My #16 favorite book, Ask the Dust by John Fante, is a relatively obscure title. If you're thinking of getting me a signed first edition for Chanukah, you probably will think twice, once you see that one copy can be found online at Alibris for $3498.85. That's an amazing fact, since so few people have ever read Fante, and the number of Americans who would even recognize his name is microscopic.
I discovered Fante, like so many others, through the championing of Charles Bukowski. Don't groan if you are Bukowski-haters, for Fante is not Buk, just as Buk was not Fante. Fante was who Bukowski read in the '40s and '50s. Ask the Dust is considered his masterpiece, but other titles like Wait Until Spring, Bandini, Dago Red, The Brotherhood of the Grape, and The Road to Los Angeles are quite good as well.
Fante's stories are autobiographical in nature, those of a child of immigrants from Italy, growing up in America during the Depression. Ask the Dust, published in 1939, is the story of a young novelist, full of piss and vinegar, trying to make it as a writer in Los Angeles.
I just checked out the Internet Movie Database to see if this novel ever made it to the screen, as I know that Fante, who wrote for Hollywood, also had two of his books made into movies. His novel Full of Life was released on film in 1956 and Joe Mantegna played the title role in Wait Until Spring, Bandini. I am pleased to see that Ask the Dust was completed this year (no release date yet), starring Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek, and Donald Sutherland, in a film written and directed by the great filmmaker Robert Towne. This is particularly exciting because Towne wrote the screenplay and won the Oscar for the classic Chinatown, in which Depression-era Los Angeles is also a major "character," in the same sense that Manhattan is a character in the films of Woody Allen.
But I digress. This is about the book, not about film. Fante's writing is beautiful in its simplicity. I remember reading this in the early 1990's, in Los Angeles, and being amazed at how Fante's writing was so powerful in its description of L.A. in its early days. The imagery of the growing City of Angels is so vivid, you can taste the grittiness of the dust floating up from the words as they bound across the pages.