Vulpes Libris

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Ask the Dust, by John Fante

Ask the Dust

Ask the Dust is the short, unsentimental and very funny story of a struggling writer – set in 1930s LA. The ‘plot’ is slight – tracing the shaky start to narrator Arturo Bandini’s literary career and his pursuit of Camillia – a Mexican waitress who is in turn, in love with another writer – the elusive Sam.

The novel has an interesting publishing history, falling into obscurity after a shaky start of its own – apparently its New York publisher (Stackpole Sons) blew the marketing budget on defending a law-suit brought by Hitler – who was a bit annoyed at them for publishing a pirated copy of Mein Kampf. So despite good reviews in the press, Ask the Dust sold badly and was out of print within the year. More than thirty years later Bukowski discovered an old, forgotten copy in a public library (did I not tell you I liked libraries? I did, didn’t I?) and worked to get it reprinted. Bukowski’s endorsement (“Fante was my God”) in the introduction to the subsequent 1980 reprint may have helped the novel’s cult following, but I didn’t read the introduction until after I’d read the book (can make up my own mind, thank you Charles) and I’d heard of Fante before I’d heard of Bukowski – so, at least for me, this novel stands on its own two feet.

I’ve implied the plot is slight – and it is – the narration circles on themes rather than events: on Bandini’s poverty, his struggles with religious guilt, writing and women, and it finally narrates his relationship with Camilla. She wants Sam – as hopelessly and obsessively as Bandini wants her. Bandini gets his novel published and Camilla takes too many drugs, goes bonkers and runs away. It isn’t a love story; the only real love affair is that between Bandini and himself, but we can’t blame him for that. He’s an easy creation to like because his flaws are so human and he is so self conscious of them: he never lets the ‘writer persona’ drop, refers to himself in the third person and believes he is a character in his own life story (which of course he is). Fante makes Bandini demonstrate a paralysing self awareness that does not translate into action and an ambition, which when fulfilled, is almost meaningless to him. Ask The Dust ends when Bandini throws a copy of his first novel into the empty dessert where Camilla has vanished.

I don’t think I’ve spoiled it for you by revealing the ending, because so much of the pleasure that comes from reading this novel comes from its characterisation and the intimate, honest, robust style of its narration. Perhaps the subject matter won’t appeal to anyone who isn’t interested in the process of writing itself. The humour is almost always located in the stereotypes that bloom when people wonder about what happens when hands hit typewriters – its circularity appeals to me: writing about a struggling writer, struggling to write, struggling to exist comfortably inside the straight-jacket of the ‘writer’ persona, struggling to find meaning in his success at writing – its curious autobiographical inwardness – like washing soap – is made all the more slippery by the fact that we never actually get a sample of Arturo’s work and only have his word on the dire quality of his love-rival’s stories – something our narrator cannot credibly be reliable about. It isn’t a trick – the irony is conscious, self-deprecating and genuinely funny – I like first person narrators, I like awkward, unreliable, fallible narrators, I like Bandini and I like Ask the Dust.

Canongate, 2002 (reissue), 208 pp., ISBN: 184195330X

25 comments on “Ask the Dust, by John Fante

  1. Leena
    October 28, 2007

    This sounds like a must read. Apparently Canongate has also released an omnibus edition titled The Bandini Quartet, in which Ask the Dust is included. Must add it to my wish list.

    I wonder if these books are at all similar to Updike’s Rabbit books? I haven’t read the latter either (yet) but I’ve always been fascinated by writers writing humorously about writers, for the reasons you mentioned.

  2. Jenn
    October 28, 2007

    I’ve never read any Rabbit books either – although they’ve been recommended to me by people who are never usually wrong… must add them to my ever growing pile of things to read. I think jobs should be like Uni, where you get a reading week twice a year. I would read, too, and not just drink. Well, I might drink AND read, but you get the gist.

  3. Eva
    October 28, 2007

    I have not read this book, but I have seen the film (with Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek). Since it is my first post here, I am not going to commend on the sex scenes -don’t want to give you a bad idea about me- but I must say that now I am much intrigued to read the novel, since the film totally focused on the love affair aspect and their realtionship in general. How they both know where each is coming from, having both dealt with racism and how (exactly for that same reason) they know what to say to hurt each other, before the acknowledge their love. The film does have a different ending but, surprise surprise a more pessimistic one.

  4. Jenn
    October 28, 2007

    Yes – the racism element was one that I didn’t mention in my review at all, but it is very present in the book. I think I’d like to watch the film – I didn’t feel that there was much of a love story at all – mainly because Bandini was so self-absorbed Camilla hardly existed for him. Dan Fante (John’s son, who also writes) was pleased with the film’s interpretation of the novel though, so perhaps it is just me. 🙂

  5. Ariadne
    October 28, 2007

    What a well-written review, nice one, Jenn. I usually don’t like books about self-absorbed writers (I prefer escapism :)) but perhaps I’ll give this a try.

  6. Jenn
    October 28, 2007

    Thank you Ariadne. I was a bit worried about my reviewing skills – it has been a while since I’ve had to give a written response to the books that I’ve read – but I’ve surprised myself by enjoying it a lot. It’s clarified a lot of my own thoughts about what I read – perhaps in reading, as with anything else, my thought process isn’t complete until I have hit the keyboard and articulated it. And I love books about self-absorbed writers, just a wee bit embarrased about it, that’s all. 🙂

  7. Ariadne
    October 28, 2007

    Yes, I agree with what you say about clarification, it’s a good exercise apart from anything else.

  8. marygm
    October 28, 2007

    Good review, Jenn, I especially like the conclusion. I would tend to avoid a book about a writer too unless it’s a memoir but maybe I should be more openminded.

  9. Jackie
    October 28, 2007

    This was well written, Jenn, you untangled the skeins of what sounds like a complex situation, plus gave us some background on the book itself. Never fear for your review style, it’s unique & self depreciating. And so far you’ve been showing us some really quirky books.

  10. Rob
    October 29, 2007

    If I remember rightly, there’s a great story about why John Fante thought this book wasn’t more successful on publication.

    The original publishers had also printed another book that year. It was a slightly radical text, translated from the German. Unfortunately, the publishers hadn’t obtained rights to publish it in America, and their legal fees used up any marketing budget that could have been used for Ask The Dust.

    The text that cause all the problems was called “Mein Kampf”, by Adolf something-or-other.

  11. Jackie
    October 29, 2007

    Um, Rob, Jenn tells us that in the second paragraph of her review.

  12. Rob
    October 29, 2007

    That’s bizarre! I must have skipped about five lines of the review when I read it. Well, that will teach me to read after midnight…

  13. Jenn
    October 29, 2007

    Hee hee – never mind – you independently corroborated my research, which is the main thing.

  14. Stewart
    November 4, 2007

    I read the first of the Bandini novels, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, a couple of years ago and loved it, which makes me wonder why I never got round to reading the next one, The Road To Los Angeles. Good to see that they can be read as standalone novels, since Ask The Dust was the third one.

    As for the Leena’s questions regarding the similarity to John Updike’s novels: no, I don’t think so. But then I’ve only read half of Rabbit, Run.

  15. Sam
    January 21, 2008

    Great review, Jenn.

    I’m about halfway through the book but, unfortunately, that’s about as far as I’m gunna go. I’m just bored by it. Reading it on the train today I kept on thinking: Mr Bandini, if you’re not going to do anything at least tell me something interesting about yourself, at least be interesting.

    I didn’t think the character was as nearly as intelligently troubled as he needed to be to make the novel compelling. He is, as you say, self-aware but he’s not self-questioning. He never once (in the ninety or so pages I read) seemed to question himself deeply, tortuously, in the way, say, Dostoevsky’s Roskolnikov is always doing. There was no inner fight. Fante seemed happy to let us see Bandini struggling with his situation, but I suppose I wanted to see him struggling a bit more with his soul.

    Leena, the Rabbit books are excellent, particularly the first and last.

  16. Sam
    January 21, 2008

    Okay. So. Italics?

  17. sequinonsea
    January 21, 2008

    Fixed it for you, Sam.

  18. Sam
    January 21, 2008

    Ta, star.

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  21. Django
    September 7, 2010

    I have to disagree with you Sam. I feel that Fante wrote this story without the intention of pulling off some intricate masterpiece which dives into self questioning. I feel, rather, that he simply captured the essence of what it is like to be in that state of mind. I like it because it’s just his train of thought. I read that book when i was 16 and related to it wildly. I will admit reading it now though, Bandini comes across quite immature.

  22. Ralph
    March 4, 2011

    In fact Fante always did quite well out of his writing. He had a big revival thanks to Bukowski who always cited him as a major influence. Fante was reprinted by Black Sparrow Press who also published the great B. Traven.

    Unfortunately Black Sparrow Press was too good for this wicked world, but always buy second hand copies of anything & everything they ever published if you are lucky enough to find any anywhere.

    Sam: For excitement in Fante, you had better read WAIT UNTIL SPRING BANDINI wherein Arturo gets off with the Secretary (though unfortunately the Boss then walks in on them). Otherwise he is a brilliant, understated writer, the voice of the mid 20th Century Italian American experience.

  23. Pedro
    November 8, 2011

    That is the lamest review I’ve ever read of that book. A “very funny story”? Are you on drugs or antidepressants? You close by some kind of mild praise: “I like first person narrators, I like awkward…”

    Somehow this website came up on the first page of an Internet search about “Ask the Dust” and frankly, I don’t give it any credence as a literary review source. Go back to milking cows, you’re probably better at that.

  24. Moira
    November 8, 2011

    Judging by the fact that you’ve obviously completely misinterpreted this review, I’m assuming that English isn’t your first language. It’s either that or someone nicked your teddy bear when you were a kid and you’ve been taking it out on the grown-ups ever since …

    But I LOVE the ‘go back to milking cows’ line … which is duly filed away for future use. Thank you! 🙂

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This entry was posted on October 28, 2007 by in Entries by Jenn, Fiction: literary and tagged , .



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