Well, I can see why Charles Bukowski liked this one. John Fante's prose is astonishingly vibrant and unmistakably personal, even when he's describing the myriad indignities a largely unsuccessful writer faces while eking out an existence in one of Los Angeles's less glamorous neighborhoods. Fante's has a deep understanding of the weight and sway of he uses that any poet would envy and that the plainspoken Bukowski certainly took to heart. The subject matter of "Ask the Dust" probably spoke to Chuck as well: there's plenty of drunkenness, drug use, rhapsodizing about the writer's life and a wild, tempestuous love affair to be found in this brief, sad novel. I'm no expert, but I'm pretty sure that they weren't too many American writers of the late thirties that you could compare to Fante. For good or ill, the guy was ahead of his time by whole decades. This doesn't mean that "Ask the Dust" is a wholly successful novel. It sometimes plays a bit like a West Coast version of "The Catcher in the Rye" a work that appeals most to male readers of a certain adolescent mien. Furthermore, the novel's narrator, Arturo Bandini, who is clearly based largely on the author himself, is not always a pleasant companion. He's talented, sure, but also he's also overconfident, impulsive, and insecure. He's given to shoring up his self-image with occasional bursts of out-and-out racism and misogyny. Fante's decision to show us his less appealing sides could be considered an act of genuine literary courage, and, fittingly enough, he treats his fictional self with a air of wry deprecation wholly absent from Salinger's work. Fante, and Bandini, too, know at some level that this starving artist thing is bunk, but they're too caught up in it to abandon it entirely. The sense of humor that Bandini shows about the role he's trying very hard to inhabit might be what keeps "Ask the Dust" from devolving into overwrought, if well-written, melodrama.Fante's a better writer than Salinger in a few other ways, too. His descriptions of southern California's dry, inhospitable landscape are raw and forceful, and his affection for it is evident. Camila Lopez, Bandini's adversary cum lover, is unabashedly strong and sexual, though the poor kid can't help but see her as somewhat exotic and threatening. Fante's a good enough writer that he uses Bandini's racism to start a conversation about what it means to be a white immigrant in twentieth century America. The haughty attitude Bandini displays towards the Mexicans who share the neighborhood of Bunker Hill with him might jar modern sensibilities, but it's also his attempt to assert his own American identity, to sort out who really belongs in Southern California and who doesn't. By the end of the novel, it becomes clear that both Camila and Arturo are true Californians, and that they belong, for better or worse, to each other. They're an unforgettable couple, but for your own sake, dear reader, I hope you find a love different than theirs.
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