Ask the Dust is Italian-American author John Fante’s most famous work. The novel was published in 1939, and is part of Fante’s “Bandini Quartet,” all of which feature the main character Arturo Bandini, who is a stand in for Fante. The other three novels in the Bandini series are: Wait Until Spring, Bandini; The Road to Los Angeles; and Dreams From Bunker Hill.
Ask the Dust was Fante’s third novel in terms of when it was written, second in terms of publication date, in 1939.
It sees main character Arturo Bandini struggling to make it as a writer in Los Angeles, as well as battle for the affections of a woman he has mixed feelings for, one Camilla Lopez. She too has complex emotions when it comes to Bandini, and this drama is one of the central, driving plot devices in the book.
Fante influenced the German-American writer Charles Bukowski, who provides the introduction to Ask the Dust. He was instrumental in getting Fante’s work back into print, and it is a loving portrait of one man discovering another’s words and finding strength and solace in them.
The title is taken from a Knut Hamsun passage, found in the short story “Girl in the Tower” which reads:
The other one he loved like a slave, like a crazed and like a beggar. Why? Ask the dust on the road and the falling leaves, ask the mysterious God of life; for no one knows such things. She gave him nothing, no nothing did she give him and yet he thanked her. She said: Give me your peace and your reason! And he was only sorry she did not ask for his life.
Hamsun was an influence to both Fante and Bukowski.
Speaking of influences, there is a character that shows up in David Foster Wallace‘s debut novel The Broom of the System who, like the character Benny Cohen in Ask the Dust, has a wooden leg in which he keeps joints.
Ask the Dust Quotes
The lean days of determination. That was the word for it, determination: Arturo Bandini in front of his typewriter two full days in succession, determined to succeed; but it didn’t work, the longest siege of hard and fast determination in his life, and not one line done, only two words written over and over across the page, up and down, the same words: palm tree, palm tree, palm tree, a battle to the death between the palm tree and me, and the palm tree won: see it out there swaying in the blue air, creaking sweetly in the blue air. The palm tree won after two fighting days, and I crawled out of the window and sat at the foot of the tree. Time passed, a moment or two, and I slept, little brown ants carousing in the hair on my legs.
I was twenty then. What the hell, I used to say, take your time, Bandini. You got ten years to write a book, so take it easy, get out and learn about life, walk the streets. That’s your trouble: your ignorance of life.
I am twenty, I have reached the age of reason, I am about to wander the streets below, seeking a woman. Is my soul already smirched, should I turn back, does an angel watch over me, do the prayers of my mother allay my fears, do the prayers of my mother annoy me?
I have wanted women whose very shoes are worth all I have ever possessed.
I took the steps down Angel’s Flight to Hill Street: a hundred and forty steps, with tight fists, frightened of no man, but scared of the Third Street Tunnel, scared to walk through it – claustrophobia. Scared of high places too, and of blood, and of earthquakes; otherwise, quite fearless, excepting death, except the fear I’ll scream in a crowd, except the fear of appendicitis, except the fear of heart trouble, even that, sitting in his room holding the clock and pressing his jugular vein, counting out his heartbeats, listening to the weird purr and whirr of his stomach. Otherwise, quite fearless.
Well, this is good for me, this is experience, I am here for a reason, these moments run into pages, the seamy side of life.
Main Street after the show, midnight: neon tubes and a light fog, honky tonks and all night picture houses. Secondhand stores and Filipino dance halls, cocktails 15¢, continuous entertainment, but I had seen them all, so many times, spent so much Colorado money in them. It left me lonely like a thirsty man holding a cup, and I walked toward the Mexican Quarter with a feeling of sickness without pain. Here was the Church of Our Lady, very old, the adobe blackened with age. For sentimental reasons I will go inside. For sentimental reasons only. I have not read Lenin, but I have heard him quoted, religion is the opium of the people. Talking to myself on the church steps: yeah, the opium of the people. Myself, I am an atheist: I have read The Anti-Christ and I regard it as a capital piece of work. I believe in the transvaluation of values, Sir. The Church must go, it is the haven of the booboisie, of boobs and bounders and all brummagem mountebanks.
A prayer. Sure, one prayer: for sentimental reasons. Almighty God, I am sorry I am now an atheist, but have You read Nietzsche? Ah, such a book! Almighty God, I will play fair in this. I will make You a proposition. Make a great writer out of me, and I will return to the Church. And please, dear God, one more favor: make my mother happy. I don’t care about the Old Man; he’s got his wine and his health, but my mother worries so. Amen.
Bandini (being interviewed prior to departure for Sweden): “My advice to all young writers is quite simple. I would caution them them never to evade a new experience. I would urge them to live life in the raw, to grapple with it bravely, to attack it with naked fists.”
Reporter: “Mr. Bandini, how did you come to write this book which won you the Nobel Award?”
Bandini: “The book is based on a true experience which happened to me one night in Los Angeles. Every word of that book is true. I lived that book, I experienced it.”
Hail Mary full of grace, walking up the stairs, I can’t go through with it. I’ve got to get out of it. The halls smelling of cockroaches, a yellow light at the ceiling, you’re too aesthetic for all this, the girl holding my arm, there’s something wrong with you, Arturo Bandini, you’re a misanthrope, your whole life is doomed to celibacy, you should have been a priest, Father O’Leary talking that afternoon, telling us the joys of denial, and my own mother’s money too, Oh Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee – until we got to the top of the stairs and walked down a dusty dark hall to a room at the end, where she turned out the light and we were inside.
My plight drove me to the typewriter. I sat before it, overwhelmed with grief for Arturo Bandini. 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 thought of home, of spaghetti swimming in rich tomato sauce, smothered in Parmesan cheese, of Mamma’s lemon pies, of lamb roasts and hot bread, and I was so miserable that I deliberately sank my fingernails into the flesh of my arm until a spot of blood appeared. It gave me great satisfaction. I was God’s most miserable creature, forced even to torturing myself. Surely upon this earth no grief was greater than mine.
Don’t come right away, Camilla; let me sit here awhile and accustom myself to this rare excitement; leave me alone while my mind travels the infinite loveliness of your splendid glory; just leave awhile to myself, to hunger and dream with eyes awake.
Dust and old buildings and old people sitting at windows, old people tottering out of doors, old people moving painfully along the dark street. The old folk from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois, from Boston and Kansas City and Des Moines, they sold their homes and their stores, and they came here by train and by automobile to the land of sunshine, to die in the sun, with just enough money to live until the sun killed them, tore themselves out by the roots in their last days, deserted the smug prosperity of Kansas City and Chicago and Peoria to find a place in the sun…doomed to die in the sun, a few dollars in the bank, enough to subscribe to the Los Angeles Times, enough to keep alive the illusion that this was paradise, that their little papier-mâché homes were castles.
A cop won’t pick you up for vagrancy in Los Angeles if you wear a fancy polo shirt and a pair of sunglasses. But if there is dust on your shoes and that sweater you wear is thick like the sweaters they wear in the snow countries, he’ll grab you. So get yourself a polo shirt boys, and a pair of sunglasses, and white shoes, if you can.
As for the folks back home, you can lie to them, because they hate the truth anyway, they won’t have it, because soon or late they want to come out to paradise, too. You can’t fool the folks back home, boys. They know what Southern California’s like. After all they read the papers, they look at the picture magazine glutting the newsstands of every corner in America. They’ve seen pictures of the movie stars’ homes. You can’t tell them anything about California.
I see them in the lobbies of hotels, I see them sunning in the parks, and limping out of ugly little churches, their faces bleak from proximity with their strange gods, out of Aimee’s Temple, out of the Church of the Great I Am.
Something like a grey flower grew between us, a thought that took shape and spoke of the chasm that separated us.
Love wasn’t everything. Women weren’t everything. A writer had to conserve his energies.
Ah well, the hell with you Camilla. I can forget you. I have money. These streets are full of things you cannot give me.
I tried to answer but she interrupted and went off in a Barrymore manner, speaking deeply and tragically; murmuring of the pity of it all, the stupidity of it all, the absurdity of a hopelessly bad writer like myself buried in a cheap hotel in Los Angeles, California, of all places, writing banal things the world would never read and never get a chance to forget.
I went down to the end of the hall to the landing of the fire-escape, and there I let go, crying and unable to stop because God was such a dirty crook, such a contemptible skunk, that’s what he was for doing that thing to that woman. Come down out of the skies, you God, come on down and I’ll hammer your face all over the city of Los Angeles, you miserable unpardonable prankster. If it wasn’t for you, this woman would not be so maimed, and neither would the world, and if it wasn’t for you I could have had Camilla Lopez down at the beach, but no! You have to play your tricks: see what you have done to this woman, and to the love of Arturo Bandini for Camilla Lopez.
She was gone when I woke up. The room was eloquent with her departure.
I got up from the counter and walked away in fear, walking fast down the boardwalk, passing people who seemed strange and ghostly: the world seemed a myth, a transparent plane, and all things upon it were here for only a little while; all of us, Bandini, and Hackmuth and Camilla and Vera, all of us were here for a little while, and then we were somewhere else; we were not alive at all, we approached living, but we never achieved it. We are going to die. Everybody was going to die. Even you, Arturo, even you must die.
It was a great white cross pointing into my brain and telling me I was a stupid man, because I was going to die, and there was nothing I could do about it.
Sick in my soul I tried to face the ordeal of seeking forgiveness. From whom? What God, what Christ? They were myths I once believed, and now they were beliefs I felt were myths.
I went off and sat on the curbing. Repent, repent before it’s too late. I said a prayer but it was dust in my mouth. No prayers. But there would be some changes made in my life. There would be decency and gentleness from now on.
Ah life! Thou sweet bitter tragedy, thou dazzling whore that leadeth me to destruction!
So what’s the use of repentance, and what do you care for goodness, and what if you should die in a quake, so who the hell cares? So I walked downtown, so these were the high buildings, so let the earthquake come, let it bury me and my sins, so who the hell cares? No good to God or man, die one way or another, a quake or a hanging, it didn’t matter why or when or how.
There came over me a terrifying sense of understanding about the meaning and the pathetic destiny of men. The desert was always there, a patient white animal, waiting for men to die, for civilizations to flicker and pass into the darkness. Then men seemed brave to me, and I was proud to be numbered among them.
Murderer or bartender or writer, it didn’t matter: his fate was the common fate of all, his finish my finish; and here tonight in this city of darkened windows were other millions like him and like me: as indistinguishable as dying blades of grass. Living was hard enough. Dying was a supreme task.
She opened her arms and all of her seemed to open to me, but it only closed me deeper into myself…
I don’t remember. Maybe a week passed, maybe two weeks. I knew she would return. I did not wait. I lived my life. I wrote a few pages. I read a few books. I was serene: she would come back. It would be at night. I never thought of her as a thing to be considered by daylight. The many times I had seen her, none had been in the day. I expected her like I expected the moon.
“I hope you never make it,” she said. “I hope they find you dead in the gutter in the morning.”
”I’ll see what I can do,” I said.
This was the life for a man, to wander and stop and then go on, ever following the white line along the rambling coast, a time to relax at the wheel, light another cigarette, and grope stupidly for the meanings in that perplexing desert sky.
I went for a walk through the streets. My God, here I was again, roaming the town. I looked at the faces around me, and I knew mine was like theirs. Faces with the blood drained away, tight faces, worried, lost. Faces like flowers torn from their roots and stuffed into a pretty vase, the colors draining fast. I had to get away from that town.
Across the desolation lay a supreme indifference, the casualness of night and another day, and yet the secret intimacy of those hills, their silent consoling wonder, made death a thing of no great importance. You could die, but the desert would hide the secret of your death, it would remain after you, to cover your memory with ageless wind and heat and cold.
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