Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: Ask the Dust

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, July 11, 2001

War in Europe, a speech by Hitler, trouble in Poland, these were the topics of the day. What piffle! You warmongers, you old folks in the lobby of the Alta Loma Hotel, here is the news, here: this little paper with all the fancy legal writing, my book! To hell with that Hitler, this is more important than Hitler, this is about my book. It won’t shake the world, it won’t kill a soul, it won’t fire a gun, ah, but you’ll remember it to the day you die, you’ll lie there breathing your last, and you’ll smile as you remember the book.

A sort of an ur-Algren or ur-Bukowski, this is a simple read but a hard book about a young writer newly emigrated to Los Angeles from Boulder, Colorado in the late thirties.

AuthorJohn Fante
Length165 pages
Book Rating6

Arturo Bandini moved to Los Angeles on the strength of selling one story to a magazine, “The Little Dog Laughed”. He knew he was destined to be a great writer, although he hasn’t been writing much recently. Sound familiar? You’ll see that familiar plot in a new light after “Ask the Dust”.

“Ask the Dust” was written in 1939 (there is only a passing reference to the events in Europe, also, it shows an understanding of marijuana that was probably gained only from movies such as “Reefer Madness”). Arturo Bandini is a royal pain in the ass, but clearly a good writer. He has dreams that he deliberately short-circuits when he might be close to reaching them. When he does manage to write something, it is accidentally, and he doesn’t even know he’s done it until he gets paid for it. He falls in love, and treats the girl like dirt, and doesn’t even do that well enough, so that he quickly loses her to someone who treats her even worse.

Fante was a big influence on Charles Bukowski. In the introduction, Bukowski writes:

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!

That is the kind of thing the book has as well. You’re moving along, getting into the story, and then Arturo does something horribly ugly, and then he has to recover from it. But there are moments of insight, of grandness even. In one of the lighter moments in the book Arturo and a girl are sitting on the beach watching the ocean.

In the street the little Japanese kids were having a big football game. One of them was a pretty good passer. I turned my back to the sea and watched the game.

“Watch the sea,” Camilla said. “You’re supposed to admire beautiful things, you writer.”

“He throws a beautiful pass,” I said.

This is an odd book. On the one hand, Arturo Bandini is clearly an intelligent and well-spoken writer. On the other, he seems almost retarded. He’s annoyingly smug, overbearing, and yet there’s more than a touch of humanity that makes up for it. This is an exaggeration of life, with the dark side of ourselves exaggerated more than the light. But Fante is an incredible writer and makes it all worthwhile reading.

Ask the Dust

John Fante

Recommendation: Borrow

If you enjoyed Ask the Dust…

For more about slums, you might also be interested in Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday, Never Come Morning, and Tortilla Flat.