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Los Angeles was doomed. It was a city with a curse upon it. (John Fante)

June 30, 2010 7 comments

Ask the Dust, by John Fante 

Ask the Dust is the third volume of the Bandini saga by John Fante. Arturo is now twenty and has left Colorado to live in Los Angeles as a writer after his first short story was published. The novel has no precise plot and I would split it in two different parts. The first one is centred on Arturo’s completing his metamorphosis from a Catholic Italian teenager to an atheist adult writer. We find here the themes of the previous novels: poverty, lust for women, the difficulty of being Italian and Catholic. In the second part, he is writing a book and tells about his tragic relationship with a Mexican girl, Camilla.

I could talk about the birth of a writer, from the excruciating doubts about his gift to the serenity achieved through having his first good idea for a novel. Then writing brings him happiness and is not a painful process as often described by other writers.

I could also choose to describe the maturity Arturo gains in his relationships with women and how desire is now under better regulation than in The Road to Los Angeles. His craving for women is muted by his love for literature. Writing is the desire which outdoes physical ones, food and sex included.

 But I would rather write about Los Angeles, for a sheerly selfish reason: I picked up John Fante’s work these days to read about California. Though there were fascinating descriptions of stevedores, shores and fish factories, in The Road to Los Angeles, Ask the Dust better met my expectations. Los Angeles is a character itself in Arturo’s life and it fills the novel by its underlying presence.

What was odd to me is how the city seems already so contemporary, certainly smaller but with all the attributes of today Los Angeles, as I imagine it. Fante leads us through highways, buildings, cafes to have a beer and eat hamburgers, neons, and abandoned suburbs. Everything sounds familiar and if it weren’t for the brand of the cars, the absence of phones and a short reference to the beginning of the war in Europe, I would have forgotten this was taking place in 1939.

More than its architecture, the geographic position and the population create the identity of the city.

Two angels bent over Los Angeles’s cradle: the Ocean and the Desert, each of them blowing its influence on the city’s climate like winds on Venus in Botticelli’s painting. Fog and sand.

I was surprised by the constant reference to fog, that I had already noticed in The Road to Los Angeles. When I think of a foggy city, the first name that comes to my mind is inevitably London. And then San Francisco. But I would never have associated Los Angeles with fog. However, look what happens when Arturo opens his windows to freshen the air in his room.

I threw open the two windows and watched the fog float through in sad tumbling lumps. When it got too cold I closed the windows and, though the room was wet from the fog and my papers and books were filled with dampness, the perfume was still there unmistakably.

Nonetheless, Arturo’s room is in no better shape after the desert has reminded Los Angeles of its close presence:

Sand from the Mojave had blown across the city. Tiny brown grains of sand clung to my fingertips whenever I touched anything, and when I got back to my room I found the mechanism of my new typewriter glutted with sand. It was in my ears and in my hair. When I took off my clothes it fell like powder to the floor.

Fante also points out the fragility of the city, its existence in constant jeopardy because of earthquakes and the power of nature, just waiting for the opportunity to gain the ground back on cardboard human constructions.

Here was the endlessly mute placidity of nature, indifferent to the great city; here was the desert beneath these streets, around these streets, waiting for the city to die, to cover it with timeless sand once more. 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.

As for the population, of course, I knew L.A. is a city of immigrants. But I always pictured people leaving the East to make a brand new start the West. And Fante describes quite another kind of newcomers: retirees, numerous enough to be noticeable on the streets.

The old folks from Indiana and Iowa and Illinois, from Boston and Kansas City and Des Moines, they sold their homes, 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.

Who knew that moving South for retirement was already in style in the 1930s ? Not I.

 I didn’t expect that Los Angeles was already so multicultural, with Mexican, Chinese, Japanese communities and neighbourhoods. I knew Chinese came to America to build the rail-roads and that there were Japanese on the West Coast because of their being parked in camps after Pearl Harbor. The presence of Mexicans seems natural too, considering how close the border is. But I never thought they were so numerous so early in the 20th Century.

 I lack the words to describe Fante’s amazing style. I could quote many different breathtaking descriptions of both desert and sea. His style reminds me of modern paintings. Just as a face can be painted with blue tones and still better reveal the soul of the subject than if the actual colours had been used, Fante’s choice of words is so powerful that you can almost feel the implacable heat, the wind, the dust. He can describe a person in a few words.

More than a style, he has a voice, with breathings, accelerations, music and change of tones. An author to read absolutely.

I reviewed The Road to Los Angeles here

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