John Fante: Ask the Dust (Review)

I hadn’t heard about this book before my friend recommended it to me. Ask the Dust is about a young writer, Arturo Bandini, who moves to Los Angeles in the 1930s. He desperately tries to become a famous writer after having published one story, ‘The Little Dog Laughs’. He is poor and struggling – but then he meets Camilla Lopez. Camilla is a waitress in a cafe where Arturo goes to spend his last 5 cents. He insults her but then can’t forget her and slowly, they get to know each other – through various hurtful scenes.

The book follows Arturo’s struggles. He has no money and has nothing to eat for a while but oranges. He steals meat to survive. He struggles with his writing and write long letters to his editor and his mother, asking both for help. And he tries to establish something with Camilla.

Unfortunately, this book really didn’t do much for me. I didn’t care about any of the characters – except Camilla’s dogWillie. Arturo is insecure but shows it by behaving very badly and inconsiderate towards Camilla – not that she behaves much better than him. Their relationship is constantly shifting, they fight and make up. Sometimes Arturo is the one in charge, sometimes Camilla is. Ultimately, neither of them really gets each other with dire consequences as a result.

I can’t really put my finger on what’s wrong with it. Except that nothing in it really spoke to me. I didn’t care whether Arturo made it or not, I didn’t like how he acted towards Camilla and I thought she was annoying as well. It didn’t make a huge impression on me either. Nothing really stands out from it.

At the same time, there’s something about it that makes me think that I might have missed something. That there is something there that I’m just not seeing. If someone can tell me what it is, I’ll be grateful!

  • Title: Ask the Dust
  • Author: John Fante
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial
  • Year: 2006 (originally 1939)
  • Pages: 165 page
  • Stars: 2 out of 5 stars

NB: I read this book in 2011 – I’m just a bit late in writing the review.

12 thoughts on “John Fante: Ask the Dust (Review)

  1. This is one of my favorite books in the whole world, yet I can’t really find any concrete reasons to explain why that is. Your review is dead-on, but my heart disagrees.

    Hhmmm…

    If I come up with a defense for this book, I’ll let you know. Until then, I’ll keep reading. Great blog.

    • I keep feeling that this is a book I should have liked more. But there was just something about it that rubbed me the wrong way. I hope you come up with a defense – I’ll look forward to reading it!

  2. Well, it seems that you missed a whole lot in fact😉

    It’s not much about the story, but it’s about the style of the prose and the characters that almost come to life and that, as you note, can’t make you feel indifferent. His characters are real in the way they make mistakes, love, hate: keep in mind that Arturo is a young man and his hormones go at full speed and so you can explain why he behaves like he does towards Camilla. They are little people and not particularly nice.

    Regarding the prose, the reason why I so much love John Fante’s is that he doesn’t use a word too many. Take for example the last book I’m reading John Le Carré Out Kind of Traitor: it’s so full of unnecessary and annoying details I started skipping chapters to see if it got any better and then had to stop reading it altogether. With only the essential details John Fante draws situations and character like the thick brush strokes of an impressionist painter. Yet so much prose these days is like Le Carré’s, so boring.

    I really can’t explain why John Fante isn’t held up there where Hemingway or Joyce are in the English speaking world and why he isn’t so much more popular.

    • Well, maybe that’s the problem. I like stories and I don’t mind wordy authors. And just because he’s a teenager (almost), doesn’t make me like him better. But I like how you compare his writing to impressionist painting. I’m thinking about watching the movie version of this … Any thoughts on that?

      • Well then if form doesn’t matter it’s like saying that comic book drawings can be on the same level as a Caravaggio painting. An art critic once said that there isn’t such thing as “good” and “bad” in art: if something is “art” it’s on the same level as any other art pieces, otherwise you could say things such as Raffaello is better than Giotto. In art these things don’t make sense, because art is relative (to an idea, an historical period, a country, in one word a context) and absolute at the same time, delivering that context into eternity.

        There’s some inherent qualities in John Fante’s prose that cannot be denied and that lift him above most other writers, people that simply put aren’t producing art, they’re doodling with words😉 I see exceptionally wordy prose as a defect and that’s because a reader can follow only so many details and then the representation the author pretends to give distracts you from what matters (if there is anything that matters). When Le Carré gives me a detail of a Rolex watch with diamonds I expect that to be meaningful to the story or it shouldn’t be there just to paint a pretty background, unless he’s writing just for readers to kill time like it seems he did in Our Kind of Traitor.

        The Ask the Dust movie I watched once and forgot, but I won’t get into the tired debate of books vs movies: they’re two different medium and each has its place, each has its strengths. As a movie per se it wasn’t memorable but it was, nonetheless, entertaining.

  3. Dearest Christina,
    I am really glad you wrote what you wrote even if I’m almost obsessively in love with John Fante since 1998. I have been discussing this topic so many times also with people who do not seem to be impressed by this novel (or novels).

    I would like to give you my opinions and my ideas about Ask the Dust but the title itself suggests that you you have to ask. And if you believe that you lost something it is already a great discovery.
    ,
    I just give you one of my questions. Why cannot Arturo (who is in love) have a sexual intercourse with Camilla? What stops him?

    I would have been a lot easier (and more interesting for the readers) to show us (at least once) this picture of “fulfilled love” It doesn’t. Why? And around this why there is a whole world I’m trying to discover.

    Thank-you again
    Silvia

    • Dear Silvia.
      I really appreciate you taking your time to not only write a comment but also stand up for a book and an author you really love. It makes me feel even more that there is something in this novel when it can evoke such love in other readers.
      My thoughts on Arturo and Camilla’s unconsummated relationship is that they’re constantly fighting with each other, constantly battling it out between each other. Neither of them are capable of offering the other security or stability or a place where they can trust. Neither of them had any idea of how to be together although they were drawn to each other. Camilla seemed damaged in some way while Arturo seemed unable to help her heal.
      What are your thoughts on this?
      /Christina

      • Dear Christina,
        sorry for my delay in answering… I think Arturo cannot use Camilla as a sex tool even if he wants her desperately. And this has something to do with the way stars look and stay close to each other without touching each other. This is (maybe) one of the purest way to love. Something we simply don’t remember in our age…And obviously there is the ethynical theme. Arturo wants to be American, fully American and Camilla reminds him his own ethnical difference, his limits. How can he accept her (and love her) if he doesn’t love and accept himself as son of immigrants in the first place. There is a wonderful essay written by Jay Martin describing the way St Ignatius meditation deeply influenced Ask the Dust. I wish I could write something more on this but I’m still studying. Thank-you for your attention. Silvia

  4. Lorenzo, I never said form doesn’t matter. Of course it does. It’s just different what kind of form speak to us. I agree that if a writer spends a lot of time writing about a detail, then it should be important to the story in one way or another.
    But I’m sorry, I just don’t see Fante as this really great writer. I can see that he is technically a good writer but I need something more as well.
    And I do believe that even though two pieces are both art, one of them can be better than the other.
    The movie version seem to have some flaws – the two main actors both seem to be too old … Still, I’ll try to make time to see it and see if that changes my perception of the book.

  5. Dear Silvia. Your theory of why Arturo and Camilla can’t be together, is fascinating. I think the ethnical reasons are more true though. That also explain why they’re constantly at each other’s throats – Arturo not being able to accept her ethnicity. I found this interesting article that goes into the whole theme of ethnicity in both his life and work (and more): http://articles.latimes.com/1995-05-14/books/bk-296_1_john-fante
    I’m still interested in hearing more of your thoughts about Fante and this book.
    Christina

  6. This is an interesting discussion. And as the person who got Christina to read this story in the first place it’s about time I say a thing or two here…😉

    First off — I am in the curious position that it was my fascination with the movie that had me reading the book. And while I can see its flaws (not to say the things where the movie script veers off dramatically from the original book) it still is a favorite of mine. Oddly enough.

    Anyway —

    Lorenzo B., you say:

    “There’s some inherent qualities in John Fante’s prose that cannot be denied and that lift him above most other writers, people that simply put aren’t producing art, they’re doodling with words ”

    Agreed, when we’re talking “hack writers” (to use an old fashioned, but quite accurate, word) we’re not talking art, we’re talking producing stories based solely on a well-defined plot frame and other elements; word by word — and at the end of the day it’s pretty dead and without any real substance. (I won’t say that art can happen this way, though, even if by accident and, probably, with a hack writer’s unique writing talent.)

    I am curious, though, Lorenzo B. — can you tell me a little more of what, specifically, you find to be “inherent qualities” in Fante’s prose? I assume that what you say right after is supposed to enlighten us, but I am not quite sure…

    ” I see exceptionally wordy prose as a defect and that’s because a reader can follow only so many details and then the representation the author pretends to give distracts you from what matters (if there is anything that matters).”

    So, in your opinion, to use few words (contrary to a story that’s “exceptionally wordy”) equals said “inherent qualities”? If so, a phone book must be about the best literature there is. I do not agree; not at all. Good literature — any good literature — must use the exact words, sentences, sense of flow etc. that is best suited the story. And some times that means using a lot of words and purple prose. For instance — how would you make a “wordy/nerdy/scholarly” protagonist come alive, how would you make him believable, if not (also) by using the vocabulary that such a person actually possesses and uses?

    Now, you could have a point when you say that a reader can only “follow so many details”… But can’t we agree that many readers do not “get” good literature? And that this, among other things, is because of a limited vocabulary and level of abstraction? In fact, the majority of readers prefer simple stories dealing with simple things, using few, simple words (hence the success of romance novels churned out by the dime, to name but one genre — and no, the “romantic language” of such stories is, semantically speaking, very, very limited, so let’s not start calling this “flowery language”). And that’s precisely because (most) readers can only “follow so many details”, as you say, Lorenzo B.

    Is that reason to say it’s inherent, good literature? No, of course not. And, incidentally, most of this majority of readers will, I suspect, dismiss Fante’s stories, since they’d find them too boring, difficult, annoying etc., etc. — all because they don’t get it. Not because of the number of words, but because they cannot grasp the underlying themes and the realistic portrayal — or perhaps they can, but do not like such portrayal, confusing “liking a character or not” with the story being good or not. Either way, this sort of goes against your idea, doesn’t it, Lorenzo B.?

    Now, don’t get me wrong: I really love Fante’s Ask the Dust. After all, I was the one recommending Christina reading it, remember?;-) And personally I think that the mistake Christina makes is in having a need to “like” a character, she wants to “care about the characters” (her words in the review) in order to like the story. Personally, while I don’t much care for him (I don’t exactly dislike him either, though), I get a sense of how this person is, how he thinks, feels and experiences the world as such. And that is what makes this a great story. Not the number of words (although they are important in terms of illuminating this particular person’s traits, of course).

    • Henrik, thanks for your comment. I love how this book has inspired so much discussion.
      Now, I don’t have a need to ‘like’ a character in every book – I just need to have something that pulls me in, be it caring about what happens to the characters, liking how the author writes and the words he uses, being pulled in by the plot – just something. But for me, this book didn’t do either of these. I’m not good with minimalism – I need a bit more embellishment.
      I guess I’m coming at this from a completely different side than Lorenzo. I prefer more wordy authors. And although I did find this book somewhat interesting, and I do feel that there might be something there, it just didn’t really do it for me.

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