Ask the Dust

by John Fante


I am in awe of Fante’s writing.  Cormac McCarthy and Paul Bowles are the only other writers who have given me anything close to that feeling, that each sentence possesses it’s own little piece of magnificence.  Fante is hypnotic in the best sense of the word: each of his electric sentences builds upon the previous to create this accelerating rhythm that wraps you up and propels you further and deeper into the story.  When I had to put it down, I found that it would take me a page or two to get back into it and really start vibing on the prose again, so that I was almost disappointed to have to put it down, because who knows how much excellent writing I would miss in those 1-2 “warm-up” pages?

The story is rather secondary and would be nothing more than a generic unrequited love triangle except that a) Fante’s character development and dialogue are utterly brilliant and b) it’s autobiographical.  As it is, even a fairly mundane story was absolutely joyous to read, and it was all the more amazing because I identified so strongly with Bandini; not that I think I’m all that similar to him, but I can recognize the parts in me that tend toward the sensitive artist (indeed I think any artist-type could recognize parts of themselves in Fante’s characterization), and the way that Fante draws out those descriptions are completely original and revelatory.  Are some of the metaphors a little forced and do they happen a little too frequently?  Sure, but the great bulk of the prose is absolutely pristine, making these small mistakes pretty much negligible.

In fact, I take exception to the many reviews who call Bandini “unlikable” or “corrupt” or “immoral,” simply because he very clearly wants to do the right thing but his childish nature keeps tripping him up.  He is flawed, but he is trying.  One of the main things I love about the book is how much Fante got me to sympathize with this “unlikable” cat, how all of his asshole actions stem directly from his own insecurities and immaturity.  I think you have to be particularly hard-hearted or apathetic not to appreciate that.

Reading it was actually simultaneously joyous and depressing: the former because of the beauty of the prose but the latter because it makes me realize that I will never, ever be talented enough to produce something so magical.

I can understand why Fante was a “god” for Bukowski.  In fact I think Fante is probably the epitome of a “writer’s writer.”  Any writer or aspiring writer needs to read him, just as I intend to read the rest of his ouevre, all the while lamenting that it took me so long to even learn of him.  Honestly, the fact that I had never even heard of him before last week, when a literary friend of mine gave me the book, makes me feel like sort of an idiot.  On the other hand, I feel a profound gratitude (and sort of a self-satisfaction) that I am even able at all to appreciate his fine writing.  That means I’m at least partially aware of what good writing looks like.  That must mean that I’m on the right track with my own writing.  Or if not on the right track, perhaps in the right ballpark?  Maybe?  Please?

Anyway, here are some of my favorite passages.  I ended up marking about 30 of them in a 160 page novel (trying to be discerning), so that means you can pretty much open the book to every 3rd or 4th page and find a shining sample of pure literary gold.  In fact, here’s what my list of “pages of interest” looks like, just to give you an idea (and the dearth of early pages is mostly because I hadn’t fully decided to document my favorite parts until about 30 pages in): 12-13, 26-27, 43, 47, 59, 64, 68, 76, 86-87, 91-92, 96-97, 99, 106, 111, 115, 120, 130-131, 142-144, 147, 152. . . and I was trying to be discerning.  Here are some of my favorites:

But the landlady, the white-haired landlady kept writing those notes: she was from Bridgeport, Connecticut, her husband had died and she was all alone in the world and she didn’t trust anybody, she couldn’t afford to, she told me so, and she told me I’d have to pay.  It was mounting like the national debt, I’d have to pay or leave, every cent of it — five weeks overdue, twenty dollars, and if I didn’t she’d hold my trunks; only I didn’t have any trunks, I only had a suitcase and it was cardboard without even a strap, because the strap was around my belly holding up my pants, and that wasn’t much of a job, because there wasn’t much left of my pants.

“I just got a letter from my agent,” I told her. “My agent in New York. He says I sold another one; he doesn’t say where, but he says he’s got one sold. So don’t worry Mrs. Hargraves, don’t you fret, I’ll have it in a day or so.”

But she couldn’t believe a liar like me. It wasn’t really a lie; it was a wish, not a lie, and maybe it wasn’t even a wish, maybe it was a fact, and the only way to find out was watch the mailman, watch him closely, check his mail as he laid it on the desk in the lobby, ask him point blank if he had anything for Bandini. But I didn’t have to ask after six months at that hotel. He saw me coming and always nodded yes or no before I asked: no, three million times; yes, once. 12-13

My plight drove me to the typewriter. I sat before it, overwhelmed with grief for Arturo Bandini. Sometimes an idea floated harmlessly through the room. It was like a small white bird. It meant no ill-will. It only wanted to help me, dear little bird. But I would strike at it, hammer it out across the keyboard, and it would die on my hands. 27

After a while I pushed back my chair and got up to leave. Standing at the bar, she watched me go. There was pity for me upon her face, a tiny smile of regret for what she had done, but I kept my eyes away from her and walked into the street, glad for the hideous din of street cars and the queer noises of the city pounding my ears and burying me in an avalanche of banging and screeching. I put my hands in my pockets and slumped away. 43

I have seen them stagger out of their movie palaces and blink their empty eyes in the face of reality once more, and stagger home, to read the Times, to find out what’s going on in the world. I have vomited at their newspapers, read their literature, observed their customs, eaten their food, desired their women, gaped at their art. But I am poor, and my name ends with a soft vowel, and they hate me and my father, and my father’s father, and they would have my blood and put me down, but they are old now, dying in the sun and in the hot dust of the road, and I am young and full of hope and love for my country and my times, and when I say Greaser to you it is not my heart that speaks, but the quivering of an old wound, and I am ashamed of the terrible thing I have done. 47

I sat at her side, slouched down, trying to enjoy a cigaret that burned too hotly in the rush of the wind. 64

This is something that most people who’ve smoked have experienced, yet you never really think about it, but then you read it in this sentence and you’re like, “Wow, that is a completely genuine moment.”  Brilliant.

Sick in my soul I tried to face the ordeal of seeking forgiveness.  From whom?  What God, what Christ?  They were myths I once believed, and now they were beliefs I felt were myths.  This is the sea, and this is Arturo, and the sea is real, and Arturo believes it real.  Then I turn from the sea, and everywhere I look there is land; I walk on and on, and still the land goes stretching away to the horizons.  A year, five years, ten year,s and I have not seen the sea.  I say unto myself, but what has happened to the sea?  And I answer, the sea is back there, back in the reservoir of memory.  The sea is a myth.  There never was a sea.  But there was a sea!  I tell you I was born on the seashore!  I bathed in the waters of the sea!  It gave me food and it gave me peace, and its fascinating distances fed my dreams!  No, Arturo, there never was a sea.  You dream and you wish, but you go on through the wasteland.  You will never see the sea again.  It was a myth you once believed.  But, I have to smile, for the salt of the sea is in my blood, and there may be ten thousand roads over the land, but they shall never confuse me, for my heart’s blood will ever return to its beautiful source. 96-7

Around the bonfire people were singing hymns. . . I walked over. The woman in the circle swung her arms with wild fervor, and the song tumbled with the smoke toward the sky. 99

I thought of throwing her out, saying to her: if you’ve come here to talk about that guy, you can get the hell out because I’m not interested. I thought that would be delightful: order her out, she so wonderfully beautiful in her own way, and forced to leave because I ordered her out. 115

“You gotta eat,” I said, because her face was only a skull with yellow skin stretched tightly over it. I sat on the bed and held her fingers, conscious of bones, surprised that they were such small bones, she who had been so straight and round and tall. “You’re hungry,” I said. But she didn’t want food. “Eat anyway,” I said. 147


Original Review


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