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Ask the Dust


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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

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