Ask the Dust

fanteThe Short Version: Arturo Bandini, a young writer, lives in an apartment in Los Angeles and is trying to become a successful writer.  He has, so far, published one story and now lives on barely anything at all – until he meets two women, one of whom sparks a story and the other a furious romance.

The Review: Charles Bukowski wrote the foreword to this edition of this novel and it makes so much sense – for of course Fante’s Bandini is the spiritual ancestor to Bukowski’s Chinaski.  The inclusion of both this and Hollywood in Harper’s “California Classics” Cali Bookstore Day box set this year only reinforces the ties between the two – and provides an interesting opportunity to really look at the two side-by-side.  Were I still in school, I might endeavor to write a paper about it.  But as I’m not, I’m here only for the enjoyment… and in that sense, Fante’s novel falls far short of Bukowski’s.

There are many benefits to the (for lack of a better shorthand term) Hemingway style of writing.  The short, clipped sentences that deliver maximum meaning with minimum effort – but I am a reader who enjoys more description, more luxury.  I’ve discovered that about myself and I’m okay admitting it. This is not to say that Fante is writing totally stripped down but he’s definitely running light.  The book itself barely tops 150 pages, it’s almost a novella really, and Los Angeles does not spring to life from these pages.  In fact, if they didn’t mention it now and then, I probably would’ve forgotten that the book was set in LA – it feels like somewhere West, yes, and even somewhere in California… but LA, even the LA of the ’30s, seems oddly non-descript in these pages.

Bandini, a thinly-veiled Fante stand-in, also suffers from being perhaps a little less interesting than his author imagines.  The best sections are when he trails off into some daydream of himself – of fame, of fortune, of things like that.  The moments flow organically like a tangent, the author growing more excited about the thought until it sputters out for lack of realistic oxygen.  But then you realize that you aren’t invested in the daydreams because you aren’t invested in Bandini.  He’s irresponsible, but not in a fun way, and he’s kind of an asshole.  I mean, his relationship with Camilla is the worst sort of relationship: there’s passion, sure, but they kind of loathe each other and his behavior towards her is absolutely reprehensible for the large majority of the book.  It’s a novel of its times, sure, and I’m not saying that a novel can’t have a male treat a woman terribly (hi, Wuthering Heights, you marvelous despicable beast) – but here it just feels unnecessary.  There’s a detachment from the proceedings that makes you just think “ugh, why are you guys trying to be together?”

As that romance is really the crux of the entire novel, it’s hard to find much redemptive about the rest of it.  Bandini’s self-loathing is exhausting and it’s only his joy in writing (a joy that, oddly, doesn’t always translate into the actual Fante’s writing) that brings life to the tale.  When he sells a new story and, later, a manuscript, there is a sense of celebration that creeps in – and it’s a marvelous thing to think that, once upon a time, a novelist would get a couple hundred bucks for a thing and that would make him a rich man.  It was a different time.  But, then, that’s not why we write – we write because we must and Bandini, bless him, clearly must.

Rating: 2 out of 5.  I didn’t find anything particularly bad in the book but I found that I just didn’t care.  The whole thing rushes by, short and ultimately forgettable.  Its inclusion in the California Classics box set is particularly interesting, too – as it (by his own admission in the foreword) clearly inspired Bukowski but he also seemed to be a more potent writer.  This also makes three of the four novels in the box that are set in LA (the fourth, Maupin’s Tales of the City, is San Francisco) and I must wonder how California feels about that.  Could there have been a different novel in place of the Fante?  For all its literary ‘import’, I feel like there just wasn’t much here.

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