A ghost in the city of angels
Ask the Dust by John Fante. Black Sparrow Press. $13 (paperback) — 165 pages.
Back in Charles Bukowski’s youth (the 1940s), he spent most of his time wandering aimlessly about the skid-row sections of Los Angles in an inebriated funk. Like many of his homeless and drunken friends, he observed the time-honored practice of avoiding rain and snow by taking up residence in the local library. However, as his cohorts snoozed in the reading room, Charles Bukowski read.
At the time, California was experiencing a kind of literary revolution with hundreds of writers publishing novels and short stories that exuded violence, sex and a stylish kind of West Coast despair. Bukowski disliked most of them and frequently lectured his companions about the shameful state of California literature. However, he noted a single exception: the writings of John Fante. What appealed to Bukowski was the strong autobiographical themes in Ask the Dust and Wait Until Spring, Bandini! Obviously, the author inhabited the same bleak world as Bukowski, who took delight in identifying the sleazy hotels, cafes and taverns in Ask the Dust.
“Look!” he would shout to his friends, “There is the very window that Camilla crawled through to visit Bandini! And that dive over there is where Camilla worked as a waitress!”
Years later, when Bukowski acquired something akin to literary prominence and respect, he took the opportunity to promote the neglected Fante. It was largely due to Bukowski’s efforts that Fante’s works were rediscovered in the ‘80s, shortly before his death. Now, Black Sparrow Press has reissued Ask the Dust and Fante is receiving yet another re-evaluation. Also, (regretfully) there is a film that we will discuss later.
Ask the Dust is a product of the late ‘30s and embodies the best (and the worst) qualities of that era. There is much here that echoes other great works, such as James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice and Charles Williford’s Pick-up. Fante’s characters are deeply and tragically flawed, yet they are also victims of forces beyond their control. The young and naïve Arturo Bandini narrates this tale that is often self-incriminating. He tells the reader that he yearns to write a great novel and he has exaggerated the significance of his only success — a short story published in a minor literary magazine — to justify his move to Los Angles where he hopes to get inspiration by living with “real, working class people.” His money is gone, his rent unpaid and he is living on oranges. As his situation grows more desperate, he meets Carmilla and plunges into a dangerous love/hate relationship.
Newly arrived in Los Angeles from a Mexican village, Carmilla is filled with a childish dream of success. She believes that if she works hard, she will prosper, yet even as she talks about materialistic possessions and luxury she hopes to acquire, she encounters insurmountable obstacles. She is Mexican, barely literate and addicted to marijuana. (Of course, in the 1930’s her addiction occurs in a time when cannabis was considered as deadly as heroin.) A present-day reader may smile when the “shameful addiction” forces Carmilla to stuff towels under Arturo’s closet door each time that she sneaks another furtive toke.
However the majority of Ask the Dust exhibits Fante’s marvelous talent for capturing atmosphere, including an earthquake, and a seedy hotel filled with colorful alcoholics and eccentrics. For a time, the young writer struggles with a near-pathological fear of sex that threatens to destroy his relationship with Carmilla. However, the ministrations of a lonely (but weirdly disfigured) widow plus Carmilla’s sensual charms finally manage to complete his sexual rites of passage. At length, he begins to write publishable works and a happy ending lurks on the horizon as he and Carmilla enjoy a brief interlude of happiness.
However, this is noir fiction and grim tragedy lurks in the wings.
As Arturo’s success grows, Carmilla’s addiction worsens, and she becomes involved in a masochistic affair with a drug addict. Eventually, she has a mental collapse and is committed to a mental institution. As Fante’s tale of doomed love winds down, this dark and grim little novel acquires all of the trappings of romantic despair. Arturo Bandini has learned to write but at a terrible price.
Unfortunately, the popularity of Fante’s work inspired Hollywood to spawn one of the most ill-conceived adaptations that I have ever encountered. Colin Farrell’s interpretation of Arturo Bandini borders on parody. His impersonation of a starving writer is characterized by much melodramatic frowning, hair-pulling, histrionics and door-slamming. Salma Hayek as Carmilla is both trite and silly. However, in all fairness, after the Hollywood machine excreted this film script (that had been improved to the point of being unrecognizable), Hayek and Farrell are left with the shreds of a bad soap opera and some of the worst dialogue ever captured on a soundtrack.
Read the book, but be tolerant of Fante’s descriptions of the “soul-destroying effects of loathsome marijuana.” Avoid the movie version. Not even the toothsome Ms. Hayek can save that turkey!