I really enjoyed this. For those saying it's very similar to Bukowski, yes it is. But I'd actually say Fante demonstrates a significantly higher standard of writing when it comes to the bleak day-to-day minutiae of the dusty streets of L.A.
The book follows Arturo Bandini (Fante's alter ego) as he tries to make his name as a writer. He rents a hotel room and wanders the streets before meeting the beautiful Camilla Lopez. He pursues a relationship with her which is more fantasy than reality and the two of them always seem to fight and miscommunicate their feelings. Bandini is not really in love, he's merely in love with the idea of love (it might give him something to write about). Whereas Camilla is actually in love with someone else entirely, a man named Sammy who has no interest in her. Watching Fante explore these two idiots who love the wrong people is fun; their youthful ineptitude has made them incapable of connecting to people in any meaningful way and these relationships rather beautifully capture the nervous energy of youth and its tendency to be pointed in the wrong directions. My only real criticism is the fact that Camilla ends up in a mental asylum. Every writer seems to have a (usually female) character who ends up in the loony bin at some point. But I suppose for a book written in 1939 it was considered progressive to explore anything relating to mental health.
I'm reliably informed that this book was third in a quartet of books that follow the Bandini character but I doubt I'll be seeking the others out. This one stands on its own merits and doesn't require any further insight. As much as I enjoyed it, the book wasn't anything spectacular in terms of writing or worldview. But it's a very enjoyable to read and was right up my street.
If the story of a struggling writer reminds any of you of Knut Hamsun's 'Hunger' that shouldn't be too surprising since Fante was a big fan of that book and the title itself (Ask the Dust) is actually a quote from a Hamsun novel called 'Pan.'
"The other one he loved like a slave, like a crazed and like a beggar. Why? Ask the dust on the road and the falling leaves, ask the mysterious God of life; for no one knows such things."
I certainly noticed the similarities between the two and while the excellent Hunger is a far superior work, this is an excellent addition to the whole 'poor writer wanders the streets seeking meaning' canon. I suspect, much like Bukowski, that Fante's work is a one-trick pony of following his alter ego. As tricks go, however, it's very entertaining.
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.