken, of his future fame and the respect it will bring:

Bandini (being interviewed prior to departure for Sweden): “My advice to all young writers is quite simple. I would caution them never to evade a new experience. I would urge them to live life in the raw, to grapple with it bravely, to attack it with naked fists.” Reporter: “Mr. Bandini, how did you come to write this book which won you the Nobel Award?” Bandini: “The book is based on a true experience which happened to me one night in Los Angeles. Every word of that book is true. I lived that book, I experienced it.”

Right now though, right now he’s a nobody and copies of his story gather dust on the desks and tables of the people he gives them to, unasked for and unwanted. He has his face pressed against the glass of the window of the world, hungry and intent.

I was passing the doorman of the Biltmore, and I hated him at once, with his yellow braids and six feet of height and all that dignity, and now a black automobile drove to the curb, and a man got out. He looked rich; and then a woman got out, and she was beautiful, her fur was silver fox, and she was a song across the sidewalk and inside the swinging doors, and I thought oh boy for a little of that, just a day and a night of that, and she was a dream as I walked along, her perfume still in the wet morning air.

Later:

Yes, it’s true: but I have seen houses in Bel-Air with cool lawns and green swimming pools. I have wanted women whose very shoes are worth all I have ever possessed. I have seen golf clubs on Sixth Street in the Spalding window that make me hungry just to grip them. I have grieved for a necktie like a holy man for indulgences. I have admired hats in Robinson’s the way critics gasp at Michelangelo.

Isn’t that beautiful? In his foreword Bukowski talks about how with Fante each line has its own energy, each page a feeling of something carved into it. That’s what I see in that prose too. Sentence after sentence laid down like careful brickwork, or like a drystone wall where a single badly placed piece could bring down the whole. I read this book and I almost feel love for it.

Arturo finds himself attracted to a Mexican-American waitress. He’s drawn to her, but she brings out his own self-loathing and his shame at being Italian-American. He thinks of her as not really American, not like he is, drowning his doubts about his own status by showing his disdain for hers.

She’s more experienced than he is and more confident, all of which makes it vital that he shows his own superiority. He courts her with copies of his story, with poetry plagiarised from another  writer. He’s crushed when she laughs about it with her workmates. Desire and incomprehension wash between them.

Meanwhile, back at his apartments, his neighbour borrows money from him and then grills steaks the smell of which makes Arturo drool but which the neighbour won’t share. It’s life in other words – messy, selfish, strange and compromised.

It’s perhaps not a surprise that Bukowski loved Fante. Both of them write about ordinary things with extraordinary passion. Both of them write without blinking, showing the glory and ugliness in what they see. There’s an interesting chain of influence here. Ask the Dust is hugely influenced by Knut Hamsun’s Hunger (not that I noticed until Emma of bookaroundthecorner pointed it out to me, it is pretty obvious though once you think about it). Fante in turn influences Bukowski. Hunger. Ask the Dust. Post Office. It’s a triptych of excellence.

I’m going to wrap up by bringing out one last focus of the book, and that’s LA itself. I can’t actually improve on what Emma wrote about this part of the novel on her own blog, here, so I urge you to read her review if you haven’t already. Fante’s California is a physical place. I could smell it; feel its heat, the dampness of its fog and the grit of the sand blown in off the desert.

Kevin of kevinfromcanada first introduced me to John Fante, with his overview post of the Bandini quartet here. I owe Kevin thanks for quite a few literary introductions over the years, as do most readers of his blog. That’s part of course of what these blogs are for. Mostly they’re a conversation that bloggers and commenters have with each other, a leisurely discussion of what works for us, what doesn’t. They’re also though sometimes a chance to say hey, here it is, this is the good stuff. This is what you were looking for. Fante is the good stuff.

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15 Comments

Filed under California, Fante, John, US Literature

15 responses to “Los Angeles, give me some of you!

  1. Great review, almost makes me want to read it for a fourth time.

  2. He’s great, isn’t it? Like Lee, you make me want to read it again. There’s so much energy in his writing.
    Like the narrator in Hunger, Bandini is sure to be a gifted writer. They are both extravagant in their attitudes.

    I discovered Fante through Philippe Djian. He mentioned him in one of his early books or maybe in an interview. I don’t remember. Fante was republished in French in the 1980s.

    Thanks for the link to my billet.

  3. Thanks for the kind words and the link — your review brings Bandini back to life for me. And I am with Emma in agreeing that Fante captures Los Angeles in a way that few others have.

  4. leroyhunter

    “Sentence after sentence laid down like careful brickwork, or like a drystone wall where a single badly placed piece could bring down the whole.”

    What an incredibly apt and prescient comment! You’ll see what I mean when you get to Brotherhood of the Grape.

    Fante is, without any doubt at all, the good stuff.

  5. I’ve had his books for ages. I really should pick them up. I like the idea of the triptych of excellence. Like you I dont really like books about writers but it’s like you say, a great writer can even turn that into something I love to read.
    Would you recommend to read the books in order?

  6. Lee, thanks, three times is already a fair compliment to the book!

    Emma, absolutely, huge energy and extravagant is a good word. I was glad to be able to link to yours – blogging is a conversation after all and besides you’d brought out the geographical focus much more than I had.

    Kevin, absolutely, Chandler and perhaps Ross Macdonald are the only others right now who spring to mind for such evocative descriptions of California.

    Leroy, I’ll look forward to that then. There is very definite craft here. Bukowski was absolutely right about Fante.

    Caroline, this would work well as a stand alone, and I missed the second one in the sequence (accidentally, but I didn’t realise I’d skipped a volume until afterwards and contemporary readers wouldn’t even have had access to the second one as it was published later). I really liked the first book, but this is much stronger. I think there’s good reason to go in order, but you could just as well read this then work back and forward as interest takes you.

    My only thought is that as the first is weaker than this, if you are likely to read it it’s probably worth reading it first so that you have this to move on to by way of progression, otherwise you’re going the wrong direction in terms of quality.

  7. Love the quote “I have wanted women whose very shoes are worth all I have ever possessed. ” Along with that goes the unspoken idea that these women wouldn’t give him the time of day let alone the dust off their shoes. And how California to be so poor that you can only eat oranges all day. As a child, we got a tiny one at the bottom of our Xmas stockings and it was a rare treat. Some things never change–the homeless around here take the oranges off the trees on front lawns, and in the morning there will be peel all over the pavement.

    I’ve read the Abbott novel you’re currently reading. It’s good, and I think it comes second to Die A Little which I still consider her best.

  8. It’s great isn’t it? The detail with the oranges is a nice one, both in terms of bringing out his poverty and saying something about California.

    The Abbott was good, though I thought the ending perhaps let it down a little by over explaining. Still, definitely enjoyable.

  9. “Yes, being a writer is hard. So is being a checkout assistant at Tesco.”
    Perfectly worded.

  10. Thanks. I do tend to get rather annoyed when people in cushy jobs complain about how hard their lives are, without any regard for the fact that they could generally be an awful lot worse and for most people (almost everyone if we go beyond the first world) likely are.

    I don’t mean that one can’t be comfortable, rich, whatever and not have real problems. Obviously one can – illness, relationship breakdowns, all sorts of things. But mo’ money mo’ problems is the easiest solved dilemma in human history (just give some of that money away).

    I did have an ex who once had a guy make a sympathy play for her by telling her how hard it was for him with his income and capital and how he sometimes felt guilty because he had so much when others had so little. She asked him to give her half. For some reason he didn’t see the elegance of her solution.

    It’s where I dislike a lot of these sorts of narratives (not this one though obviously). There’s something solipsistic about it. Yes, it’s tough that people don’t recognise the talent you feel you have. But it’s not nearly as tough as doing two jobs and still not having enough money at the end of the week to be sure of both feeding your kids and keeping the heating on. Different sorts of pressure I know, but I also know which I’d rather face.

  11. Although I’ve been guilty of being one of those complainers, and I’m certainly not immune to frustration, but when I hear about all the new graduates being unable to find a job, any job, it made me realize that I just need to get over myself and be frickin’ grateful for my income, regardless of its creative quotient. ( I just need to look at what Spain and Greece is experiencing right now.) Totally agree with everything you said.

  12. I think one would have to be saintly never to be one of those complainers, and it’s also true that just because someone’s lost their leg doesn’t make it hurt any less if you sprain your ankle (to get all metaphorical for a moment). I don’t want to be too pious, I’ve hardly devoted my own life to ending poverty after all (my particular branch of corporate law isn’t without social merit in that infrastructure finance does help stuff get built, but it’s not as if I’m a nurse or something).

  13. I do like coming-of-age novels Max because, they can get to the heart of a person’s moral/ethical self, the formation of values. But, I don’t read YA fiction (except for the odd cross-over one). I prefer those that are told from the point of view of an adult reflecting on that time in his/her life rather than written for a young person experiencing that period now, if that makes sense. So, I mean books like Julian Barnes The sense of an ending, or Jeanette Winterson’s Oranges are not the only fruit, or Aussie writer Kate Jennings’ Snake. Perhaps I’m being cheeky calling these coming-of-age but I think that is, really, what they are?

  14. I’m not sure about coming of age for the Barnes, since it’s so much about the reliability of memory, but I’d agree for Oranges (which I loved).

    My issue with YA fiction is that it’s basically a rebadging of what we used to straightforwardly call children’s fiction (aimed obviously at older children) so as to make adults feel better about reading it. I find that a bit patronising. I also query the extent to which one can deal with more complex themes in a book that sets out to be accessible to children (as opposed to a book that may be enjoyed by children but isn’t written specifically with them in mind).

  15. Pingback: Looking back on 2013 | Pechorin's Journal

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