Sunday, January 3, 2010

"Ask the Dust," John Fante

In "Ask the Dust"John Fante renders a pre-freeway Los Angeles; a Los Angeles that is organically connected to the surrounding environs, constantly reminded by the ever-present dust that it is a desert city.

That desert city was focused on downtown with its train tracks and depots, trolley system and urban grid known today as the “historic core.” His alter-ego and anti-hero Arturo Bandini rides the Angel’s Flight railway not as a tourist, but as someone who must get down the hill to Broadway for a drink and a pack of cigarettes.

It is a Los Angeles not yet divorced from its western reality, not yet a left coast New York, primed, but not entirely enveloped by the entertainment business. In fact, in a letter to his cousin Jo Campiglia, he describes the book as having “no Hollywood stuff.”

Fante’s is centered around Bunker Hill; a residential redoubt of ramshackle hotels, fading Victorian mansions, and wood-slatted apartment buildings.

And who resides in the redoubt? Well, the familiar characters of today and yore. But let us bow to Bandini, a struggling writer paying rent by the week for a hotel room; on the cusp of a great literary success:

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 of their last days, deserted the smug prosperity of Kansas City and Chicago and Peoria to find a place in the sun…The uprooted ones, the empty sad folks, the folks from back home. These were my countrymen, these were the new Californians. With their bright polo shirts and sunglasses, they were in paradise, they belonged.

Time has been kind to “Ask the Dust” in the way it is kind to a lot of literature because the world it portrays is gone or much changed. So what was in 1939 an oddly paced, edgy and offbeat drama of insignificants taking place in a world familiar to many, is now the same drama in a disappeared world, which adds appeal.

And what of that drama? Fante writes Campiglia that it is the, “Story of a girl I once loved who loved someone else, who in turn despised her.”

Fante was a successful screenwriter in Hollywood with credits such as “Full of Life,” “Walk on the Wildside,” and “My Six Loves,” among others, to his credit, so his ability to synopsize a story quite so well is understandable given the demands of “industrial” writing.

With equal efficiency does he go on to explain, “Strange story of a Mexican girl who somehow doesn’t fit into modern life, took to marijuana, lost her mind and wandered into the Mojave desert with a little Pekingese dog.”

And there you have it, in Fante’s words, which preclude the highway scribe from going more into more plot details.

Aside from the portrait of depression-era Los Angeles, a rather poor-fitting excerpt on an earthquake experienced by the author in Long Beach, and more of the above-quoted visions of a downtown now overrun with antiseptic corporate towers, “Ask the Dust,” is the portrait of a woman:

Except for the contour of her face and the brilliance of her teeth, she was not beautiful. But at that moment she turned to smile at one of her old customers, and I saw a streak of white under her lips. Her nose was Mayan, flat, with large nostrils. Her lips were heavily rouged, with the thickness of a negress’ lips. She was a racial type, and as such she was beautiful, but she was too strange for me. Her eyes were at a high slant, her skin was dark but not black, and as she walked her breasts moved in a way that showed their firmness.

But something about this girl, Camilla Lopez, works for him, perhaps it is this…

The girl moved like a dancer, her strong silk legs gathering bits of sawdust as her tattered shoes glided over the marble floor.

Bandini, a guy who is serious about his literature, if a bit roughly-hewn in the personality department, latches onto the girl’s class and lower life station when her natural aristocracy provokes his second generation Dago insecurities.

Those shoes, they were huaraches, the leather thongs wrapped several times around her ankles. They were desperately ragged huaraches; the woven leather had become unraveled.

Camilla works downtown at the Columbia Buffet where she and Bandini open the door to a relationship better left closed. He’s taken in a strange way by her; she disdains. He gains her interest through the application of lesser arts. “I hate you,” she tells him in turn. By the end of their psychological skirmish she blows him a kiss goodbye.

Do people really behave in this way?


She follows him out, girlish, flirty, surrendering. Rather than relish his conquest, Bandini digs for a deeper cut.

“Those huaraches - do you have to wear them, Camilla? Do you have to emphasize the fact that you always were and always will be a filthy little greaser?”

Nice guy, Arturo Bandini.

She looked at me in horror, her lips open. Clasping both hands against her mouth, she rushed inside the saloon. I heard her moaning, “Oh, oh, oh.”

In between this first meeting and the next, Bandini has a second short story published “back East.” Yes, in spite of his cruelty, we’re rooting for this first-person narrator much as we do an escaped convict hunted by hounds. He takes his subsequent winnings down to the Columbia Buffet where Camilla is wearing, “New white pumps, with high heels.”

She’s not impressed by his newfound wealth, in fact, prefers him the other way. It was for Bandini she’d shed the huaraches, but in doing so, loses him again.

The new shoes were hurting Camilla’s feet. She didn’t have her old style. She winced as she walked and gritted her teeth.

They go back and forth anew. There’s an unhealthiness that pervades their relationship rooted largely in the fact she is inexplicably in love with a rundown, dying in fact, bartender at the buffet.

“Ask the Dust,” really, has two anti-heroes, or at least one anti-hero and one anti-heroine in the bewitching, irascible Camilla.

On a first “date” (for lack of a more appropriate word) she takes Bandini out to the beach at Santa Monica in her 1929 Ford. The dish he portrays reads delicious…

After a mile she complained about her feet and asked me to hold the wheel. As I did it she reached down and took offer her shoes. Then she took the wheel again and threw one foot over the side of the Ford. At once her dress ballooned out, spanked her face. She tucked it under herself, but even so her brown thighs were exposed even to a pinkish underthing. It drew a lot of attention. Motorists shot by, pulled up short, and heads came out of windows to observe her brown naked leg. It made her angry. She took to shouting at the spectators, yelling that they ought to mind their own business. I sat at her side, slouched down, trying to enjoy a cigaret (that’s Fante’s spelling for the smoke) that burned too hotly in the rush of the wind.

Fante went on to enjoy success in his own time, to own a ranch in Southern California, and then to become the tragic in his own life’s play, stricken by diabetes that left him blind while relatively young.

One hopes his darkness was in some way brightened by the vision of his Mexican girl.

Ah, Camilla. You are the reason for the book, the muse around which a story, your story, asked to be spun. With many shortcomings, its autobiographical bent the greatest, you rescue “Ask the Dust,” ask that it be read, ask us to ask, “What dust did you become?” And beg us to touch it with our lips.

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