Skip to content

John Fante: Ask the Dust

Upon hearing that I’d never read it, an interviewee with three Los Angeles years on me pressed his personal copy of Ask the Dust into my hands. I had felt some responsibility and curiosity about the book, since it occupies the unusual position of a 1930s Los Angeles novel that “everyone” is suddenly reading again. In fact, so many people suggested it for my alternative Los Angeles literature roundup that I immediately decided not to include it. But since I instinctively trust this the judgment of this particular interviewee, a novelist himself, I soon broke down and took in this story of Arturo Bandini, a fledgling Italian-American writer who pulls up stakes from Depression-era Colorado and drops himself, alone, into in Depression-era Los Angeles.

I often wonder whether a truly insightful Los Angeles book should avoid mentioning either the “car culture” or “the Industry,” those two highly visible black holes that suck many a portrayal of the city into mediocrity. Fante does well enough on these counts: the impoverished young literary Bandini lacks the means to buy an automobile until late in the story, and at no point does he look into screenwriting. He spends most of his time downtown, riding the Angels Flight funicular between his boarding house in the dense neighborhood of Bunker Hill to visit/hassle a Mexican waitress (his “Mayan Princess”) at an eatery very similar to Clifton’s Cafeteria. The year is 1933, the heyday of the Los Angeles and Pacific Electric railways, the latter of which Bandini takes down to Long Beach for an assignation with a middle-aged lush possessed of — I don’t quite know how else to describe it — a dead vagina.

That comes as only one of the novel’s several unsettling sequences. Afterward, Bandini wakes up alone and walks outside right into the Long Beach Earthquake of 1933. When I think of that particular disaster, I think of a certain photo someone uploaded to Wikipedia that, while capturing the aftermath of the quake in messy detail, does so in a way that makes the scene surrealistically desolate and dreamily horrifying. The most memorable parts of Ask the Dust share these qualities. I’m thinking specifically of one low point when Bandini’s emaciated, drink-enfeebled neighbor, claiming to know where they can get a free steak, drives them out to the sticks in the middle of the night, stops at a barn. He steals a calf to kill then and there and, theoretically, cook back at the boarding house.

In the book’s film adaptation — shot almost entirely, as you’d expect, in South Africa — Donald Sutherland plays this neighbor. I feel great fascination to see the choices he makes with this character, as any filmgoer would, but I do wonder if the cinematic medium can convey Bandini’s personality as well as does the book’s first-person narration. Fante has him oscillating between hyperinflated pride (artistic and otherwise), near-solipsistic self-pity, and hair-shirt Catholic guilt with almost mechanical regularity. Bandini’s relationship with Camilla, the aforementioned Mayan princess, introduces cycles of impotent aggression, ethnic sniping (“To me you’ll always be a sweet little peon. A flower girl from old Mexico.” “Look at your skin. You’re dark like Eyetalians”), and thwarted longing. He becomes the sort of protagonist a writer of any era would construct to air their anti-Los Angeles grievances: rootless, alienated, gauche, self-serving, striving yet strangely aimless — and, ultimately, hollowly successful.

I report with relief, then, that Ask the Dust doesn’t really have grievances to air. If Fante lambasts anything, he lambasts the transplants who delusionally project their own failings onto Los Angeles, condemning it as the very opposite of all the good and the pure left behind in their Edenic hometowns. “Nostalgically he talked of meat, of the good old steaks you got back in Kansas City, of the wonderful T-bones and tender lamb chops.” “He was homesick for the middle-west. He talked of rabbit-hunting, of fishing, of the good old days when he was a kid.” “He reveled in memories of Memphis, Tennessee, where the real people come from, where there were friends and friends.” Naturally, this requires a robust illusion — around a grain of truth though it may have formed — of having been shoved out west by the hand of fate.

Should you arrange your own Long Beach assignation, with a vagina dead or living, you can now take the train there just like Bandini does, although it’ll be the Metro Blue Line instead of the Pacific Electric Red Car. After its half-block move south in 1996 and its mechanical upgrade last year, you can ride Angels Flight to Bunker Hill. Bunker Hill itself, which you might know as the site of Frank Gehry’s Disney Concert Hall, took a hit from Los Angeles’ freeway-building and redevelopment projects of the fifties and sixties. These, among their other unforeseen consequences, turned Bunker Hill into a platform for skyscrapers by the-mid eighties. When those towers fell into unprofitability, 1999’s Adaptive Reuse Ordinance opened them up to mixed usage and dense (i.e., parking-light) habitation. We have glimpsed the future Los Angeles, it seems, and it looks like Arturo Bandini’s.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *