These moments run into pages, the seamy side of life, says Arturo Bandini, struggling LA writer, dreamer of big dreams, pursuer of elusive love and hero of John Fantes sophomore 1939 novel Ask the Dust. He has a point. The book bears a passing resemblance to classic dime-store pulp fiction. Down-at-heel boy meets a waitress called Camilla Lopez. Boy gets girl, briefly, then girl dumps boy to start something with second boy (Sammy.) Guy hits the big time with pay cheques that todays short story writers can only dream about, while girl suffers an abusive relationship and descends into drug addiction and madness. What elevates the text is the narrators voice; a gigantic, manically energised, hectoring, self-lacerating, comic, bathetic, musical formulation that could comfortably take on John Self, Holden Caulfield or Alexander Portnoy and might just win.
Now over seventy years old, both the novel and Fante are enjoying something of a cultural moment, celebrated in blogs on Guardian Unlimited, and in the transcript of an extensive interview with the author in 3:AM Magazine. Right now, Fante is almost fashionable, or rather, he inhabits a higher tier than usual of the sub-fashionable. This is insufficient: Ask the Dust deserves far more than cult acclaim.
The novel is perhaps best known for its influence on the more-famous, more-fashionable Charles Bukowski, who describes coming upon it as like finding gold in the city dump
a wild an enormous miracle to me. The similarities between the two are clear each favours tawdry settings and dispossessed characters but at the level of the sentence, Fante must surely be the better writer. The voice of Arturo Bandini is a various and elastic instrument, encompassing humour and gravity.
What makes it so original? Bandinis self-referential tendency, for one thing. Written in the first person, there are frequent shifts into third: Bandini on the bed, put himself there with an air of casualness, like a man who knew how to sit on a bed. Hear too the synesthetic song in this passage: I climbed out of the window and scaled the incline to the top of Bunker Hill. A night for my nose, a feast for my nose, smelling the stars, smelling the desert, and the dust asleep, across the top of Bunker Hill. This is something akin to blank verse, an evocation of a sleazy city where big street cars chewed your ears with their noise. Similarly elegiac is Bandinis meditation on life divorced from God: there will be confusions, and there will be hunger; there will be loneliness with only my tears like wet consoling little birds, trembling to sweeten my dry lips. In Fantes hands Skid Row shines, lit gold by his prose.
Bandini (who appears in four of Fantes novels) is a character as loveable as he is tormented by the vicissitudes of fate and sexual desire. Camilla, the object of his obsession, is an enigma who is driven by compulsions he can barely understand. With Sammy, Camillas lover and erstwhile co-worker, they form a prism through which the author refracts the subtle light of conflicted emotion. There is something transcendent in this book; a magic in the prose, written by a man who writes like a man who knows how to write.