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ASK THE DUST by John Fante, featuring C. Bukowski, L. Cohen, B. Springsteen, Simon & Garfunkel.


I was a young man, starving and drinking and trying to be a writer. I did most of my reading at the downtown L.A. Public Library, and nothing that I read related to me or to the streets or to the people about me. It seemed as if everybody was playing word-tricks, that those who said almost nothing at all were considered excellent writers. Their writing was an admixture of subtlety, craft and form, and it was read and it was taught and it was ingested and it was passed on. It was comfortable contrivance, a very slick and careful Word-Culture. One had to go back to the pre-Revolution writers of Russia to find any gamble, any passion. There were exceptions but those exceptions were so few that reading them was quickly done, and you were left staring at rows and rows of exceedingly dull books. With centuries to look back on, with all their advantages, the moderns just weren’t very good.

I pulled book after book from the shelves. Why didn’t anybody say something? Why didn’t anybody scream out?

I tried other rooms in the library. The section on Religion was just a vast bog – to me. I got into Philosophy. I found a couple of bitter Germans who cheered me for a while, then that was over. I tried Mathematics but upper Math was just like Religion: it ran right off me. What I needed seemed to be absent everywhere.

I tried Geology and found it curious but, finally, non-sustaining.

I found some books on Surgery and I liked the books on Surgery: the words were new and the illustrations were wonderful. I particularly liked and memorized the operation of the mesocolon.

Then I dropped out of Surgery and I was back in the big room with the novelists and short story writers. (When I had enough cheap wine to drink I never went to the library. A library was a good place to be when you had nothing to drink or to eat, and the landlady was looking for you and for the back rent money. In the library at least you had the use of the toilet facilities.) I saw quite a number of other bums in there, most of them asleep on top of their books.

I kept on walking around the big room, pulling the books off the shelves, reading a few lines, a few pages, then putting them back.

Then one day I pulled a book down and opened it, and there it was. I stood for a moment, reading. Then like a man who had found gold in the city dump, I carried the book to a table. The lines rolled easily across the page, there was a flow. Each line had its own energy and was followed by another like it. The very substance of each line gave the page a form, a feeling of something carved into it. And here, at last, was a man who was not afraid of emotion. The humor and the pain were intermixed with a superb simplicity. The beginning of that book was a wild and enormous miracle to me.

I had a library card. I checked the book out, took it to my room, climbed into my bed and read it, and I knew long before I had finished that here was a man who had evolved a distinct way of writing. The book was Ask the Dust and the author was John Fante. He was to be a lifetime influence on my writing. I finished Ask the Dust and looked for other books of Fante’s in the library. I found two: Dago Red and Wait Until Spring, Bandini. They were of the same order, written of and from the gut and the heart.

Yes, Fante had a mighty effect upon me. Not long after reading these books I began living with a woman. She was a worse drunk than I was and we had some violent arguments, and often I would scream at her, “Don’t call me a son of a bitch! I am Bandini, Arturo Bandini!”

Fante was my god and I knew that the gods should be left alone, one didn’t bang at their door. Yet I liked to guess about where he had lived on Angel’s Flight and I imagined it possible that he still lived there.

Almost every day I walked by and I thought, is that the window Camilla crawled through? And, is that the hotel door? Is that the lobby? I never knew.


39 years later I reread Ask the Dust. That is to say, I reread it this year and it still stands, as do Fante’s other works, but this one is my favorite because it was my first discovery of the magic. There are other books beside Dago Red and Wait Until Spring, Bandini. They are Full of Life and The Brotherhood of the Grape. And, at the moment, Fante has a novel in progress, A Dream of Bunker Hill.


Through other circumstances, I finally met the author this year. There is much more to the story of John Fante. It is a story of terrible luck and a terrible fate and of a rare and natural courage. Some day it will be told but I feel that he doesn’t want me to tell it here. But let me say that the way of his words and the way of his way are the same: strong and good and warm.


That’s enough. Now this books is yours.

Charles Bukowski

5-6-79


PLOT



Ask the Dust forces us to reflect back upon our own missteps with relationships, money, and formulating ideas about our place in the universe.

It is a semi-autobiographical story about Arturo Bandini, an aspiring author in depression era Los Angeles. With a singular published short story under his belt Arturo grapples with life, relationships, poverty, and his ability to translate these experiences into his writing.

The novel plays with several themes around the nature of love and relationships. Bandini and Camilla circle around a manic relationship filled with passion, disgust, racism, rejection, and constantly shifting power dynamics. We could almost imagine Bandini as the stereotypical school boy pulling on the pig tails of the girl he likes. Not quite so innocent an image when adults are involved but you can almost see the missing developmental links in Bandini’s understanding of human relationships.

It soon becomes apparent that Camilla holds the real power in this relationship. We soon learn that she is in fact in love with Sammy, the bartender. Her rejection sends Bandini oscillating between mad love and hatred of a force he is powerless to control. Much of the novel focuses on this dynamic as Bandini attempts to win his way into Camilla’s heart by any means necessary. He often appears uncaring to her own desires and somewhat oblivious to her own disintegrating mental state.

Ask the Dust is an immediately relatable story about a 20-something attempting to find his way through the world. This message is clearly laid out at the conclusion of chapter fourteen when Camilla asked Arturo to read and critique her lover Sammy’s writing, whom we learn is dying. Arturo sees an opportunity to cut down Sammy with a devastating criticism and maybe even win back the love of Camilla through his superior literary prowess. Arturo feverishly pours over the manuscript and pens a scathing criticism which he immediately runs out to post at 3am. As he stands before the mailbox letter in hand under the stars and utterly quiet streets we get a profound moment of introspection where Bandini muses on the relationship between nature and man. Counting himself now amongst the brave men who fight back the inevitable tide of death he decides to rewrite his letter to Sammy offering genuine criticism as a fellow writer. A breakneck handful of paragraphs ending with Bandini’s own assessment of himself as “a great, soft-spoken, gentle man, a lover of all things, men and beast alike.”


This is how we could imagine Arturo’s letter to Sammy:


Dear Sammy,


I'm writing you now just to see if you're better. I hear that you're building your little house deep in the desert. You're living for nothing now, I hope you're keeping some kind of record. Camilla came by with a lock of your hair; she said that you gave it to her

that night that you planned to go clear.


The last time we saw you you looked so much older, you'd been to the station to meet every train, and you treated my woman to a flake of your life.

And when she came back she was nobody's wife.


Well I see you there with the rose in your teeth, one more thin gypsy thief

Camilla’s awake and she sends her regards

And what can I tell you? What can I possibly say?

I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you. I'm glad you stood in my way

If you ever come by here, for Camilla or for me, well, your enemy is sleeping, and his woman is free. And thanks, for the trouble you took from her eyes

I thought it was there for good.


Sincerely, A. Bandini


And then someone made a song out of the letter: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DHqqlm9yf7M







CHAPTER 18


[…]

When I came downstairs, Camilla had taken Willie for a walk along the shore. I stood at the back door and watched them, a quarter of a mile away. I could see Camilla bent over, clapping her hands, and then running, with Willie tumbling after her. But I couldn't actually see Willie, he was so small and he blended so perfectly with the white sand. I went inside. On the kitchen table lay Camilla's purse. I opened it, dumped the contents on the table. Two Prince Albert cans of marijuana fell out. I emptied them into the toilet, and threw the cans into the trash box. Then I went out and sat on the porch steps in the warm sun, watching Camilla and the dog as they made their way back to the house. It was about two o'clock. I had to go back to Los Angeles, pack my stuff, and check out of the hotel. It would take five hours. I gave Camilla money to buy food and the house things we needed. When I left she was lying on her back, her face to the sun. Curled up on her stomach was Willie, sound asleep. I shouted goodbye, let the clutch out, and swung into the main coast highway. On the way back, loaded down with typewriter, books, and suitcases, I had a flat tyre. Darkness came quickly. It was almost nine o'clock when I pulled into the yard of the beach house. The lights were out. I opened the front door with my key and shouted her name. There was no answer, I turned on all the lights and searched every room, every closet. She was gone. There was no sign of her, or of Willie. I unloaded my things. Perhaps she had taken the dog for another walk. But I was deceiving myself. She was gone. By midnight I doubted that she would return, and by one o'clock I was convinced she wouldn't. I looked again for some note, some message. There was no trace of her. It was as though she had not so much as set foot in that house.


I decided to stay on. The rent was paid for a month, and I wanted to try the room upstairs. That night I slept there, but the next morning I began to hate the place. With her there it was part of a dream; without her, it was a house. I packed my things into the rumble seat and drove back to Los Angeles. When I got back to the hotel, someone had taken my old room during the night. Everything was awry now. I took another room on the main floor, but I didn't like it. Everything was going to pieces. The new room was so strange, so cold, without one memory. When I looked out the window the ground was twenty feet away. No more climbing out the window, no more pebbles against the glass. I set my typewriter in one place and then another. It didn't seem to fit anywhere. Something was wrong, everything was wrong.

I went for a walk through the streets. My God, here I was again, roaming the town. I looked at the faces around me and I knew mine was like theirs. Faces with the blood drained away, tight faces, worried, lost. Faces like flowers torn from their roots and stuffed into a pretty vase, the colours draining fast. I had to get away from that town.


Imagine the following conversations, and try to give an answer to each of the questions. If you think you don’t have enough information and can’t therefore answer, think of a past love of yours….



Just before leaving, Arturo took his typewriter and wrote this poem:


April, come she will

When streams are ripe and swelled with rain

May, she will stay

Resting in my arms again

June, she'll change her tune

In restless walks she'll prowl the night


July, she will fly

And give no warning to her flight

August, die she must

The autumn winds blow chilly and cold

September, I'll remember

A love once new has now grown old




…which someone turned again into a song in 1966


Some more years later, it was 1975, somebody else pretended to be Arturo, and wrote a short story about this romance and how they could have made it real…


The screen door slams, Camilla's dress sways. Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays Roy Orbison singing for the lonely. It's me and I want you only; don't turn me home again, I just can't face myself alone again. Don't run back inside, darling you know just what I'm here for. So you're scared and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore. Show a little faith! There’s magic in the night! You ain't a beauty, but you're alright. And that's alright with me. You can hide beneath your covers and study your pain make crosses from your lovers, throw roses in the rain, waste your summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets. Well now I'm no hero, that's understood. All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood, with a chance to make it good somehow: What else can we do now? Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair. The night's busting open, these two lanes will take us anywhere. We’ve got one last chance to make it real, to trade in these wings on some wheels: Climb in back, heaven's waiting down on the tracks! Come, take my hand, riding out tonight to case the promised land, lying out there like a killer in the sun. I know it's late, we can make it if we run: sit tight, take hold. I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk, and my car's out back if you're ready to take that long walk from your front porch to my front seat, the door's open but the ride it ain't free. And I know you're lonely for words that I ain't spoken; tonight we'll be free, all the promises will be broken. There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away. They haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets. They scream your name at night in the street, your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet and in the lonely cool before dawn you hear their engines roaring on, but when you get to the porch they're gone on the wind.

So Camilla climb in! It's a town full of losers, I'm pulling out of here to win.

Some more years later, it was 1975, somebody else pretended to be Arturo, and wrote a short story about this romance and how they could have made it real…

The screen door slams, Camilla's dress sways. Like a vision she dances across the porch as the radio plays Roy Orbison singing for the lonely. It's me and I want you only; don't turn me home again, I just can't face myself alone again. Don't run back inside, darling you know just what I'm here for. So you're scared and you're thinking that maybe we ain't that young anymore. Show a little faith! There’s magic in the night! You ain't a beauty, but you're alright. And that's alright with me. You can hide beneath your covers and study your pain make crosses from your lovers, throw roses in the rain, waste your summer praying in vain for a savior to rise from these streets. Well now I'm no hero, that's understood. All the redemption I can offer, girl, is beneath this dirty hood, with a chance to make it good somehow: What else can we do now? Except roll down the window and let the wind blow back your hair. The night's busting open, these two lanes will take us anywhere. We’ve got one last chance to make it real, to trade in these wings on some wheels: Climb in back, heaven's waiting down on the tracks! Come, take my hand, riding out tonight to case the promised land, lying out there like a killer in the sun. I know it's late, we can make it if we run: sit tight, take hold. I got this guitar and I learned how to make it talk, and my car's out back if you're ready to take that long walk from your front porch to my front seat, the door's open but the ride it ain't free. And I know you're lonely for words that I ain't spoken; tonight we'll be free, all the promises will be broken. There were ghosts in the eyes of all the boys you sent away. They haunt this dusty beach road in the skeleton frames of burned-out Chevrolets. They scream your name at night in the street, your graduation gown lies in rags at their feet and in the lonely cool before dawn you hear their engines roaring on, but when you get to the porch they're gone on the wind.

So Camilla climb in! It's a town full of losers, I'm pulling out of here to win.



Now it’s your turn. Imagine you are Camilla, and write a letter, or a poem, to Arturo. Feel free to focus on the time you spent together, or on the reason(s) why you didn’t make it and decided to leave him, your new life, your regrets, your dreams, your future plans….

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