JOHN FANTE'S "Ask the Dust" is among the ur-texts of Los Angeles literature, a book that, nearly 70 years after its initial appearance, still offers a vivid portrait of the city's life. Although hardly the earliest Southern California novel (that would be Helen Hunt Jackson's 1884 romance "Ramona"), nor even the earliest modern Southern California novel (Carroll and Garrett Graham's "Queer People," the first real Hollywood satire, came out in 1930, and Fante released a previous work, "Wait Until Spring, Bandini," in 1938), "Ask the Dust" helped frame a new sensibility, by turns cynical and innocent, full of rage and hope and desperation, much like Los Angeles.
Published in 1939, the same year as Raymond Chandler's "The Big Sleep" and Nathanael West's "The Day of the Locust" (and newly reissued in paperback by HarperPerennial Modern Classics), it looks at an L.A. in which glam and glitter are not just distant but nonexistent, and it is enough merely to survive. "One night I was sitting on my bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill," Fante opens the book, "down in the very middle of Los Angeles. It was an important night in my life, because I had to make a decision about the hotel. Either I paid up or I got out: that was what the note said, the note the landlady had put under my door. A great problem, deserving acute attention. I solved it by turning out the lights and going to bed."
"Ask the Dust" revolves around a Fante alter ego named Arturo Bandini, a young writer trying to make his mark. It is, in many ways, the most common of stories, a kind of pilgrim's progress, a naif's initiation into life. Arturo writes, and worries about writing; he falls in love with a Mexican waitress, whom he can't have and (perhaps) doesn't really want. He is casually brutal, to her and to others, and yet his redemption lies in his ability to recognize -- if not mitigate -- this propensity within himself.
In the novel's most memorable set piece, he survives the 1933 Long Beach earthquake, which he interprets as divine retribution for his sins. "You did it, Arturo," the character reflects. "This is the wrath of God. You did it.... Repent before it's too late. I said a prayer but it was dust in my mouth. No prayers. But there would be some changes made in my life. There would be decency and gentleness from now on. This was the turning point. This was for me, a warning to Arturo Bandini."
There is, of course, something solipsistic about reading a natural disaster through a personal filter, as if the Earth itself were little more than a megaphone for God. Yet paradoxically, this becomes one of the novel's charms, the unrelenting way Fante reveals Bandini, and, by extension, himself.
Whatever else "Ask the Dust" is, it is a piece of autobiographical fiction, the author's life transformed into myth. It is a cri de coeur, an expression of self in the face of indifference, the indifference of the world. For all Bandini's crowing ("Here I am, folks. Take a look at a great writer! Notice my eyes, folks. The eyes of a great writer. Notice my jaw, folks. The jaw of a great writer. Look at those hands, folks. The hands that created 'The Little Dog Laughed' and 'The Long Lost Hills' "), he is adrift in the universe, just like everyone.
"It crept upon me," Fante writes, "the restlessness, the loneliness ... the world seemed a myth, a transparent plane, and all things upon it were here for only a little while; all of us, Bandini, and Hackmuth and Camilla and Vera, all of us were here for a little while, and then we were somewhere else; we were not alive at all; we approached living, but we never achieved it. We were going to die. Everybody was going to die. Even you, Arturo, even you must die."
This is a universal moment in which the physical yields to the metaphysical and we stare down mortality as if it were the barrel of a gun. In another way, though, it's oddly local, the place where Los Angeles culture grows up. In Fante's time, much like now, Southern California could be deeply superficial: "A teacher here recently gave a vocabulary test in which she asked her students to provide the antonym of youth," Truman Capote wrote in the late 1940s. "Over half the class answered death." But if that implies a certain fraudulence, a disconnection, what sets Bandini apart is that he's always utterly real. His brutality, his bluster are as much a part of him as the sensitivity Fante exposes throughout the book.