John Fante’s Ask the Dust

This year [2009] marks the 70th anniversary of the publication of Ask the Dust, by John Fante. Today it’s widely regarded as a classic of American literature; many have declared it the finest novel ever to emerge from Los Angeles. In addition to critical praise, the book has also found popular success, appearing on bestseller lists in both the US and Europe. In 2006 it was even made into a Hollywood film, starring Salma Hayek and Colin Farrell. But Fante’s masterpiece has not always enjoyed such prominence. In fact, its journey to its current status has been long and highly unusual.

The novel tells the story of Arturo Bandini, a young Italian-American from Boulder, Colorado who moves to LA to try and make it as a writer. Penniless but hopeful, Bandini soon finds himself locked in an intense battle with his insanely demanding muse as well as the City of Angels itself, which he sees as a maddening mix of smug wealth and heartbreaking poverty. Mirroring these themes and driving much of the novel’s action is Bandini’s wildly destructive relationship with Camilla Lopez, an unstable young Mexican waitress, whose beauty represents much of what Arturo craves, but whose ethnicity (in the context of 1930s America) forces him to confront his own ancestry and the pain that drives so much of his life.

At the time of Ask the Dust’s release in 1939, Fante appeared to be a writer on the rise. His first novel, Wait Until Spring, was well received; his short stories were appearing in prominent publications such as the American Mercury, and he had a long-distance mentor in HL Mencken, at that time one of America’s most influential men of letters. With all these things going for him, Fante was poised to take his place alongside Steinbeck as one of the era’s most important Californian writers when his incendiary sophomore novel hit the stands. However, Ask the Dust received mixed reviews, sold very poorly, and quickly fell out of print. And that’s how things stayed for the next four decades.

This failure drove Fante into a chequered career as a Hollywood screenwriter, and largely spelled the end of his career as a novelist. By the late 1970s, when Fante was nearing the end of life, he had been almost completely forgotten by the general public and most of the literary establishment as well. However, he had his admirers – and so did Ask the Dust. While writing the screenplay for Chinatown in the early 1970s, Robert Towne (who later directed and wrote the film of Ask the Dust) turned to Fante’s by then very obscure novel in search of a template for authentic 1930s-era dialogue. By the late 1970s LA poet-playwright-journalist Ben Pleasants had begun a series of interviews with a declining Fante and published an important overview of his life and work in the LA Times Book Review in 1979. However, it was Pleasants’s friend, the now famous poet and novelist Charles Bukowski, who played the most important role in bringing Fante and his great novel back into public view.

As a struggling young writer haunting the streets of Los Angeles, al la Arturo Bandini, Bukowski had stumbled upon a copy of Ask the Dust in the public library. Fante immediately became a huge influence on the younger man’s writing, to the point where Bukowski would later declare that “Fante was my god.” Much later Bukowski introduced Ask the Dust to his publisher, John Martin. Martin recognised the novel as a classic and Fante as a major writer, and soon republished it from his Black Sparrow Press where, over the next three-plus decades it would slowly gather a large, adoring audience, while reaping seemingly endless critical praise.

Several years ago, Martin sold Black Sparrow Press. At this point Ask the Dust (along with most of Fante’s oeuvre, which Black Sparrow also now published) found its way to Echo Press, an imprint of HarperCollins, where it has garnered an even larger audience. It’s amazing to think, though, that if a young Charles Bukowski had missed Ask the Dust during his time in the LA library, the book’s later success might never have come about: it likely would have stayed out of print and Fante would probably be remembered, if he was remembered at all, as another burned-out old screenwriter and failed novelist. Instead, he’s seen today as a powerful pre-Beat writer who wrote one of the most influential and important novels of the last, well, 70 years.

John Fante

Ask the Dust

BY ROGER EBERT / March 17, 2006

Who is harder to portray in a movie than a writer? The standard portrait is familiar: The shabby room, the typewriter, the bottle, the cigarettes, the crazy neighbors, the nickel cup of coffee, the smoldering sexuality of the woman who comes into his life. Robert Towne’s “Ask the Dust” is not the first film to evoke this vision of a writer’s life, and not the first to find that typing is not a cinematic activity. Just last week “Winter Passing” starred Ed Harris in a version of the same kind of character at the other end of his career.

Still, in its wider focus, “Ask the Dust” finds a kind of poetry, because although we may not find it noble and romantic to sit alone in a room, broke and hung over and dreaming of glory, a writer can, and must. The film stars Colin Farrell as Arturo Bandini, who lives in a Los Angeles rooming house during the Depression. He has sold one story to the American Mercury, edited by H. L. Mencken, the god of American letters, and now he tries to write more: “The greatest man in America — do you want to let him down?”

Arturo has one nickel, with which he buys a cup of coffee in a diner where Camilla (Salma Hayek) is the waitress. Something happens between them, but it is expressed curiously. One day she gives him a free beer, which he pours into a spittoon. She takes the magazine with his story, tears it up, and throws it into the same spittoon. Why this hostility, which is meant to mask lust but seems gratuitous?

The answer may be in the source of the material. Ask the Dust is a novel by John Fante, a writer of the generation just before Charles Bukowski, who saw to it that the book was reissued by his publisher, the Black Sparrow Press. It shares Bukowski’s view of women who are attracted to a courtship consisting largely of hostility. In “Ask the Dust,” there is the additional element of racism; Camilla is wounded, as she should be, by prejudice against Mexicans in the city, and Bandini is uneasy about his Italian heritage. When they go to the movies together, Anglos pointedly move away from them, but the movie evokes racism without really engaging it, and the crucial scenes in their romance take place in a cottage on a deserted Laguna Beach, where they create a world of their own. There is also the mysterious Jewish woman Vera (Idina Menzel), who comes into his life, makes a sudden and deep impression, reveals to him her scarred body, and then departs from the plot in a particularly Los Angeles sort of way.

What the movie is about, above all, is the bittersweet solitude of the would-be great writer. Whether Arturo will become the next Hemingway (or Fante, or Bukowski) is uncertain, but Farrell shows him as a young man capable of playing the role should he win it. He could also possibly live a long and happy life with Camilla, but stories like this exist in the short run, and are about problems, not solutions.

I did not feel a strong chemistry between Farrell and Hayek, but I have started to write the word “chemistry” with growing doubts. What is it, anyway? William Hurt and Kathleen Turner had it in “Body Heat,” and Nicolas Cage and Cher in “Moonstruck,” but “Ask the Dust” does not provide a setting for great dramatic towering lust and love: It is about poverty, fatigue, lives that are young but already old in discouragement. Perhaps what we are meant to feel between Arturo and Camilla is not chemistry but geometry: They could fit well together, and provide each other’s missing angles.

I enjoyed and admired the film without being grabbed or shaken by it. Where can such a story lead? I have been lucky enough to know a great writer in his shabby apartment, with his typewriter, his bottle and his cigarettes, and I know he had a famous romance, and that later he hated the woman, and having achieved all possible success was perhaps not as happy as when it was still before him.

What immediately impressed me about “Ask the Dust” was its evocation of time and place. The cinematographer Caleb Deschanel creates Depression-era Los Angeles with the same love the 2005 “King Kong” lavished on New York at the same period, and although one is a smaller film about a writer and the other is an epic about an ape, the cityscapes are so evocative they take on a character of their own. In the case of “King Kong,” much of the city was special effects; in “Ask the Dust” there are some effects but Deschanel in large part is working with reality.

Towne filmed on location in Cape Town, a city I lived in for a year, and I agree with him that it can double for prewar Los Angeles. Just keep Table Mountain out of the shot, and you have storefront cafes, rooming houses built on hillsides with the front door on the top floor, palm trees, and a feeling in some neighborhoods of strangers who don’t know what brought them together or why they wait. Such a person is Hellfrick (Donald Sutherland), Arturo’s wise, weary neighbor, who shuffles onstage to provide the ghost of Arturo’s possible future.

“Ask the Dust” requires an audience with a special love for film noir, with a feeling for the loneliness and misery of the writer, and with an understanding that any woman he meets will be beautiful. Such stories are never about understanding landladies. I am not sure the film achieves great things, but it achieves its smaller things perfectly.


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