Notes on John Fante’s “Ask the Dust”

John Fante’s “Ask the Dust” is a conservative and cynical, short poetic novel. It’s poetic because its episodic movement is tense and packed, its diction deliberate, satisfying Ezra Pound’s definition of poetry. It’s cynical because of its unrelenting brutality posing as reality. Must one always suppose that to live in seediness and squalor means to live unhappily? The antonym climb from the seedy leads too often to the high-class, which breeds its own pot of seed. And it’s cynical because it views unrequited love a mean and debasing disease; it’s cynical as Nietzsche is cynical – it’s nihilistic. It’s conservative because the characters are portrayed as hypocrites who get what they deserve, base characters whose tasteless origins explain their bad decisions. It’s conservative because its hopes are grounded in middle class values, where shame is used as a tool to control, even to control oneself. It’s conservative for its traditional views locating alcohol and drug abuse at the heart of human decline and misery, where lust is confused for love, and abuse for affection, and greed for dreams. At the same time, it’s possible to read the novel as an American proletariat satire, a tragicomedy, but first you have to allow tragedy off its pedestal. Then again, maybe it’s just farce, the difference between satire and farce being that satire has a point.

The action takes place during the Great Depression. The year is 1933. The young, first person narrator and main character, the hyperbolic, capricious, and vindictive Arturo Bandini, has relocated from Colorado to Los Angeles to win fame and money as a writer. The character would today remind us of the 1968 Hal David lyric, “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” which references wannabe actors who are employed at the bottom of the Hollywood food chain, literally. The prototype gets off the bus at Hollywood and Vine, cardboard suitcase in hand, expecting to walk onto a movie set, but soon finds himself running hotel shuttles to the airport with aspirations to work his way up to a bellhop job. Except in the great Bandini’s case the stereotype is true. He sells a couple of magazine stories and then a novel. But he knows not frugality, the temperamental Bandini. He spends lavishly, wastefully, funnily – buying, for example, two new suits, only to yank the clothes off in frustration for their ill fit and general unsuitability, as he digs his old but comfortable duds out of his trash.

Bandini’s (if you can take his word for it) extensive reading has done nothing to soothe his scorched brow as he types feverishly away at his torched stories. He claims familiarity with Joyce, whom he’s going to give a run for his money, and while he hasn’t read Lenin, he’s heard him quoted, and claims allegiance to Lenin’s idea that religion is opium for the people (22). He apparently hasn’t read Marx either. He’s read Emerson and Whitman, though, but no help there either for our lovelorn antihero. And Bandini has read Mencken, which is where he might have acquired his idea of a sense of superiority. Mencken plus Nietzsche plus greed – now there is a formula for the will to power. But: “You have read Nietzsche, you have read Voltaire, you should know better. But reasoning wouldn’t help” (96). Bandini is a hypersensitive, mood swinging, hypercritical victim of unrequited love, determined to get revenge by writing his way out of the storm and win his love by twisting her arm and knocking out her humiliating boyfriend.

In the middle of the book, Bandini follows the mysterious Vera Rivken down to Long Beach. So far, he’s not capitalized on his chances with women. Something always goes wrong, usually with his mood. He’s easily insulted, and his own tongue is so brazen and quick and uncontrollable that what offends his ear causes a whiplash to fly out of his mouth. He’s a braggart, but his wit and aim usually hit the target, yet he’s prone to even the score immediately through his self-loathing. His every resolution is betrayed in his next breath. In Long Beach, he’s caught in the earthquake, which scares him back to church, and he even “gave up cigarets [sic] for a few days” (104). He’s a human yo-yo: “This interested me. A new side to my character, the bestial, the darkness, the unplumbed depth of a new Bandini. But after a few blocks the mood evaporated” (108).

“Nothing like it since Joyce” (113), Bandini says. Nothing like it before, either. Consider the trip into the Valley with Hellfrick, who bludgeons a calf and drives it back to their hotel in LA where he promises Bandini “a lesson in butchering” (111). It’s scenes like that one that give the short novel its episodic and spasmodic structure. Time dances. In places, the writing is like something out of a comic book. This idea is even made explicit: “take that, Sammy boy, and that, and how do you like this left hook, and how do you like this right cross, zingo, bingo, bang, biff, blooey!” (118). And then comes the set piece, the letter criticizing Sammy’s efforts to write, which indeed is “devastating” (119). But that’s ok, because before dropping it in the mailbox, Bandini changes his mind yet again and rewrites it to give Sammy some legitimate help. Besides, Bandini’s in love, and “Who cares about a novel, another goddamn novel?” (146), this one included, the one we’re reading.

In the end, “Something was wrong, everything was wrong” (160), and we wonder why bother with any of it, the flip flopping, the depression, the indecisiveness and lack of commitment, the vengeful, childish fantasies. Well, because that’s just where things begin to ring true, and you can hear the noon Angelus bells ringing throughout the Basin. This acceptance that this is really how people behave, including, perhaps particularly, people in love, is apparently what attracted Charles Bukowski to the book. In his short introduction to the 1980 reissue of the book (originally published in 1939, then out of print), Bukowski suggests he liked “Ask the Dust” because it seemed to be about the street from the street. He says Fante was an influential writer for him.

And who was John Fante, and what did he do after “Ask the Dust”? As it turns out, Fante may not have been as interested in the street as in getting off the street. This is what Bandini wants. Interested readers will benefit from a series of interviews (about four hours worth) conducted by Ben Pleasants at Fante’s place in Malibu in the late 70’s. The link is to 3:AM Magazine. The first interview mentions Edmund Wilson, and Pleasants and Fante wonder why Wilson didn’t review “Ask the Dust,” particularly since Wilson had shown the special interest in California writers. Pleasants suggests Wilson’s “The Boys in the Back Room” (about California writers James M. Cain, Horace McCoy, Richard Hallas, John O’Hara, William Saroyan, John Steinbeck, and Hans Otto Storm) came out before “Ask the Dust.” But my copy of Wilson’s “A Literary Chronicle: 1920-1950” indicates, at the end of the chapter on California writers, “These notes were first written during the autumn and early winter of 1940” (245), so after “Ask the Dust” was published and out. Wilson then adds a postscript after F. Scott Fitzgerald and Nathanael West die within a day of one another in late December, 1940, where he seeks to “make the California story complete” (246), and the end date for the whole chapter is then given as 1940-1941. Maybe Wilson excluded Fante deliberately, or maybe he simply had never read him. Wilson’s opinion about Hollywood was clear, “…its already appalling record of talent depraved and wasted” (249), but for the Fante of “Ask the Dust,” that apparently was still ahead.

John Fante, “Ask the Dust,” 1939. With an Introduction by Charles Bukowski, 1980 (Black Sparrow). First Ecco edition, 2002, and with Archival Material (24 pages) in First Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition, 2006. The text of the novel is 154 pages in the Harper edition.

Jerry Lewis at the Paradise

I was working in the film industry; I had a job as an usher at the Paradise theatre in the South Bay area of Los Angeles. The Paradise lobby swept up and curved away from the entrance and concession bar with deep, plush carpet. On the curved, floor-to-ceiling, wood-paneled wall hung commemorative Oscar plaques. In the single-screen hall, three sections of long-rowed seats angled down to a large screen, edged with maroon velvet curtains. With its high ceilings, faux boxes, and loge seats in the rear, the Paradise was a swank place.

The Paradise still featured sneak previews, where most tickets were gifted to ensure a full house. The previewed films were not yet released, were still being edited. The previews helped build hype and advertising while giving the editors a live-audience reaction to think about before a final edit.

One spectacular South Bay evening we were showing a new Jerry Lewis film. We rolled the red carpet out the door and across the broad sidewalk all the way to the curb, and Jerry Lewis emerged slim from a shiny black stretch limo, wearing flat-black tuxedo pants with enamel-black stripes down each leg, and a blinding white shirt under a candy-apple red, button-down sweater. His shiny, thin, black loafers matched the jet-black sheen of his short hair, spiked just above the forehead.

After the standard brouhaha welcoming him and his entourage, Jerry was seated in the last seat in the last row in the middle section of the hall. The lights went down and the movie began to a quiet, full house, and ShaZAM!

When the movie came on I was standing at attention, my flashlight in hand, at the end of a far aisle, and I rocked back on my feet when the first wave of sound hit me. Jerry had requested he be specially wired in his seat to control the volume, but something must have gone wrong. I hurried out the door for the lobby where I met the manager and two other ushers. It didn’t take long for patrons from the first few rows to come back complaining. They wanted the volume turned down. All we could offer was a complimentary ticket to a future show; Jerry Lewis was controlling the sound, and he wanted it loud.

About half way through the movie, the first few rows having thinned out but the remaining audience seemingly satisfied, I stood in the back of the lobby against the Oscar wall, and Jerry came out to smoke a cigarette. He stood about twelve feet away from me. We were the only ones in the lobby at the moment. He smoked, relaxed, inscrutable. The sound of the movie occasionally seeped out of the hall into the usually quiet lobby. I watched him smoke. I had just returned from active duty; in fact, I was wearing my low-quarters, my name and military ID number sewn under the tongues. I was surfing my days away, waiting for the new semester to start at school, and ushering nights at the Paradise. I could have said something to Jerry. He was a nice guy. I could have asked him why so loud, but I knew the answer to that, and I left him to his smoke.

I had been at the Paradise only a couple of weeks. The next day, Sunday, I arrived early to work the matinee. The manager gave me the job of scraping chewing gum off the bottom of the seats, before the doors opened. I stood in the back row, at the seat Jerry had sat in the night before. I looked across the long row. I looked down the formation of empty seats to the white screen. I walked out of the hall up to the usher dressing room, changed back into my street clothes, leaving my low-quarters behind, and walked back out into the solid gold South Bay weekend. I never went back to the Paradise, never recovered my low-quarters. I heard one of the other ushers was wearing them. A few years later the theatre was closed and converted into office space.

Leslie Fiedler and the Either/Or Fallacy of Poetic Criticism

Perhaps there are only two kinds of poetry, still only two kinds of poems. Dichotomy makes for easy argument by eliminating all other possible alternatives. We often hear there are two schools of thought, and any ambiguity is quickly brushed away. The one poetry might be represented by T. S. Eliot, and is characterized by recondite allusion, objects removed to libraries for safe keeping, the other poetry represented by William Carlos Williams, and characterized by everyday objects close at hand, the red wheelbarrow, the icebox. How quickly though this argument ignores the actual words, as we forget Eliot’s elusive but simple, figurative cat hidden in the fog of Prufrock’s meandering thoughts, and we forget too Williams’s “The Yachts,” a poem that discourages an easy swim.

Leslie Fiedler, in his essay for Liberations (1971), “The Children’s Hour: or, The Return of the Vanishing Longfellow: Some Reflections of the Future of Poetry,” argues that there are two kinds of poetry, or poetics, identified by the poems we sing and get by heart, and the poems we must read and read again to recall, for the latter can exist only on a page, poems that Fiedler says are “…dictated by typography…; for it is a truly post-Gutenberg poetry, a kind of verse not merely reproduced but in some sense produced by movable type” (150). These poems are contrasted with popular song lyrics, automatically memorized, that simply don’t work when typed on a page. To illustrate, one goes to a poetry reading, where the poet himself appears not to have his poems by heart, since he must read them from pages; or one goes to a Bob Dylan concert, where the wandering minstrel still has all the words by heart. But Dylan Thomas, reciting from memory, singing unaccompanied, disposes the either/or fallacy of the poetry reading/pop-concert argument.

Speaking of either/or, last night’s snow, still a surprise this morning, has us thinking of our south Santa Monica Bay home again, where we were surprised and nostalgically saddened on a visit to Hermosa some time ago to find the old Either/Or bookstore closed. But then again, not surprised, for the either/or fallacy often leaves too much unresolved, fails to reach the heart of any poem, fails to hear the coming of the end of one song, and the beginning of another. The bookstore was now a clothing store; apparently someone fell into the old either/or fallacy of either books or clothes, but not both.

Small Wave Riders 2009 annual surf trip video

Joe Waves at El Porto circa 1969

El Porto waves, circa 1969, riding a modified Jacobs.

Gregg Noll, the first of the modern big wave surfers, never lost sight of the fun to be found in small waves. In the early-60s, still in the original Gregg Noll surfboard shop, in Hermosa, when asked if he found small waves boring after having surfed the giants, he replied not at all, he would always have fun in the South Bay slop. I know that because I was there, a local kid dreaming of a new board, and I asked him.

Having fun in small surf is the sentiment that fuels Small Wave Riders. There are other reasons – as we get older, paddling out gets harder. And there is the pulling archetype of the surf trip (on the west coast, this means a long cruise on Highways 1 and 101, and Pacific Coast Highway, and Highland Ave., checking out the surf spots along the way); and community, always local, throwing off the work clothes (if necessary) for jeans, t shirt, and sandals – trunks and a surfboard (for “Jesus was a [surfer] when he walked upon the water,” sang Leonard Cohen, or might have sang, had he been a surfer; he sang “…sailor…only drowning men could see him”) – living out of the surf rig, a tent, the occasional old friend’s place up from the beach, eating out of bags, or at the best (discovered word of mouth) local dives, body sticky with sand, wax, and salt; and the blue green grey lure of the ocean, of men going down to the sea.

Of course, over time, conditions change. Jesus now wears a wet suit, including booties, hands, and hood, and every spot is crowded, even the spots where the waves are so small they can hardly be called waves. The locals are even more protective of their spots, so the surfer on safari is sometimes well-advised to select a less crowded spot, even if it means yet smaller waves. But “just get in [the water]” is brother John Linker’s mantra. Once in, once the glass is broken, there’s no closer union with nature, physically and mentally. One doesn’t think on waves, not in the normal sense of thinking; once in, one is guided almost by pure instinct, and the Cartesian split is temporarily taped.

So we were delighted to receive in the mail this past week the 2009 Small Wave Riders annual surf trip video, this year titled 5 Point 5. The film technology continues to improve, as does the technique. The sound track is blended with the waves and action, and the sequences of driving, stopping to check out a spot, paddling out, catching waves, then kicking back after the set, create a structure that feels natural, allowing for hightened viewer engagement. Some of the technique is reminiscent of the best of the old surf films, the ones we used to see in the Hermosa Beach High School auditorium, the independent, locally filmed surf movies, and there are also reminders of the great, original Endless Summer. Of course, these days, the summers get shorter, not longer, let alone endless, and the trip comes to an end, again in the old surf film manner, too soon, after only 35 minutes of small wave surfing. But it’s enough. Our appetite for a wave is soaking wet.

Where weather and writing merge

In Joan Didion’s essay “The Santa Ana,” our psyches succumb to exotic weather, an atavistic vestige from when we lived outdoors. The Santa Ana blows dry and hot across the Los Angeles basin, purposefully, a theme exploring a thesis, exhaust flowing west out the boulevards, across the strands and beaches and into the waves, and out to the ends of the jetties and piers, and then across the flat salt water stretches of Santa Monica Bay. The smog sludges along with the wind out to the horizon where it obscures the setting sun, collecting in clouds like becalmed ships hovering, smoking, drifting off the edge.

When we lived in Santa Ana country, our interest in the wind was limited to its effects on surfing conditions. The offshore winds blow into the waves, holding them up, keeping them glassy. Surfers, young, living outdoors, we welcomed the Santa Ana winds. Where we live now the atavistic sense is stirred by the East Wind that blows on clear winter days out of the Gorge and across town. Sometimes in the summer the East Wind blows hot, but winter gets the longest swells, the winds so thin and cold they floss your bones. Locals say, simply, “The East Wind is coming,” and dress for wind chill factor, wrap their outdoor pipes, secure things out in the yard, looking up into their trees expectantly. The local news people tried one year to name the East Wind, but the name they came up with did not stick with the locals. The East Wind is still called the East Wind.

“The Santa Ana” was originally published in the Saturday Evening Post, whose readers apparently appreciated when weather and writing merged. The less obvious thesis of Didion’s essay is that our psyches succumb to writing and reading too, and, if not, we’re probably not reading what we need, what we should. We write to stir the Santa Ana within us, and we read for the same reason, to feel the East Wind blow within. We write and read to stir the Santa Ana in the basin of our brain, where our own angels lounge; we write and read to call the East Wind through the gorge of our complacency. If we don’t feel some extreme weather building within, something is missing. Joan Didion’s essay is the Santa Ana. When she writes, “There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension,” we know that the writing will be equally uneasy, unnaturally still, and tense.

Didion, J. (1979). Los Angeles notebook. In Slouching Towards Bethlehem (pp. 217-221). New York: Simon and Schuster.

Baseball and the parts of speech

Opening day of baseball should be declared a national holiday. Today’s the big day. In our area we’ve experienced snow flurries, rhubarbs of hail, and sleet, wind, and everyday rain this past week. But now the sun is supposed to make an appearance. Yet we know everything remains imperfect. We know the sun will not shine on every game. And we’ll let Malcolm Gladwell worry about baseball and drugs. We’re concerned about baseball and the parts of speech.  

E. B. White encourages us to write with nouns and verbs: “The adjective hasn’t been built that can pull a weak or inaccurate noun out of a tight place” (p. 71). William Zinsser agrees, admonishing, “Most adverbs are unnecessary” (p. 69); and “Most adjectives are also unnecessary” (p. 70). But sage advice can mislead. Francis Christensen, in his book “Notes Toward a New Rhetoric,” views the game differently, quoting from John Erskine’s “The Craft of Writing”: “‘When you write, you make a point, not by subtracting as though you sharpened a pencil, but by adding.’ We have all been told that the formula for good writing is the concrete noun and the active verb. Yet Erskine says, ‘What you say is found not in the noun but in what you add to qualify the noun…The noun, the verb, and the main clause serve merely as the base on which meaning will rise…The modifier is the essential part of any sentence’“ (p. 4). 

We may not catch the parts of speech as they fly over our head or roll between our legs, yet they are always visibly in play. From most seats, a fan can’t tell if a pitch, upon delivery, is a fastball, a curve, a slider, a splitter, a cutter, a knuckler, a screwball, or a changeup, not until we see what the batter does with it, and even then we’re often unsure. Yet knowing the pitches and observing how the pitcher-catcher battery mixes them up against the batter is the best way to watch a game. Pitches are like words. There’s hardly time for a sentence from the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand to crossing the plate, but from windup to swing is a complete thought.  

We had the opportunity a couple of years ago to speak with Dave Niehaus, the voice of the Mariners. We wondered how he was able to call each pitch: “Freddy taking his time, now ready, shakes off a sign from Wilson, reads another, gets set, and here’s the pitch – fastball on the outside corner for call strike one.” Or it could have been a slider, or any of the other eight basic pitches of baseball. Niehaus delivered his answer in an anecdote: when he was broadcasting with the Angels, he said, owner Gene Autry came into the box one night after the game. “You called a great game tonight, Dave,” Gene Autry said; “I’m just not sure it was the same game that I saw.” 

Another time we were invited to watch an inning up in the broadcast booth. We sat next to Ron Fairly, LA Dodger first baseman of the 1960’s, who was keeping box score with a pencil, in a thick, oversized scorebook. There was a laptop in the booth, and a stats expert who worked it, feeding Niehaus and his sidekick Rick Rizzs notes and numbers they might fit into their commentary, but Fairly was keeping score the old-fashioned way, one pitch at a time, marking essentially the effects of each pitch. The broadcast booth framed a particular view of the game. The open window framed the field like a camera, directly behind and up from home plate, omitting the fans down the first and third base lines, thus forcing a sharpened focus onto the field of play. The broadcast booth afforded an enhanced view of the field, a very different view from any other seat we’ve occupied in the ballpark. 

We write for an audience, even if imaginary, but if you are going to call a game, you must block out the game the fans are watching, and call your own. Some coaches encourage pitchers to stick to the fastball and curve. Others admonish avoiding screwballs and changeups. Most pitchers specialize in only a few pitches they use repeatedly, mixing the rotation so the ball comes at the batter with surprise, and modifying with location and speed, depending on the age and condition of their arm – fastballs often lose their pizzazz as the arm ages.  

In the 1960s, in Los Angeles, roofed in blue, Dodgers fans often took their transistor radios to games to listen to the play by play by Vin Scully and Jerry Doggett. One learned some of the tricks of the game. A homerun flies quickly out of a ballpark. “Homerun” adequately describes the hit, in the time it takes the ball to clear the fence, yet Vin Scully knew, as Christensen and Erskine did, that writing is “essentially a process of addition” (p. 4). For Vin Scully could be heard on the radio still talking about a long fly ball to deep right center field, Mays going back, way back, to the wall, it’s gone! – the ball having flown over the fence some time ago, the slugging Dodger already rounding second base. So it goes with writing as with baseball. There are tricks built into the skills. But now it’s time to call it quits for the day, quit writing, that is, because there’s a whiffle ball game starting up out on the block, and we don’t want to miss the first cut – it’s opening day!