Cooper's history with "Ask the Dust" is even more proprietary, but it's also personal. "I was seeking to fill that absence that I didn't even consciously know defined me," he says. "And that was the loss of my father. So I would spend my days just mooning around, moving about, like most young writers, haunted by characters, trying to compose them and failing, failing, failing, failing, failing. . . . And then when I came upon 'Ask the Dust,' it was a time in my life when I was living with every pore open to possibility."
Living, in other words, like Bandini himself, who finally writes his look-at-me novel, only to hurl it to the sands where his goddess went mad. "He's gotten what he wanted, in terms of having written the book . . . to be on the shelf next to the big guys. But desire is such that it outlives its fulfillment. And so he must desire something else. . . . It turns to dust, doesn't it, the fulfillment of desire. So getting what you want is, if you will, just a beginning of the eternal and unattainable story of desire."
The ethnic tension between Fante's lovers (an Italian and a Latina) was exquisite too, and Fante tried to turn up the heat under the L.A. melting pot in an unfinished novel titled "The Little Brown Brothers," full of romantic impossibility in, among other places, a Wilmington cannery. But editors, Cooper says, misread the work as racist, and it was shelved.
"So we don't know how he would have worked this out. John knew how to cuss people out, but everything he wrote proves that he was doing his best to negotiate this core aspect of our culture. In fact, the only person I ever showed 'The Little Brown Brothers' to--because I'm such a Boy Scout about all this--is Philippe Garnier, who translated 'Ask the Dust' into French. And Philippe said, 'Oh, thees must be published!'
"Now I'm thinking," Cooper proposes, "what if X number of your visionary writers--I'm just riffing now--but what if Steve Erickson read these hundred pages? What if, name your 10 writers, they could respond however they wanted to? What if 60 years later, a group of writers read this and--not to finish it, but to take up the vision however they wanted to?"
I ask if the tensions in the book still read fresh today.
"Well, yeah. As fresh as they will remain until the republic is a cinder."
I tell Cooper it would be interesting to name the issues of our times that even L.A. novelists are afraid to address without fears or dogmas. Nationalism. Religion. Abortion. "It's sure not any longer sex," Cooper says, although sex's omnipresence as distraction from life's issues is becoming an issue all its own.
Joshua Tree when we park is disarmingly still. We climb over some boulders from the dawn of time, throw pebbles across a chasm, hear them strike. It's the kind of emptiness, behind the mirage, that makes you forget what you came for, or what people back in the city are writing for--not a bad place, all in all, to hurl a manuscript.
But minutes later, it happens--one of those desert-vision ruptures of reality. Outside a convenience store in Yucca Valley--home to Joy Nicholson's war-buff antagonist, graveyard to Robert Stone's dying soldier--beside the monster trucks and SUVs, a half-dozen Marines in camouflage lounge atop an armored jeep, materialized but ghostly. They look a little like the plastic troops from "Toy Story." You can see them with your mind's eye, and you can hit them with a stone, and they move in slo-mo through the liquor-deli traffic. It's like the scene in "The Day of the Locust" in which actors in period costumes improbably collide, or the back-lot earthquake in "The Last Tycoon," with marooned extras, jungle backdrops and schooners interposed "like the torn storybooks of childhood," or the scene in ... well, never mind. Stone or Nicholson would have known what to say about it, and someday maybe one of them will.
For now, though, I'm left, along with my protagonist, still peering into that Sherman Oaks pantry that started me writing. And I don't know if it's the future or the past that pulls me. I don't know if my real home is in the time capsule that L.A.'s early hopes were stowed in, or just outside the capsule's door, in the world that has vanished around it.
Maybe Southern California Dream Realism is just the ultimate extension of anybody else's literary mode--a way of seeing life stripped of time's pretense. It's a manner of always seeing the terminal desert from the depths of the paradise dream, or paradise from the stretches of life's dry march.
I do know that in our past, in the dark of that pantry, I see the East Coast. Some remnant of ancestry, a quaint hope of continuity, a proper burial, but gone wrong--Waugh's mortuary. I see how fooled my childhood was by every architectural simulation of history.