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Ask the Dust by John Fante

By Yossarian | Books | November 16, 2009 |

By Yossarian | Books | November 16, 2009 |

One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, down in the very middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life, because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I got out. That was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed.

— opening paragraph of Ask the Dust by John Fante

A review of Ask the Dust has to begin and end talking about the writing. The spare, well-crafted prose really brings you into the story and makes the people and places being described come to life. It’s one of those books where you marvel at the way the words are put together and what such simple compositions can evoke.

The novel is told through the first-person voice of Arturo Bandini (a semi-autobiographical stand-in for Fante), a young aspiring writer recently arrived in depression-era Los Angeles with a battered typewriter, the clothes on his back, and one published short story to his name. We follow Bandini around the city as he scrounges to survive with no money (and spends it wildly and recklessly when he gets any), lusts after the Mexican girls (who intimidate him when he gets near any), and tries to find success as a writer.

The pleasure of this novel is in the voice of the narrator and the terse, vivid descriptions of the city and the people around him in lines like “Then I went down the hill on Olive Street, past the horrible frame houses reeking with murder stories” and “I was down on Fifth and Olive, where the big street cars chewed your ears with their noise.” It is fitting for Bandini the writer-as-narrator to always be reaching for a good metaphor to describe the scenes and people around him. The descriptions can be almost poetic, and it’s worth noting that Charles Bukowski cites Fante as an inspiration and was instrumental in getting Fante’s out-of-print work re-issued in the late ’70s. Bukowski even wrote the Introduction for the this edition of Ask the Dust.

There is a love story as well, if you can call it that, between Bandina and a Mexican waitress named Camilla. Their relationship is tempestuous and volatile. Bandini can be caring but he can also be cruel when Camilla taunts and teases him, or when his insecurities get the best of him. Over the course of the novel Bandini swings wildly from confidence and arrogance to insecurity and despair. During interactions with Camilla he can flip between the two in an instant. He is flawed and immature, but these insecurities are part of his charm. The one consistency is that Bandini is passionate and earnest throughout.

“Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.”

I realize I’ve included a lot of quotes from the novel — there’s almost more of Fante’s writing then my own in this review — but I felt it was a necessary and more effective way of conveying the distinctive voice this novel has than just me groping for different adjectives to describe it. And I could have included more; all these quotes are from just the first chapter of Ask The Dust. There are many memorable scenes in the novel I wouldn’t want to spoil for you even though there aren’t really any plot twists to give away.

It is a good book, good writing, and it gets a lot of praise from people who have read it, myself included. If you can find a copy is worth adding to your reading lists.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read. For more of Yossarian’s reviews, please check his blog, This is not a Blog.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.