John Fante’s great gift to Los Angeles
Cruelty, racism, poverty, lies, perversity and oversexed self-delusion: Could this be the stuff of the most lyrical love letter ever addressed to the City of Angels?
Yes, and it is “Ask the Dust,” the 1939 novel by the late John Fante, who was born 100 years ago Wednesday. For many, he is the patron saint of Los Angeles literature.
Nothing about Fante’s birth in 1909 in the poor Italian quarter of North Denver, Colo., suggested future literary glory. His father was a bricklayer who worked and gambled as hard as he drank and brawled.
Fante attended the local parish school in Boulder, and later went to Regis, the Denver Jesuit prep school where he encountered the classics, flirted with a calling to the priesthood and, like his father, learned to use his fists.
Eventually, the personal blow of his father’s abandoning the family for another woman pushed Fante over the edge. He lost his faith and flunked out of the University of Colorado.
Soon, he fled to California to become a writer. Here, with the encouragement of a discerning Long Beach City College English teacher, his stories began to appear in H.L. Mencken’s magazine The American Mercury.
Fante settled first in blue-collar Wilmington before moving to Bunker Hill in downtown L.A. He published a couple of novels, but quickly joined the stable of contract scenarists at Warner Bros., which included W.R. Burnett, Dalton Trumbo and William Faulkner.
For the rest of his writing life, Fante’s loyalties would be split between his commitment to artful fiction and the studio paychecks he earned for typing “hokum.”
He loved writing as much as he hated the movie business, but he never hesitated to contradict himself. Proclaiming a cynical pride in his status as a “ Hollywood whore,” he nurtured the “dream of writing the greatest novel ever written.”
With a wife and four children to support, he cranked out treatments, screenplays and television scripts. Most proved forgettable and were never produced. For his efforts, he was accused of wasting his gifts.
Perhaps those who make such an accusation should be reminded that great novels are not made to order. Here is where the wonder deepens, for how are we to understand the unlikely convergences that, in late 1938 and early 1939, enabled Fante to write what many still consider the best novel ever written about Los Angeles, “Ask the Dust”?
Certainly his life lacked for no turmoil. Sixty years later, his wife Joyce would confide that when they weren’t making love five times a day, they were often ready to kill each other.
The couple’s domestic instability was reflected in their constant apartment-hopping, four different addresses in a matter of months.
And yet, despite the distractions, he attacked the writing of the novel like “a painful boil [that] had to be bled.” Indeed, the line-by-line flow of the prose is like an intense fever dream.
In Fante’s hands, the landscape of greater Los Angeles -- from Pershing Square to the Santa Monica beach to Long Beach to the San Fernando Valley to Central Avenue and finally to the Mojave -- became a three-dimensional character. Never before had the city been seen with such a penetrating, panoramic eye.
Fante’s best friend and drinking crony Carey McWilliams had this in mind when he wrote in his book “Southern California Country” that the novel was one of the few that captured the realities of the region. It is impossible to imagine L.A. or its literature without the touchstone that is “Ask the Dust.”
Unlike his more noirish contemporaries, Fante’s view of Los Angeles is so clear-sighted that it comprehends not only the darkness but also laughter and the simple exhilaration of living.
Out for a walk not far past “the horrible frame houses reeking with murder stories,” Fante’s alter ego, Arturo Bandini, sings: “Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town.”
Fante wrote many other excellent things, including dozens of stories and six more novels, three of them about Bandini -- all of which came close to vanishing.
For more than 40 years, “Ask the Dust” languished in out-of-print oblivion along with the rest of his works, and Fante grew into an aging, forgotten figure.
Thanks to Charles Bukowski, both the author and his work were brought back to our attention. Black Sparrow Press’ 1980 rerelease of “Ask the Dust,” with Bukowski’s heartfelt preface, launched a revival Fante witnessed before his death from complications of diabetes in 1983.
That revival continues today thanks to the farsightedness of Fante’s three surviving children. His files -- novels and short story manuscripts, screenplays, letters, photographs, contracts, baptisms, marriage certificates, a high school scrapbook, even an envelope labeled “John Fante’s hair” -- will soon be accessible to researchers at the Department of Special Collections in the Charles E. Young Research Library at UCLA.
This is both a major acquisition and a gift to Los Angeles. It is a key not just to Fante’s life and work, but also to the soul of the city that, more than 70 years ago, Fante set out to chronicle and to know.
Cooper is the author of “Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante” and a professor of English at Cal State Long Beach.
It's a date
Get our L.A. Goes Out newsletter, with the week's best events, to help you explore and experience our city.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.