Ask the Dust is the third of four books in a series known as ‘The Bandini Quartet’, written by John Fante in 1939. Set in Los Angeles during the Great Depression, we’re introduced to our main protagonist – Arturo Bandini.
New to LA, Arturo’s only goal is to become a famous writer.
Despite being written as part of a series, Ask the Dust is also enjoyed as a stand-alone book, as there are no lingering references to the earlier episodes.
Now considered a classic of American Literature and, in addition to its critical acclaim, Ask the Dust is a bestseller throughout the US and Europe. But what is it that makes this book so well received in our modern-era compared to its first release, back in 1939? Why have the originally poor reviews and understandings of this book transpired into much more colourful praise?
Well, the simple answer to this question is… Charles Bukowski.
Bukowski claims to have picked the book up at his local LA library and having read it, he became inspired later in life when he did finally decide to write..
In 1970 Black Sparrow Press reprinted Ask the Dust, along with a foreword written by the ever increasingly popular, Charles Bukowski.
One day I pulled a book down and opened it, and there it was. I stood for a moment, reading. Then like a man who had found gold in the city dump, I carried the book to a table. The lines rolled easily across the page, there was a flow. Each line had its own energy and was followed by another like it. The very substance of each line gave the page a form, a feeling of something carved into it. And here, at last, was a man not afraid of emotion. The humour and the pain were intermixed with a superb simplicity. The beginning of that book was a wild and enormous miracle to me.Charles Bukowski
Additionally, in Bukowski’s 1978 book Women, his protagonist claims that John Fante is his favourite author. How’s that for subtlety?
It’s worth noting that Bukowski’s foreword to Ask the Dust is overwhelmingly positive, as you can tell from the excerpt above, but I couldn’t help but feel on the first time of reading that I might be in for a shock; as the content may not live up to the hype.
I’m glad to say that I was wrong.
Throughout almost the entirety of the novel, Arturo Bandini is incredibly egocentric; to the point that he believes he is the greatest living writer.
In the closing section of the book, our protagonist becomes aware of his own inflated self-worth, and in doing so it brings him back down to Earth with a thud.
It’s clear to see Fante’s own understandings of what it means to be a writer, and how it never really changes who you are.
Let’s take a look at the parallels throughout the book; Bandini works relentlessly on achieving his goal of becoming a published author. It’s through this struggle that he learns no matter how much success one has, it won’t change who you are on the inside. I know deep right? For this reason, it’s that internal fight of wanting it all but not having the means to do so. Bandini wants so desperately to become the great writer that he proclaims he is, yet he also falls for Camilla in a way that also fills his life.
These circumstances repeatedly conflict with each other, demanding more of Bandini’s time, until eventually one of them breaks – in this case, Camilla, as she disappears.
One of the key themes of the book is existentialism; philosophy – finding the meaning of life through free will, choice, and personal concern.
Sartre believed that as human beings we live in a state of anguish, not because life itself is miserable, but because we’re ‘condemned to be free’. Our birth and for the most part, our upbringing, are out of our control, but becoming self-aware we begin to make choices. It’s in these choices that we define our essence. Here he concludes that our ‘existence precedes essence’. Only through acting in certain ways that we give meaning to our lives.
She lay back, laced her fingers under her head, and spoke dreamily to the ceiling: ‘You will love me tonight, you fool of a writer; yes, tonight you will love me.’John Fante, Chapter Eleven
I said, ‘Say, what is this, anyway?’
‘Does it matter? You are nobody, and I might have been somebody, and the road to each of us is love.’
In this passage Camilla is the one noting Bandini’s existence as a writer but that it doesn’t matter because the only way for them to find each other, is through the passage of love. Or at least in this instance – lovemaking.
Bandini is often aware of his own desires, to write, to love and to achieve; as well as his own shortcomings and weaknesses. Despite being in such a poor state, both physically and mentally, Arturo still understands that it is his own doing that has caused such and it’s up to him to change that.
Never does he blame others for his position.
Relationship with Camilla
In addition, he treats Camilla in such a poor manner yet continues to pursue her. This is because she is all that he has. We’re not introduced to any of his friends, for which we can only assume don’t exist, and rarely his acquaintances
‘Why are you so mean?’ she said.John Fante, Chapter Fourteen
‘Mean?’ I said. ‘My dear girl. I am equally fond of man and beast alike. There is not the slightest drop of enmity in my system. After all, you can’t be mean and still be a great writer.’
Her eyes mocked me. ‘Are you a great writer?’
‘That’s something you’ll never know.’
Arturo is much more comfortable fantasizing about Camilla as his ‘Mayan Princess’ than he is with spending quality time with her. It’s because of this separation in the two that Camilla begins to spend more time with Sammy, the bartender.
Later we learn that Sammy himself is a writer of sorts, penning Westerns in his isolated shack as he begins to waste away from TB.
To inspire thoughts of romance within the reader is the beginning signs of a great book as long as the prose is wonderfully majestic, painting an excellent scene of 1930’s Downtown Los Angeles; with its ‘dive bars, cheap restaurants, and Filipino Dance Halls’. All of these characteristics help to bring the environment to life. Suddenly the world around Arturo feels both real and lived in.
I wouldn’t call this book an outright tragedy in the way I would Macbeth or Romeo and Juliet, mainly due to its somewhat contrasting light-hearted fun. Most of this fun though seems to be pointed at Arturo himself, which helps to take any tension away from the reader and ease any awkward or uncomfortable moments, such as the racial slurs, or the ill-judged decisions made on his part.
Due to the success of Ask the Dust, John Fante will be remembered as one of the true American Greats, which in my opinion, he deserves. But to think, if a young Charles Bukowski had never picked up this book then it may never have been reprinted and would likely have been lost forever.
I’ve not watched the film adaptation of this book because I enjoy reading and rereading this book over. Watching Colin Farrell may ruin my own interpretations of Arturo Bandini – ‘The Greatest Living Writer’.
Did you enjoy reading Ask the Dust? Which parts of Arturo’s character interests you the most? Leave your comments below to join in the conversation.