Ask the Dust 
by John Fante.
Rebel Inc, 198 pp., £6.99, September 1999, 0 86241 987 5
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Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante 
by Stephen Cooper.
Rebel Inc, 406 pp., £16.99, May 2000, 9781841950228
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Between 1938 and 1940, the Italian-American writer John Fante published three books. The first two – Wait until Spring, Bandini (1938) and Ask the Dust (1939) – were novels; the third, Dago Red (1940), was a collection of short stories. All three were well received. Ask the Dust disconcerted some of its reviewers, but Bandini was admired by James Farrell and Steinbeck praised Dago Red. Italian and Norwegian translations were commissioned, Bandini was published in London, and Hollywood optioned both novels. Then, for various reasons, nothing happened. Distracted by a lawsuit brought against them by the German Government for an unauthorised publication of Mein Kampf, his publishers were unable to promote his work. After drinking and gambling away the money he had earned from his books, he took to the Hollywood treadmill as a screenwriter and scenarist. As a serious writer, he was effectively forgotten for almost forty years.

Fante did not publish another novel until 1952, by which time he had returned to the Church. Full of Life, a story about parenthood and religious reawakening, sold well and was made into a sentimental movie starring Judy Holliday and Richard Conte. Backed by a reasonably lavish promotional campaign (‘In a CHANGING world, this motion picture is joyously dedicated to the heartwarming fact that BABIES still come in the same old, wonderfully old-fashioned way!’), the film was profitable and earned Fante a Writers Guild nomination for Best Written American Comedy of 1956. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this did not revive his literary reputation.

Fante’s early novels began to be rediscovered in the 1970s. While researching his screenplay for Chinatown, Robert Towne came across Ask the Dust and took up Fante’s cause. He optioned the novel and persuaded Francis Ford Coppola to do the same for the book Fante was then working on, The Brotherhood of the Grape (1977). In 1978, the poet Charles Bukowski mentioned his debt to Fante in his novel Women; Bukowski’s publisher, John Martin of the Black Sparrow Press, set about reprinting Fante’s books. Bukowski, who had been devoted to both books ‘like a man who had found gold in the city dump’ since discovering them by chance in the early 1950s, contributed an autobiographical preface to Ask the Dust.

Fante’s satisfaction in all this was offset by the fact that, due to diabetic complications exacerbated by his heavy drinking, he was by now both blind and well on the way to losing both his legs. He did, however, manage to dictate a last novel – Dreams from Bunker Hill (1982) – before his death in 1983. Since then, Black Sparrow has continued to print and reprint his writings, including novels and short stories unpublished in his lifetime. Two volumes of his letters had appeared by 1991, and the publication of Stephen Cooper’s biography more or less completes the picture, at least for the time being. Much of the credit for this must go to Fante’s indefatigable widow, whose stewardship of his reputation has played a very large part in the continuing campaign for his induction into the American canon.

Given the devotion his novels inspired in their occasional readers during Fante’s long period in the wilderness, it’s hardly surprising that large claims have been made for his work. Fante has been compared to Dostoevsky, Knut Hamsun, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe, Steinbeck, James Farrell, William Saroyan and Nathanael West. In 1977, a Washington Post reviewer compared The Brotherhood of the Grape to The Brothers Karamazov and King Lear. Hyperbole aside, both Fante’s early novels are excellent – especially Ask the Dust, which does indeed make good on at least some of the comparisons listed above.

The narrator is Arturo Bandini, a young man from a poor Italian family who has moved to Los Angeles to become a writer. He had previously been seen as a boy in Wait until Spring, Bandini; he had also been the protagonist of the then unpublished The Road to Los Angeles, and was later to appear again in Dreams from Bunker Hill as a washed up Hollywood screenwriter. At the start of Ask the Dust he has only published one short story in a magazine edited by the great J.C. Hackmuth, to whom he addresses long and rambling letters whenever he cannot write, which is often. When money arrives, he squanders it. In his seedy hotel room in Bunker Hill, Bandini lives mainly on oranges and infrequent cheques from his mother in Colorado. His room was inhabited by a mouse, Pedro, which Bandini, ‘lover of man and beast alike’, fed on bread and cheese. But he is already so broke in the opening stages of the novel that Pedro has deserted him. Unable to write another story, he composes further letters to Hackmuth on the subject of women and his feeling that he is a great writer.

The heart of the novel deals with Bandini’s romance with a Mexican waitress called Camilla Lopez. He meets her by chance in the bar where she works, and their first conversation sets the tenor of their subsequent relationship. Unreasonably, Bandini has just been abusing her shoes:

‘I hate you,’ she said.

I felt her hatred. I could smell it, even hear it coming out of her, but I sneered again. ‘I hope so,’ I said. ‘Because there must be something pretty fine about a guy who rates your hatred.’

Then she said a strange thing; I remember it clearly. ‘I hope you die of heart failure,’ she said. ‘Right there in that chair.’

For the rest of the novel, Bandini pursues Camilla. She scorns and mocks him when he is decent to her and then becomes friendly, even affectionate after he has retaliated in kind. Bandini, who is still a virgin, becomes impotent whenever she offers to sleep with him; this makes Camilla mock him even more. Eventually, he manages to seduce – or allows himself to be seduced by – a mysteriously scarred Jewish woman, Vera Rivken, at her Long Beach apartment. He achieves this by pretending – with her co-operation – that she is Camilla. Afterwards, Bandini wakes up and goes for a walk on the beach. Just as he is experiencing an intense epiphany, an earthquake strikes. Most of the area is laid waste, and Bandini returns to Bunker Hill not knowing or caring if Vera survived.

Camilla becomes more unstable; Bandini is forced to go to comically elaborate lengths to avoid catching her smoking marijuana in his closet. After her eventual breakdown, Bandini – by now on the verge of publishing a novel – tries ineffectually to help her. But she refuses to be helped and eventually disappears for good into the desert. The novel ends with Bandini throwing a copy of his newly published book into the desert sands and driving back to LA.

Ask the Dust is often praised now as the great Los Angeles novel, but its interest is more than parochial. With its apocalyptic visions, its grotesque minor characters – like the Marxist with ‘a wooden leg with a little door in it’, in which he keeps ‘marijuana cigarettes’ – and its descriptions of the bitter, betrayed crowds of new arrivals in California, Fante’s novel bears an astonishing resemblance to Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. Fante was vaguely acquainted with West and the two books were written at roughly the same time, but there seems to be no question of direct influence; Cooper reports that Fante finished his book just before The Day of the Locust was published. Ask the Dust also makes almost no mention of Hollywood, and its literary sources are very different. Much of its plot is taken from Knut Hamsun’s novel Pan, to which Fante was introduced by his sometime agent Elizabeth Nowell in 1936. The title comes from a passage in which Hamsun’s narrator compresses the story of his doomed love affairs into a fable about a ‘lord’ who loves two women – a compliant ‘maid’ and ‘another’:

This other he loved as a slave, as a mad man and as a beggar. Why? Ask the dust of the road and the leaves that fall, ask the mysterious God of Life; for none other know these things. She gave him nothing … and yet he thanked her. She said: ‘Give me your peace and your reason.’ And he grieved only that she did not ask his life.

In Fante’s novel, however, the contrast between the two women is slightly blurred. Vera is more wilful and uncanny than her counterpart in Pan, a much younger girl called Eva; and Eva’s child-of-nature innocence is transferred in turn to Camilla, who is much more sympathetic and vulnerable than the Hamsun character to whom she corresponds. In effect, Fante combines the torments which Hamsun’s lovers perversely inflict on one another with the theme of a couple tragically divided by race and class – a theme which appears again and again in Fante’s writing, but rarely with the success of Ask the Dust.

As a starving writer who asks difficult questions and lives an intense inward life, however, Bandini strongly resembles the hero of Hamsun’s other great novel, Hunger. But unlike Hamsun’s anonymous narrator, Bandini has a name, which he reiterates constantly: ‘Arturo Bandini, famous writer’; ‘bold and brazen Bandini’; ‘Bandini, author of The Little Dog Laughed’. This is partly Fante’s ironic distancing of himself from his alter ego; in the earlier novel, The Road to Los Angeles, unpublished in Fante’s lifetime, Bandini spends even more time adorning his name with grotesquely comic epithets like ‘Dictator Bandini, Ironman of Crabland’. Using what Elizabeth Nowell called Fante’s ‘psychological perpetual motion scheme’, Bandini moves backwards and forwards from praising himself in the third person to excoriating himself in the second; and this gives the book much of its vitality, humour and vernacular charm. But it is also – along with Bandini’s repetition of his own name – a symptom of his alienation from himself and his uncertainty about his own identity.

This uncertainty takes many forms. Bandini patronises Camilla as a ‘sweet little peon’, abuses her as a ‘filthy little Greaser’, and calls her ‘a cheap imitation of an American’; but he acknowledges that he is projecting his own ambivalence about his Italian heritage onto her. He tries to reject the religion of his youth, but realises that he cannot escape it. He wants to be a great seducer – ‘Arturo Bandini, suave fellow, sophisticated; you should hear him on the subject of women’ – but is in fact timid, suffers from Catholic guilt about sex and is sensitive to accusations that he is ‘queer’. When he buys a smart suit, he sees in the mirror a ‘hog-tied strangling buffoon’. And, much as his plan to become a great writer gives him pleasure, it is also an irritant; even when he thinks he is drowning, he finds himself ‘worrying about excessive adjectives’. In a phrase which is repeated to the point of becoming a refrain, Bandini is ‘neither fish, fowl nor good red herring’.

In the end, Bandini decides that in her lack of self-consciousness Camilla is more authentic, ‘deeper rooted’ than himself. But this makes her unsuited to life in Los Angeles, a city of dust and fog which he thinks of as a ‘sad flower in the sand’, grown up and maintained artificially in the desert. At the book’s turning-point, he sits by the sea and explicitly discusses it as a symbol of old certainties and religious faith. But he does not return to the Church just yet; instead, the novel ends at the moment when the bustling vanity of his self-creation has momentarily ceased, and he has even stopped taking pleasure in his success as a writer. Bandini teeters somewhere between the sacred and the secular; his alienation is both social and existential. In a similar way, Fante’s whole writing project at this period foundered on the contradiction between the preoccupation with subjectivity and inward experience which he had learned from Hamsun and his attempts to imitate the sweeping social narratives of his 1930s, Depression-era contemporaries.

As Stephen Cooper’s biography makes clear, this was not the only contradiction in which Fante was embroiled. Cooper’s Fante is a very difficult character to pin down: interested in poverty but not in politics; inward, but seemingly unable to act on his self-knowledge; a cynical, pragmatic and tough-minded realist with a tendency towards sentimentality; a romantic with a very cruel streak. Cooper’s book is scattered with sentences like ‘In vino veritas, quoth the Romans, who knew the truth serum that was wine’; it also tends to reduce historical background to cliché (‘in early 1938 insecurities were spiking as power-hungry madmen stoked the fires of global war fever’). But his research cannot be faulted; he has had the run of Fante’s papers and, despite the admiration and affection for his subject that sometimes leads him to cheer him on from the sidelines (‘Fante had done it again’), he rarely sets out to mitigate the writer’s many faults.

Fante was born in 1909 in Denver, Colorado, and spent his childhood in borderline poverty, made worse by his overbearing father’s drinking and gambling. At high school he was more interested in sport than in writing; he developed an interest in literature when he discovered the work of H.L. Mencken after dropping out of the University of Colorado. He read Nietzsche and Voltaire, declared himself an atheist, and immersed himself in Menckenism. He also started writing to Mencken, sending him stories and asking him for advice; in 1932, Mencken accepted Fante’s short story ‘Altar Boy’ and published it in the August issue of the American Mercury. Although their slightly one-sided correspondence became more infrequent over the years, Fante kept it up until Mencken’s death in 1956. Like Bandini writing to the editor Hackmuth, he wrote long, ranting, sometimes hilarious letters; Mencken’s brief replies were encouraging and polite.

Fante had moved to California around 1930. He supported himself – and, for some time, his family – through a variety of menial jobs. The most notable was in a canning factory. He wrote a story, unpublished at the time, baldly entitled ‘Fish Cannery’ and his early novel The Road to Los Angeles contains extensive cannery scenes, including one in which Bandini threatens a tuna carcass with a knife and orders it to spell the word ‘Weltanschauung’ (‘Go on – spell it!’). In 1955, Fante wrote a film treatment called ‘The Miracle of the Fishes’, a melodrama of the tuna fishing industry which ended with the cannery owner joining workers and fishermen in a chorus of the hymn ‘Holy God, We Praise Thy Name’; and as late as 1963 he was writing a television script entitled ‘Captain Al Sanchez’ which Cooper summarises as ‘the story of a dreamy cannery worker who pretends to be a rich tuna boat captain in order to impress a poor Mexican girl’. Fante had trouble getting off the ground as a novelist. The Road to Los Angeles was rejected and he fought frequently with his editors and agents; Elizabeth Nowell, who introduced him to Hamsun’s novels, decided to stop representing him after less than a year because of his mendacity. Fante’s heavy drinking and addiction to gambling also made it hard for him to live off his advances, which in turn meant that he spent more and more time on hack screenwriting in order to pay his bills. To make matters worse, his obsession with golf seems to have eaten up almost a decade of writing-time. These tendencies became more pronounced after his first two novels failed to sell as well as he had hoped.

In 1940, Fante ran aground on a doomed plan to write an epic novel detailing the oppression of Filipino workers in California. The problem dogged him for years. The outline of the novel varied as time went on, but the basic plan remained the same. ‘DON’T tell Steinbeck!’ Fante warned his editor. But he was ill-equipped to write such a novel and his obsession with the idea becomes a tragicomic subplot in Cooper’s biography. He thought of calling it ‘Ah, Poor America!’ but it was generally known as ‘The Little Brown Brothers’. (Fante had a sort of anti-talent for titles; Wait Until Spring, Bandini is reminiscent of nothing so much as Woody Allen’s ‘No Kaddish for Weinstein’. He considered giving Dago Red the title of one of the stories in it, ‘The Odyssey of a Wop’.) It is probably just as well that the big book was never written, even though he wasted most of the 1940s on it.

As a screenwriter, Fante was competent but undistinguished. Cooper’s account of his Hollywood career – and much of the later part of his life – makes depressing reading. The most interesting project he worked on was probably Orson Welles’s planned portmanteau film, ‘All Is True’; Fante cheerfully contributed a fictional story to what was supposed to be a documentary of sorts, but the scheme soon fell through. Many of the ideas with which he planned to make his fortune were dismal – in 1953, after his return to the Church, he spent some time trying to develop a pious weekly television series that he wanted to call ‘Saints Alive’ – and often he could not afford to be especially picky about the work he was offered. In 1968 he ripped off Lolita for Roger Corman under the unimaginative title Lola. His attitude towards the craft was essentially cynical. At one point he seems to have dabbled in plagiarism and, although he condemned the censorship of the time, he regularly pitched his treatments towards the saccharine in order to attract producers intimidated by the political purges in the motion picture industry.

Fante’s politics were more or less quietist. In his letters he sometimes expressed himself in terms which may yet earn him a place in the Modernist sin bin of Professor John Carey (‘I personally have no sympathy with the masses … They are fools … If anything, I hate the masses. I have lived with them, and I have smelled their dirty breaths and bleak minds … Let them die’), but this was probably nothing more than bluster to entertain Mencken. His genuine position was better expressed by his frivolous statement elsewhere that he was ‘not in favour of Capitalism or Communism, but Clitorism’; and he wound up his denunciation of the masses by saying that his business in life was to save himself – which was more or less a full-time task. He kept well clear of the postwar witch-hunts, declaring himself in an open letter in 1952 ‘strongly and unalterably opposed to any ideology foreign to our American form of government’, and he was not above opportunism. He adapted Full of Life for the screen at least partly in the hope that the lapsed Hollywood Ten member Edward Dmytryk might care to further his own rehabilitation by directing it. But none of this is all that shocking, especially given Fante’s often precarious financial position. He also had a genuine if sometimes patronising sensitivity to questions of race and class, occasionally even accompanying his close friend Carey McWilliams – later the great editor of the Nation – on trips to research the exploitation of California’s migrant labourers.

Fante’s last years were extremely hard and the rediscovery of his writing cannot have been much of a compensation for his blindness, his amputations and the paranoia and hallucinations he sometimes experienced towards the end. Despite his faults, he comes across as a hard person to dislike. He had what one acquaintance described as ‘a personality like a buzzsaw’, but he commanded loyalty and affection from his friends and although his behaviour was sometimes so intolerable that it drove his wife by turns to the Catholic Church, The Power of Positive Thinking, astral projection and witchcraft, she remained devoted to him.

It is hard to write about Fante’s work without falling back on an old-fashioned critical vocabulary of energeia and lively fancies. He had a quirky eye and – from the sentient stoves and chickens of Wait until Spring, Bandini to the ‘beautiful hamburgers singing in cheap cafés’ in Ask the Dust – he did invest things with much life. He sometimes indulged a slightly ponderous lyricism, but his best writing is astonishingly wide-ranging and compressed. He understood the comedy of his insufferable young writers and sometimes exploited changes of register like a kind of wiseguy Beckett:

I mean women – for so it has happened to me many times, for I have lived here and there in this great city, in houses, apartments and hotels, and I know the business of violently whanging a typewriter is invariably successful, invariably bringing someone, a man or woman, often enough a woman who is lonely and curious; and sometimes, oftener than not, a man, a man in a rage who tells you to cut out the racket so he can get some sleep.

Fante’s books have taken a long time to find their audience; but through the long years of gathering dust in the LA Public Library, they’ve had a more vivid half-life than many of the same period’s accredited classics.

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