L.A. Weekly is determining the best L.A. novel ever by holding a tournament featuring 32 of our favorites in head-to-head matchups, until there's only one novel standing. For further reading check out:
Our first head-to-head competitors in the Lost Souls Region, John Fante's Ask the Dust (1939) and Charles Bukowski's Post Office (1971) more than live up to their category: both are semi-autobiographical fictionalizations of their own writers' down-and-out years living in cramped hotel rooms and dingy apartments. Both author surrogates drink in the hopes of alleviating their problems but end up amplifying them instead, and neither has anyone but himself to blame for his troubles. There's a restlessness to these two novels that belies their underlying sadness even at their most side-splitting. More similar than they are different, they're two sides of the same coin -- not least because one influenced the other.
In Post Office, Los Angeles is evoked largely via mail routes, with Bukowski stand-in Henry Chinaski rattling off an address here and a neighborhood there. In Ask the Dust, the city is much more central to its plotting. There's the fact that Fante's Arturo Bandini lives in the now-quite-different area of Bunker Hill -- descriptions of which are one of the book's hallmarks, if only for posterity -- and his use of the 1933 Long Beach earthquake as a central incident. (This is a minor spoiler of sorts, but even the last two words of the book are "Los Angeles.")
It at times feels incidental that the sections of Post Office actually set in L.A. are there rather than some other sad locale, as its real setting is its narrator's stream of consciousness. For as much time as Chinaski spends drifting from place to place and woman to woman, there's an undeniable sadness permeating his narration that comes to a head in the book's fourth and final section. Even this typically lewd description of a soon-to-be conquest has a hint of longing to it:
God or somebody keeps creating women and tossing them out on the streets, and this one's ass is too big and that one's tits are too small, and this one is mad and that one is crazy and that one is a religionist and that one reads tea leaves and this one can't control her farts, and that one has this big nose, and that one has boney legs...
But now and then, a woman walks up, full blossom, a woman just bursting out of her dress ... a sex creature, a curse, the end of it all.
Chinaski's guardedness makes these feelings harder to get at, but in a sense it also makes them sadder. For as funny as Bukowski's debut novel is, it can be easy to see its hero's biting sense of humor as a defense mechanism. Just consider the premise: a directionless drunkard gets a job he hates at the post office, has some on-again off-again relationships, retires, goes back to work, and finally retires again. Also, the woman who divorces him dies. Stripped of its humor, the book becomes a chronicle of failed, half-assed affairs from a man who's either unable or unwilling to commit to anything more serious than the bottle.
Ask the Dust is also quite funny, but where Chinaski hides his sorrow, Bandini wears it on his sleeve. An unabashed romantic with a temper to boot, he divides his time evenly between typing out his woes and attempting to woo the dreamy-but-doomed Camilla Lopez, a Mexican waitress at a local haunt. Chinaski's vulgarity has a poetically unrefined quality all its own, but Bandini's musings are as wistful as they are eloquent. The opening paragraph, for instance:
One night I was sitting on the bed in my hotel room on Bunker Hill, 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.
You can see traces of Bukowski in contemporary writers like Denis Johnson (the crass yet philosophically-minded reflections, the shuffling about from one place to the next), but you can see even stronger traces of Fante in Bukowski. This wasn't taken into account when these two novels were paired together, but it so happens that the 2006 edition of Ask the Dust has an introduction from none other than Bukowski himself. He says a lot of complimentary things, none more quote-worthy than "Fante was my god." (He also dedicated poems to him and is said to have gone around shouting "I am Arturo Bandini!" in his younger years.)
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I'd like to think, then, that Mr. Bukowski would not be especially disappointed in my selecting Ask the Dust as the superior work. Its emotional palette is both broader and more fully-realized, its prose more consistently striking. Bukowski gets points for fusing his blunt descriptions of sex and other, less important affairs with no shortage of understated sadness, but in vacillating between tones he never conveys any one as well as he would go on to do in later works.
Ask the Dust has the advantage of being its author's third book rather than his first, but there's more to it than that. Fante exhibits control over, and confidence in, his material from the very first sentence. We laugh when he wants us to, and our heart breaks for Bandini in the book's devastating finale. It's Fante's classic to Bukowski's warmup -- not only a classic of L.A. but an all-time great.
WINNER: Ask the Dust