"Ah, Los Angeles! Dust and fog of your lonely streets, I am no longer lonely..."
That quote from Ask the Dust appears in my novel, The Quantum of the Past. The funny thing is that I had not read the novel at the time I added it.
And I continuously heard about John Fante and Ask the Dust from one of my writing teachers at Long Beach State, Stephen Cooper; he is the author of a Fante biography called Full of Life. The man even made us an offer that was difficult to refuse: Read Ask the Dust and if it did not thoroughly entertain you, he would cover whatever money you spent on the novel.
He believes in it that strongly. I bought my copy off the ibookstore and set to reading it much later. To be fair, I don't want my money back. Ask the Dust is a novel that tries you though. It is set in Los Angeles during the Great Depression and some of its sensibilities tug at you. It is a novel full of life that I hated and loved at times.
Title: Ask the Dust
Author: John Fante
Premise: Colorado writer, Arturo Bandini, has come to Los Angeles seeking to make a name for himself and be regarded as a "Great American Writer." Along the way he comes across a woman, Camilla Lopez and falls in love. What follows is an episodic tale of hope and victory tainted by loss; every cloud has a silver lining, true, but it is also true that every well-earned victory has the stink of death.
What didn't work for me:
I remember watching that movie called Limitless, in which an uninspired writer gets the creativity bump that he needs by ingesting these pills that stimulate his brain. Naturally, the writer protagonist had a hot girlfriend who is successful (because professional women who have it all love losers). And in the end, he succeeds to publish a masterful book, runs for congress, and keeps his hot girlfriend... Yes. Yes.
Watching Limitless was a horrible experience. It was less painful watching the last twenty minutes of that Japanese movie called Audition.
For me, there is no worst protagonist than a writer protagonist. Every book and movie that has one always seems like the wet dream of the writer(s) who compose them. They are written manifestos, their way of giving the finger to anyone who disagrees with their simple ideas about writing in general; because their writer protagonists are geniuses comparable to Faulkner and Shakespeare and we ought to listen to these wise fictional men/women.
Ask the Dust has a writer protagonists. That turned me off badly right from the start. But I will go into this a little bit more below and why it wasn't a total deal breaker.
Aside from the writer protagonist, the other thing about the novel that made me not love it as much was its episodic nature.
What was it about the early to mid Twentieth Century that inspired writers to produce novels like this?
I'm talking about novels like On the Road, Naked Lunch, etc.; these are novels heavily based on the experiences of the writer. There must have been some belief that writing inspired by actual events would generate the most significant literature. I think they call that, "writing what you know." Or in this case, "write what you've lived."
There are sections of Ask the Dust that are completely random, like the episode where Arturo's neighbor takes him to a farm where they steal a calf that the neighbor later butchers in his hotel room to make steaks. Oddly funny. But why?
I understand that a plot in serious, literary works is almost a useless trifle, but random events beg the question, why?
What worked for me:
Okay, so Arturo Bandini is a writer who succeeds at having his novel published. I almost gag at that, but there are reasons it was palatable in this novel.
For one, Arturo suffers from a writer's version of Bipolar disorder. Oh, if you are one of us writers, you know what I mean: Days of loving your work to the point where it is ridiculous; hating your every sentence because who could possibly relate to any of it, you're a sham, a wannabe, worthless.
Bandini is also Italian American, leaving him the victim of prejudice and a target for such names as "wop" and "dago." There are instances where Arturo is called those names and where he calls other minorities by similar names ("greaser" is used often by him). That means he suffers from low self esteem and compensates for it by issuing out the same monstrous hatred others have shown him.
He wants to be the Great American Writer, but is unsure if he fits in America.
That he is so frail and foolish made the writer protagonist thing palatable. A big plus is the characterization of the editor, Hackmuth.
Arturo Bandini worships this editor because, in his fantasy, he discovered him; the writer even has a picture of the editor in his hotel room!
And though Bandini gushes praise for Hackmuth's genius as an editor, Hackmuth hardly shares that enthusiasm. Actually, Hackmuth is very cold, only having a few lines of actual dialogue aimed at Arturo in the form of short messages he mails; the big news regarding Arturo's novel come in the form of a telegram that hardly has a sentence.
It's beautifully done, balancing the megalomania of Bandini.
And the love he has for Camilla! It makes and breaks Bandini, leading to one of the most memorable novel endings I've had the pleasure of reading in a while. Really, the ending makes you choke up.
Another element well executed is the take on Los Angeles. Bukowski, the famous poet inspired by Fante, said this was his favorite Los Angeles novel, with good reason.
This is a time capsule of Los Angeles as it was during the Great Depression. It doesn't try to bore you with too much local color anecdotes, but it includes valuable information in the form of action. For example, there is an excellent episode added that deals with an earthquake and its aftermath. Fante describes what the emergency response system was like in those days and how news spread, mostly through rumor (since there was no Twitter). And there is also the specific neighborhoods used, like Bunker Hill, which were vastly different than they are now.
In all, they paint a Los Angeles that is different than the one I live in, but eerily similar.
Although the episodic nature of this novel put me off a bit, I learned a few things about the nature of writing from the writer protagonist. It is difficult for some readers to understand just how much we invest into our writing, but I think anyone who reads Ask the Dust will get a fair idea.
Overall, that is why this novel was thoroughly enjoyable: It is a scary look at writers. And any writer who tells you that they have never experienced the things that Arturo Bandini experienced in the course of the fiction is not a writer at all.