“Los Angeles, give me some of you!” exclaimed Arturo Bandini, the self-proclaimed genius and all-time literary great. “Ask The Dust” is a paean to the perfidious, seedy underbelly of the city of angels, a journey through its poverty-stricken streets and bars, the flip side of the American dream. Fante’s prose was honest, direct and disarming. He wrote like a grittier Hemingway. One can draw a line from his 1939 novel to the oeuvre of Bukowski, who wrote a foreword to its reissue in 1980. “Thank God I had been born an American” mused Bandini, in one of his honest moments – and this despite recognising that “the illusion that this was paradise” was false.
“We don’t allow Mexicans at this hotel” said Mrs Hargraves. “Nor Jews” she followed up, an interesting comment in pre-Holocaust America. Many, such as Timothy Snyder in “On Tyranny”, have made the point that the United States was not immune to Nazism due to a lack of anti-Semitism. Far from it, and Bandini’s observations back this up. The key is to keep these forces in check and to minimise them. “Ask The Dust” contained frequent references to race: consider how Arturo callde Camilla his little Mexican peon before she retorted “I’m American”. Class played a bigger role in Bandini’s world, as racial minorities worked the low-paid jobs in Los Angeles.
Bandini is Fante. A misogynist, he physically accosted Camilla, ordering her around in an aggressive and threatening manner. Camilla was mentally unstable and required extra care and attention, yet Bandini was oblivious to this and was physically violent with her. Bandini used Camilla’s mental health as an excuse for his misogyny and was derisive of other women in the same way. He tried to be cool but came across as an asshole, albeit an honest one. He contemplated punching Camilla in another vile episode which resulted in Camilla being “forced to leave because I ordered her out”. Bandini’s emasculation when he did perform sexually for Camilla on the beach had shades of the husband being humiliated in Hemingway’s “The Short Happy Life Of Francis Macomber”. Both artists explored the theme of how men react violently after their masculinity is vitiated.
1930s LA was secular but religion remained a dominant theme in “Ask The Dust”. “You should have been a priest” Bandini scolded himself, clothed in generational guilt. He identified as an atheist yet society constantly reminded him of the moral virtues of religion. When Bandini pilfered the buttermilk, he blessed himself in an act of confession.
Consider the names of some of the characters: Hellfrick! A drunk who rarely paid his debts and whose very name represented a route that Bandini’s life could have taken – the life, indeed, that Bukowski subsequently chose. It is revealing that Bandini chose to visit Father Abbot for emotional support after believing he was a failure with women and as a writer. Bandini was emblematic of a society that wanted to be atheist but still reverted back to religion. After the earthquake, Bandini attended mass again, in another pointed nod to how theocracy was his moral seabed. “I was a Catholic. This was a mortal sin against Vera Rivken” Bandini reassured himself. Bandini indicated Fante’s struggle to sever ties with his religious past, comparable to a Graham Greene novel.
There was some excellent, angular prose in “Ask The Dust”. “A cold wind sideswiped us. The jalopy teetered. From below rose the roar of the sea. Far out fogbanks crept towards the land, an army of ghosts crawling on their bellies” said Arturo of Camilla and his late night road trip through Beverly Hills. Wrote Bandini of Hellfrick eating: “He sat before a plate of the food, his mouth bloated, his thin jaws working hard”.
Fante frequently referred to the pretentiousness of being an artist. Bandini labeled himself a “genius”, the next great writer, and frequently referred to himself in the third person. He interspersed these opinions whilst expressing his doubts about how genuinely talented he actually was, articulating the neurosis of the artist. He chronicled the role of the artist as observer in society: “the world was full of uproariously amusing people” chuckled Bandini to himself at the huaraches that Camilla wore as she worked in the bar. One cringed when Bandini made the fourteen-year-old Judy read his story aloud to him. There were several such moments in this vein, such as when Bandini mused on whether he caused the earthquake. It was affected and narcissistic, yet true to life.
Fante cleverly used the third person narrative to perfect the conceit: “something had happened to Arturo Bandini” he thought. This was a world that Fante/Bandini had created. They made it happen: “The world was dust, and dust it would become”. The style that Fante wrote with and the themes explored elevate “Ask The Dust” above that of ordinary bar-stool story.
I first read “Ask The Dust” in my early twenties and fell in love with the loose languid style and the earnestness of Fante’s effort, yet I was not as captivated the second time around. There were moments of brilliance and Fante’s honesty is admirable. However, writing about reality becomes tiresome: there are only so many times you can listen to Vera utter words to Bandini like: “You are nobody, and I might have been somebody, and the road to each of us is love”. Still, Fante’s place in the pantheon of gritty urban authors is safe.