“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 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.”
This is how Arturo Bandini introduces himself in John Fante’s 1939 novel, Ask the Dust. I’ve read the book several times, and with each re-read, I stop after this opening paragraph. This go-at-it, I tell myself, I’ll know what to make of this indifferent, slack writer who constantly refers to himself in the third person. But soon after, Bandini not only surprises me but also forces me to empathize with him.
Addressing himself, he says, “…you were born poor, son of miseried peasants, driven because you were poor, fled from your Colorado town because you were poor, rambling the gutters of Los Angeles because you are poor, hoping to write a book to get rich, because those who hated you back there in Colorado will not hate you if you write a book. You are a coward, Bandini, a traitor to your soul, a feeble liar before your weeping Christ. This is why you write, this is why it would be better if you died.”
A struggling writer with only a single story under his belt, Bandini goes to LA to make it. He barely gets by, eating oranges, stealing milk, all the while waiting for word from his editor out east, Hackmuth, who Bandini sees as a God–the man who will save him from a destitute life. To complicate matters, Bandini falls for Camilla Lopez, a Mexican bar maid, who is in love with another failed writer, a bartender who is dying. Eventually, Bandini achieves literary success, but his relationship with Camilla, not to mention his notions of the writer’s life, are ultimately doomed.
Charles Bukowski called Fante’s writing “superb simplicity.” He and others, including Carey McWilliams and Robert Towne, consider Ask the Dust as one of the greatest novels published in America. Fante’s been compared to Dostoevsky, Hamsun, Hemingway, Wolfe, Steinbeck, Saroyan and Nathanial West–and deservingly so. But unlike them, his classic novel is oft forgotten. It shouldn’t be. It’s at once tender, harsh, funny, sad. Ask the Dust is a kick in the pants, an eye-opener, a lesson in humility. Whenever I start to take myself too seriously, I pick it up and within minutes I am humbled.
Hayan Charara is the author of two books of poems, The Alchemist’s Diary (Hanging Loose, 2001) and The Sadness of Others (Carnegie Mellon, 2006). His poetry has appeared in numerous publications, among them Chelsea, Cream City Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, and the anthology American Poetry: The Next Generation. Born in Detroit, he lived for many years in New York City before moving to Texas. Like Arturo Bandini, he’s waiting to hear back from his agent about his first novel, Regret.