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Friday, April 10, 2009

City of Dust: John Fante and the City of Los Angeles

It wasn't intentional, but apparently I finished reading Ask the Dust by John Fante just in time to celebrate what would have been his 100th birthday.

I initially added Ask the Dust to my 'to read' list a few years ago when my short fiction writing professor, Stephen Cooper, glowed about Fante. At the time, he had just finished writing Fante's biography,
Full of Life: A Biography of John Fante, so I took his endorsement with a grain of salt.

No grain of salt was needed.

Ask the Dust is passionate, intense, and brutal. And it offers some of the most stirring descriptions of Los Angeles that I can ever remember reading. In some ways Fante's Los Angeles of the 1930s is not the same as my current one of the oughts. But the sensation of Los Angeles is still the same: the palm trees, warm winds, racial tensions, long highways to dusty deserts, startling earthquakes, and transplanted dreamers.

John Fante's children have recently donated his archive of manuscripts, letters, and documents to the public which will be available for viewing at the Department of Special Collections in the Charles E. Young Research Library at UCLA. In honor of this donation, and his 100th birthday, Cooper has written an essay in the LA Times, which you can find here.

One of the most oft-repeated stories about Ask the Dust tells how the book went out of print after its 1954 Bantam run, and stayed that way until 1980, when Charles Bukowski rescued it from literary oblivion. Since then, its admirers have grown, and continue to do so still.

In one of my favorite passages, Camilla Lopez, the mysterious heroine of the book, cruises down Wilshire Boulevard in an open topped car, one leg dangling over the side, unapologetic about letting the cool breeze blow up her skirt. As she attracts the attention of nearby drivers and the embarrassment of her passenger, her only response is to simply press down on the gas and tilt her head back and laugh.

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