This week in 1886, the first train loaded exclusively with California oranges left L.A.'s River Station for the East in a central moment for an industry that would come to define the state as much as the movie business. Oranges, in fact, were characters in John Fante's "Ask the Dust," one of the great Los Angeles novels. The protagonist is a struggling writer, renting a room in a hotel on Bunker Hill, "past the soot-covered frame buildings," as Fante describes in the 1939 novel, with "sand and oil and grease choking the futile palm trees standing like dying prisoners, chained to a little plot of ground with black pavement hiding their feet." He buys what groceries he can afford in the flatland of downtown Los Angeles, counting the 140 steps of Angels Flight to Hill Street, and sometimes oranges make a meal. A new Ecco Press edition of the novel was just published.
The lean days, blue skies with never a cloud, a sea of blue day after day, the sun floating through it. The days of plenty—plenty of worries, plenty of oranges. Eat them in bed, eat them for lunch, push them down for dinner. Oranges, five cents a dozen. Sunshine in the sky, sun juice in my stomach. Down at the Japanese market he saw me coming, that bullet-faced smiling Japanese, and he reached for a paper sack. A generous man, he gave me fifteen, sometimes twenty for a nickel.
"You like banana?" Sure, so he gave me a couple of bananas. A pleasant innovation, orange juice and bananas. "You like apple?" Sure, so he gave me some apples. Here was something new: oranges and apples. "You like peaches?" Indeed, and I carried the brown sack back to my room. An interesting innovation, peaches and oranges. My teeth tore them to pulp, the juices skewering and whimpering at the bottom of my stomach. It was so sad down there in my stomach. There was much weeping, and little gloomy clouds of gas pinched my heart.
My plight drove me to the typewriter. I sat before it . . . Sometimes an idea floated harmlessly through the room. It was like a small white bird. It meant no ill-will. It only wanted to help me, dear little bird. But I would strike at it, hammer it out across the keyboard, and it would die on my hands.
(Printed by permission of Harper perennial)