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John Fante's 'Ask the Dust' grows with time

The 1939 novel is finding its way into college classrooms at the 100th anniversary of the author's birth. Tonight, Zócalo hosts a panel on him at the Hammer Museum.

April 07, 2009|Carolyn Kellogg

John Fante's literary alter ego Arturo Bandini strolls onto the opening pages of 1939's "Ask the Dust" with little to do, scarcely any money, even less to eat and a lot to say.

He is a frustrated writer, newly arrived in L.A., as arrogant as he is self-loathing, struck by beauty and choking on fumes, lustful and cold. He sneers when offered something he wants despite the fact that he wants it so desperately.

It is an adolescent stance, the voice of a brutal, raw, 20-year-old Holden Caulfield flying without a net. And while grown-ups may find Bandini's swaggering contradictions obnoxious, they may be just the things that keep him alive.

Seventy years after its publication, "Ask the Dust" appears regularly on college syllabuses. Often when introduced to such a new voice, says Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Assn., "students really carry that author."

In recent years, students at Harvard and Columbia, USC and Los Angeles City College, Oberlin and the University of North Florida have picked up the story of Arturo Bandini. It might be for a course on ethnic literature or the literature of the Depression or Los Angeles. And this is where adolescent and adult meet. The way Fante brings Los Angeles to life -- not surprisingly, Bandini both embraces and despises it -- is undeniably iconic.

"Anyone who loves L.A. struggles with it, has been obliged to reconcile the disparity between what L.A. is supposed to be and what it actually is," says Gregory Rodriguez, executive director of Zocalo Public Square and a Times op-ed columnist.

"Arturo Bandini's travails embody that collective struggle with L.A.," Rodriguez says, because "there's a love in his struggle." Rodriguez related his favorite passage:

"You'll eat hamburgers year after year and live in dusty, vermin-infested apartments and hotels, but every morning you'll see the mighty sun, the eternal blue of the sky, and the streets will be full of sleek women you never will possess, and the hot semi-tropical nights will reek of romance you'll never have, but you'll still be in paradise, boys, in the land of sunshine."

Tonight, Zocalo hosts a panel at the Hammer Museum in Westwood at 7 celebrating the 100th anniversary of Fante's birth. David Kipen, director of literature for the National Endowment for the Arts, will moderate a panel that includes Fante biographer Stephen Cooper, KCRW's Frances Anderton and Richard Schave, co-founder of the literary-historical bus tour Esotouric.

Schave has also invited fans to celebrate Fante on Wednesday (his actual birthday) in down-on-his-heels Bandini style at 8 p.m. at the King Eddy Saloon, at 131 E. 5th St. in downtown Los Angeles.

Raising a glass to Fante is not without irony. "We have a family curse that's called alcoholism," says Dan Fante, John's second son, speaking from his home in Arizona. For 20 years, Dan drank to excess, and his father had alcohol problems.

Like his father, Dan is an author. "86'd" will be out in Septemberfrom HarperPerennial, followed by a December reissue of three previous novels. Like his father, he writes in the voice of an alter ego, Bruno Dante.

"The things Bruno said and did and Arturo said and did were feelings that were not easily communicated in conversation," Fante says. "Both of them were vehicles for expressing emotion."

Fante found a lot of that emotion when he recently returned to "Ask the Dust," which reinforced for him the connection between his father and Bandini. "Beneath that character lurks the personality of the author," he says. "Boy, it's there." His father, Fante says, "was pretty much Arturo Bandini, only more intense."

"There was a compulsion and a passion and a drivenness and an ambition about my father that exceeded all his other characteristics," Fante adds. "My dad had two overriding moods. One was angry and the other was angrier." Now at work on a memoir about himself and his father, Fante explains that "what began as a very difficult relationship ended as an extremely loving relationship."

When he was 8 or 10, Dan brought him stories he'd written. John Fante, who hand-penned stories in the 1930s and later wrote screenplays before dawn, sitting in his shower stall and typing with two fingers, did not intend to make writing the family vocation. The feedback he gave his young son, Dan says, was "not good."

"Ask the Dust" was written before Dan was born, and his father was sidetracked by a Hollywood career through the 1950s. When he returned to the page, his efforts went unrewarded. "The great sadness for me," Dan Fante says, is that "he just couldn't get them published." The rejections dismissed Fante as "a writer out of his time," and "missing the beat of current literature."

This is the legend: that he is a writer ignored or underappreciated. Reality is a little more complicated.

The original run of "Ask the Dust" was 2,200 copies. It became popular enough to be issued in paperback by Bantam in 1954. Then it went out of print, and would have stayed that way if Charles Bukowski had not spearheaded its 1980 reissue by his publisher, Black Sparrow Press.

Arturo Bandini would be shocked, horrified and eminently pleased to find that a first edition can now be found for $9,000.

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calendar@latimes.com

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