A Sad Flower in the Sand:
John Fante’s Ask the Dust
Originally published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page
Published in 1939, Ask the Dust is the best-known work from John Fante’s quartet of novels featuring the character Arturo Bandini, a young, struggling Italian-American writer who served as Fante’s fictionalized literary and personal alter ego. In 1933, Fante wrote The Road to Los Angeles, a novel that wound up as the second chronological volume of the series, but it wasn’t published until 1985, during a resurgence in Fante’s popularity, and after several more years of trying to support himself by writing short stories, he dug into his childhood to write a prequel to The Road to Los Angeles called Wait Until Spring, Bandini, which in 1938 became his first published novel. Wait Until Spring, Bandini follows the travails of Svevo Bandini, a bricklayer trying to raise a family that includes the young Arturo. The novel was a very minor success, both commercially and artistically—it reads more like a pained reverie than like a work of serious literary art, but it afforded Fante the time and means to plan and construct the more popular and mature Ask the Dust, which he published the following year.
Finding the journeyman writer Arturo Bandini in Los Angeles (and passing over the intervening time covered in The Road to Los Angeles), Ask the Dust opens with what scores of subsequent novels and films have turned into a tired cliche: the unsuccessful, inexperienced, and uninspired young writer faced with eviction from his cheap hotel. He’s weeks behind in his rent, and he’s writing almost nothing because he has nothing to write about, and his sense of artistic worth hangs on having published just one short story in a magazine edited by J. C. Hackmuth, a fictionalized version of H. L. Mencken (who was the first editor to accept any of Fante’s stories for publication). Bandini spends his days wandering and loafing, and when he writes, it’s either letters to his mother in Colorado, telling of his successes, or letters to Hackmuth, telling of his failures.
Part of Arturo’s problem (he feels) is that he has no experience with women, and one night he meets a Mexican barmaid named Camilla, with whom he slowly embarks on a confusing and cruel courtship that serves as the novel’s substantive center. While their romance goes in malicious circles, however, Arturo meets Vera Rivkin, whose life and death become the inspiration for his first novel, which gets publishes near the end of Ask the Dust. Thus Fante avoids the cliche of having Arturo publish the very book we’re reading, and the disparity between Arturo’s often unsympathetic acts toward Camilla and his deeply empathic exploration of Vera in the novel he writes illustrates how the creation of art can draw out the truest and best aspects of humanity from within a deeply flawed creator. Despite the divergent dynamics in Arturo’s relationships with Camilla and Vera, his experiences with the two women contain mirrors that allow Arturo to see himself more clearly, and as he matures as an artist through Vera’s story, he also comes to mature as a human being in his relationship with and attitude toward Camilla.
This isn’t to say that things go well at all for Arturo and Camilla, because the complications of love, life, and death intervene to keep things from working out in any way but an artistic one. Near the beginning of the novel, Arturo refers to Los Angeles with a spirit of love and loss that serves as a parallel for his physical and emotional feelings for Camilla:
Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, with feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.
At the end of the novel Arturo throws a copy of his own novel into the desert in Camilla’s memory, his novel—like Camilla—a sad flower that both springs from and returns to the desert sands.
Screenwriter and director Robert Towne (author of the great L.A. film Chinatown and director of a breathtakingly bad film adaptation of Ask the Dust) once called Ask the Dust the greatest novel ever written about Los Angeles. Fans of more artistically and thematically ambitious novels such as Nathaniel West’s The Day of the Locust or Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 may disagree, but Ask the Dust certainly creates an indelible portrait of Depression-era L.A. in all its motley variety. Fante’s prose isn’t incredibly penetrating or vivid (although there are occasional weird flights of whimsy, or memorably phrased descriptions of existence, such as “I went to the restaurant where I always went to the restaurant”), and so this novel will have a much greater appeal to readers who care more about content than artistry. In fact, Charles Bukowski (who was largely responsible for bringing Fante’s work back into print) serves as a good (or bad) example of Fante’s artistic legacy. In his introduction to the 1979 reprint of Ask the Dust, Bukowski dismisses much of the writing he came across in his youth as mere “subtlety, craft and form” written by authors “playing word-tricks,” and he describes his discovery of Fante as a kind of revelation: “The lines rolled easily across the page, there was a flow. Each line had its own energy and was followed by another like it.”
Whether you regard this appraisal as philistine nonsense or not, it does account for some of Fante’s approach and appeal. But Bukowski is only partially correct in saying that the works of the writer whom he refers to as his god are “written of and from the gut and the heart.” Fante wrote this novel from a carefully planned outline and put much thought and craft—and deeply reflective self-criticism—into Ask the Dust, and the results are far removed from the macho swagger, self-aggrandizement, and first-draft bluster of his drunken disciple, who modeled his own literary alter ego, Henry Chinaski, after Arturo Bandini. Ask the Dust may not be the equal of the European Modernists of Fante’s time, but this sad flower from the sand of Los Angeles has a wholly singular beauty that’s well worth the trip west, regardless of whatever literary landscapes its spores propagated later.