thoughts on fante’s ask the dust

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Ask the Dust is John Fante’s 1939 novel. The story follows Arturo Bandini, a young struggling Italian-American writer in Los Angeles, who tries to gain the life experiences he thinks he needs to write the great American novel. He falls in love with a Mexican-American waitress who is in love with a bartender who despises her.

Fante’s voice and language made me feel I’d taken a time machine back to the 1930’s. Plus, it was clean and colorful. It felt complete in its descriptions without being burdened and often sounded lyrical. “A night for my nose, a feast for my nose, smelling the stars, smelling the flowers, smelling the desert, and the dust asleep across the top of Bunker Hill.”

I especially loved Fante’s ability to create a rich internal landscape of neurotic thought. You know, the thoughts that paint a fantasy version of yourself then show you it’s an impossibility because you’re a coward. Or the ones that tell you you’re reprehensible when you gather the courage to fulfill a desire. He writes about the phenomena with humor. “…Absurdly fearless Bandini, fearing nothing but the unknown in a world of mysterious wonder.”

Fante manages to capture what feels like the entire nuanced complexity of a character as a real human being. I’m not sure if I’ve ever read anything so complete, done so elegantly. I want to read it again to find out what I missed the first time around. Maybe pick up a few tips.

In fact, one of the best passages I can remember reading about producing ham-fisted writing was in this novel. “Sometimes an idea floated harmlessly through the room. It was like a small white bird. It meant no ill-will. It only wanted to help me, dear little bird. But I would strike at it, hammer it out across the keyboard, and it would die on my hands.” I love that passage. I can see the blood splatter and the mangled feathers. While I’m not an advocate for killing anything, the passage captures the murder I feel I commit every time I write.


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