Charles Bukowski, in his 1979 introduction to Ask the Dust (which Fante wrote 40 years earlier), says that he knew immediately upon reading it that Fante was the influence he’d been searching for all his life. He notes the “energy and substance, the superb simplicity, of each line, one following the other,” and the directness with which Fante confronted emotion and pain.
Bukowski was right to admire Fante. From the first page of this novella, set in 1939 Los Angeles, its hero, 18-year-old Arturo Bandini, gained my empathy. A struggling writer from an Italian family in Colorado, Bandini is a noble character—albeit one with a quirky mean streak—who believes in God and wants to live up to his Catholic upbringing. He loves the little mouse, Pedro, that visits his hotel room; he tries to resist stealing milk bottles from a truck despite his hunger and poverty; and he can’t bring himself to have sex with a prostitute who picks him up because it’s wrong, even though he’s never had a woman. (In fact, he gives her most of the money his mother just sent him for food, so that she will just lie still and talk to him.) These little details wonderfully revealed character and made me care. The central conflict of the story, foreshadowed early, was Bandini’s relationship to Camilla Lopez, the Mayan waitress at the Columbia Buffet.
I was totally taken in as Fante unfolded this character study, gradually peeling off the layers through Bandini’s stuggle as a writer and his schoolboy-like efforts to win the girl. While I anticipated from the title that the story would not end well, I never would have guessed this ending—so, bravo to Fante for the element of surprise, so critical for writers to achieve.
The story is written in the first person point of view, past tense, yet Fante managed to incorporate close third and second person povs, AND present tense, AND shift back and forth among them all without missing a beat. The narrator (Bandini) addresses himself, talks himself through certain scenes, and tells the reader about this Bandini guy in a sort of stream of consciousness. I marveled at how Fante pulled this off; you’d think it would be a disaster. I’m tempted to try his technique just for practice.
The writing is terrific. It would have to be to make all that work. Here’s a moving passage when Bandini is literally running from the prostitute’s room, trying to think of an excuse for his exit (26):
A man of importance, ah yes, now I remembered, my publisher, he was getting in tonight by plane. Out at Burbank, away out at Burbank. Have to grab a cab and taxi out there, have to hurry. Goodbye, goodbye, you keep that eight bucks, you buy yourself something nice, goodbye, goodbye, running down the stairs, running away, the welcome fog in the doorway below, you keep that eight bucks, oh sweet fog I see you and I’m coming, you clean air, you wonderful world, I’m coming to you, goodbye, yelling up the stairs, I’ll see you again, you keep that eight dollars and buy yourself something nice. Eight dollars pouring out of my eyes. Oh Jesus kill me dead and ship my body home, kill me dead and make me die like a pagan fool with no priest to absolve me, no extreme unction, eight dollars, eight dollars. . . .
Fante’s use here of abbreviated run-on sentences and repetition gives a very physical sense of running down the stairs, building the momentum until the character seems to fling himself out into the foggy night, collapsing with shame.
Once Bandini has met Camilla, Fante heightened the tension, bringing out his character’s mean streak. But he also provided Bandini plenty of reflective moments that enabled me to see the similarities between the two characters and where this side of Bandini was coming from; i.e., balancing the bad with the good and maintaining that empathy that was created at the outset. He also used the contrast between Bandini’s rising career and failing romance to add tension, along with a sad, somewhat psycho woman who becomes Bandini’s first lover and the subject of his best-selling novel. The tone, too, becomes darker about halfway through the book when Bandini sends Camilla a love poem at work and, while he stands hidden outside watching her, she tears it up.
Everything about this book was instructive and engaging, but before I go on too long, I want to add that the setting—downtown Los Angeles in late 1930s—was so well done as to be a character in the book. Ask the Dust could not have been written with any other setting. Of course, being a resident of Los Angeles, I enjoyed that aspect tremendously, but it also reminded me that as writers, we can’t just stick our characters down anywhere. The setting has to be as integral to the story as the characters’ own style of speech or personality traits.
Like Bukowski, I’ll be reading more of John Fante. He may not have had the reputation of even his editor, H. L. Mencken, during his lifetime, but he certainly was a major talent, one that we can still learn from.