Charles Bukowski once said "Fante was my god". At the time I thought Bukowski himself was part of the Pantheon and thus I've always assumed I would love Fante. But I have just read 'Ask the Dust' and found this is not so.
The storyline is that Arturo Bandini is living in the low rent district of Los Angeles in the mid 1930s. He has dreams of being a famous writer, but doesn't seem to work very hard at it, at least in the first 2/3 of the book. He develops an infatuation with the waitress Camilla Lopez, which is problematic at best. Bandini professes to love Camilla and yet he speaks as much (if not more!)of his loathing for her, as he does of his love! Coupled with the cruelty they each inflicted upon the other and you have a very twisted view of love, and one I can't sanction, regardless of how many people may view love as a dog from hell.
There is no question the man can write. Deceptively simple sentences that carry large amounts of information. Kind of like if Hemingway actually had any gift for metaphor or an eye for beauty.
But the people are where it falls apart for me. Although it's not that they don't seem real. These are very human characters, deeply flawed, moody, capricious, mean spirited, dishonest, and masochistic. I could feel some pity for their self loathing, but I found it hard to root for them. They were sad, pathetic, even tragic, and occasionally disgusting, but seldom sympathetic. And while there is no doubt I do share this world with folks very much alike to these, and did live in their world in my own days of addiction and dissipation and blaming of the world for all of my ills, the only purpose I now see in an author presenting that world, or of my living in it for the temporary lifetime of a book, is to see transcendence of that misery and lashing out at those around you, by at least one of the characters. This book seemed a tacit endorsement of the validity of the hopeless and intolerant life.
But all of that would have been relatively tolerable if it hadn't been for the dark currents of bigotry and misogyny that ran through this book. And this bothered me greatly! Only the fact that I wasn't sure if this was Fante's viewpoint, or merely that of Arturo Bandini and the world he lived in, kept me reading, although I must confess to skimming much of the last third of this book. One reviewer spoke of the 'great truth' elucidated by Fante, that those being crapped upon by ones higher up the ladder, will in turn crap upon those below them. True though this may well be, is it something to celebrate? To legitimize? And is it even a 'great truth' when all of us see it regularly?
And then there is this thing of demonizing marijuana that seems straight out of 'Reefer Madness'. The whole exercise really lost credibility with me when Fante, or at least his narrator Bandini, starts acting as though smoking pot was akin to opiate or amphetamine addiction.
I felt much the same about this novel as I did about 'Rabbit, Run' by John Updike, although Fante is a better, or at least less pretentious, writer. But this great, descriptive and lyrical prose is wasted on characters and a story with no redeeming value. And, while I will probably give Updike another chance, I rather doubt I'll do the same for Fante. 2.5stars
I wasn't sure where to post this. Here will do I suppose.
Fante grew up the son of poor Italian immigrant parents in 1920’s and 30’s America, an upbringing that was to feature greatly in his writing. Despite the objection of his rather overbearing father, Fante left home and headed to Los Angeles as soon as he could to begin a career as a writer, and, like others with similar dreams, the brilliance of his work didn’t make getting published and building a readership any easier. Eventually Fante drifted into writing screenplays for Hollywood, work he considered ‘hack’; but the money was good and the work was far easier than the backbreaking toil of the world he’d come from.
Fante kept writing novels, novellas and short stories outside of his nine to five occupation in ‘the dream factory’ but it seemed that his was to be an overlooked talent, remembered by only a few. Fortunately, someone who hadn’t forgotten his work, and the effect it had on him, was the cult American poet Charles Bukowski, who never failed to mention him as an influence. Through Bukowski, people found Fante, and slowly, late on in his life, recognition came his way, until now, where he is considered an important figure in 20th Century American literature.
But for all this, Fante is not for everyone. His work is rooted deep in the world he came from, and a harsh dog eat dog world it can sometimes seem. His protagonists often appear to be closely drawn on himself, and he never shies away from painting a less than flattering picture. For example, his alter-ego Arturo Bandini, the star of a number of his novels, is an arrogant self-centred man yet one you can’t walk away from, you’re having far to much fun observing him.
Now, the flawed hero is a familiar figure in literature, but one that in the hands of many writers comes across as an elaborate conceit, an extension of the author’s ego. Look at me, it seems to cry out, I can create a character, make him cross ethical and moral boundaries that would stop you in your tracks and yet I can still make you empathise with him. It’s a trick that can sometimes leave a sour taste in the mouth.
But with Fante it is different, he is not giving you characters with flaws, he is giving you flawed human beings. People taken from Fante’s own experiences as a poor second-generation Italian immigrant, a ‘dago’ that society looked down on. It would be easy to play this for sympathy, but Fante prefers the route of a more painful truth; that those who are having mud kicked in their face by people higher up the ladder sometimes turn round and do the same to those they consider below them.
The reality of the world portrayed in his work is not their only draw, as Fante was a master storyteller and one with a beautiful, clean, writing style.
I’m sure if you go though many of the classics on the ‘Big Read’ list you’ll find writers who are masters of prose; capable of curling language round every object in a room, every action taken, every emotion felt, until the whole scene seems to be laid out in front of you like a photograph. They are rightly lauded for their greatness. But there is another kind of greatness, writers who can describe a scene in 3 pages rather than 15 with no loss in clarity for the reader.
Fante does this with a seemingly effortless skill. You can read a scene and be left with a crystal clear image of what happened and yet you can’t understand how, as there seemed to be no prose, no description. So you go back, and re-read, and you see how beautifully economic scraps of information are dropped into the narrative; just enough to allow you to create the scene for yourself. Fante doesn’t need reams of prose to create an image in your mind, he does something far cleverer, he creates truthful situations that the readers own experiences can fill in; he has the genius of simplicity.
Now at this point I should probably recommend the best of his work to you, and if someone’s really interested I will. Far better though if you try and find one of his books in the library or a shop. If you can find one, and it may be a struggle, just open it up and read a few pages; his work is pretty consistent, so any few pages of any of his works should give you a flavour of his writing. If you don’t like it, no problem, there are plenty of other books for you, but if you do, then I’ve just cost you a fair bit of money, as you’ll end up buying everything of his you can find.
John Fante, my kind of writer.