Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Ask the Dust

John Fante Ask the Dust (1939)
I first heard this guy's name on crackly old tapes of Bukowski readings in which Chuck occasionally took a break from burping, swearing, or describing a memorable hangover to tell his audience that they should be reading John Fante. Not knowing the name I assumed he was some younger, up and coming dude whose works had struck a chord with the Mighty One; but it turns out that it was the other way round, Fante being an earlier writer, one whose fame should perhaps have extended further than it did and who had served as an inspiration to Bukowski.

I had this book in my possession over ten years and somehow never got around to reading it, otherwise I would have realised the above. Rob Colson, one of the Seaton Point authors, lent it to me and then we lost touch; and shit happened, and we eventually found touch and I'll hopefully be seeing him for a pint in a week or so; and so of course it occurred to me that I should maybe get around to reading the thing before I return it.

It's not hard to see how Fante influenced Bukowski's writing. It's the same tight prose, clipped, functional and yet conveying nuances of mood and psychological subtext with a poetry that might be lost in any more floridly composed narrative. Similarly Fante's world is one of hacks, bums, and losers somehow maintaining their dignity regardless of shitty circumstances. There's a kind of romance, but nothing so cheap as sentiment.

I'm assuming Ask the Dust is at least partially autobiographical given that the main character is a struggling author lugging his typewriter around a succession of cheap rooms and dive bars, and although the territory is familiar from the novels of his more famous successor, the narrative follows quite a different course to the sort of thing Bukowski tended to write. Our boy is living off the precarious fame and earnings of having a short story published in some magazine when he falls into a love-hate relationship with a Latina working in a bar. Surprisingly though - at least to me - the guy's first short story leads to a second, then a novel and a big fat cheque with which he buys a house; but the riches seem sketchy and insubstantial, just background detail to his strained relationships with women and the not entirely appreciated admiration of Sammy, who also wants to be an author, but who writes the worst shit you've ever read. Ultimately our boy's success doesn't seem to add up to much.

Cliché though it may seem, Ask the Dust is a tale of beautiful losers, or at least losers who somehow retain their dignity in the face of adversity, and declaring it a lost twentieth century classic wouldn't be an understatement. That said, it's not without problems - our author's success doesn't feel entirely convincing, particularly not the part in which he suddenly buys a house, and Camilla's decent into reefer madness reads a bit like one of those public information films of the fifties warning about the debauched existence of the dope fiend - although that may be something to do with Fante just wanting to get published; but then neither of these details really get in the way of this being an exceptionally well written book; so Bukowski was right, just like always.

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