Ask the Dust by John Fante
I took a break from reading a 600+ page collection of Cheever stories to read John Fante's Ask the Dust. I'd heard the book mentioned many times without any real idea of what it might be like, but when I settled into it, I couldn't put it down.
The novel is, in so many ways, like things I've read before. We have the poor, destitute young writer, struggling to feed himself and occupy his time when he is not writing. And, as we know, there is a lot of time spent not writing. It was reminiscent to me of a time so far in my past, so removed from my current existence, that it is hard to believe that was how I lived. There were certainly times like these for me, when I was out of work, writing a lot, and spending a lot of time just wandering. Sometimes the wandering led me to the library; when it didn't it led to trouble.
Of course, Fante's Bandini, the novel's protagonist, wanders into trouble. Not just trouble, women trouble. A waitress, no less. It is easy to fall for them. Bandini is searching for something. Fame as a writer for sure, but something else, and he is willing to follow or chase his waitress, Camila, to find it. The trouble is that she doesn't like him, and worse, he doesn't like her. Bandini is so blatantly racist and misogynist and so hostile about it, yet Fante gives s not real motivation for this. I'll believe the best. I see how others could think that the lack of justification for Bandini's actions could mean that Fante doesn't believe they require justification. That he believes these actions are acceptable. I'll have faith that Bandini's lack of experience with women and his sense of vulnerability lead him to treat Camilla, and the other women he meets, so poorly.
What you would never guess about this novel is that it takes place in the 1930's, that it was written in that era. It could easily be in the Los Angeles of the 1970's or even last year. The surroundings and circumstances would not change in any other decade. The only thing that gives it away is the discussion of marijuana as something new (that, and the use of the term"hophead").
Ask the Dust is a tremendous book. I rarely can find the time to finish a book in one day, but this book motivated me to keep reading. The book has its faults, though, that will keep it from raking too high on my list. Bandini is so self-centered, self-absorbed, subject to flourishes that add or reveal nothing, that it is hard to like him, hard to care about him. The novel, just maybe, lacked a level of depth that would have made it more profound and simply a better book. And, I liked it nonetheless.