A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
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