What is the summary for Ask the Dust?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

John Fante - A Biography

John Fante is a novelist whose writing career was initially a failure. His first novel was never published. His second (1938) and third (1939) novels were published and received critical acclaim but then very shortly after went out of print. It wasn't until the mid-1970s, close to forty years after his novels were published, that Fante, who died in 1983, began to receive recognition.

  • In the mid-1970s, screenwriter Robert Towne bought the rights to Ask the Dust.
  • In 1980, novelist Charles Bukowski convinced editor of Black Sparrow Press John Martin to read Fante's works, works that made Martin exclaim, "Fante is great, great! I can’t believe it! I am going to republish his works!"
  • By 1983, Fante had finished the fourth of the Arturo Bandini quartet, and it along with the first, previously unpublished, novel were published by Martin on Black Sparrow Press just before Fante's death in May of 1983.
  • In the early 2000s, Ask the Dust was on the New York Times Best Seller list.
  • In 2006, Robert Towne wrote and directed the film version of Ask the Dust, shot on location in Cape Town, South Africa, and starring Colin Farrell, Salma Hayek and Donald Sutherland.

Married happily to poet and editor Joyce Smart but stricken with diabetes, Fante's health deteriorated and he met an early death just after his work belatedly gain some recognition. A native of Boulder, Colorado and the son of a rough, hard working Italian father and a timid, deeply religious mother, Fante's tumultuous and dichotomous early life drove the themes he wrote about. Dropping out of the University of Colorado in 1929, Fante made Los Angeles, California, his home and the setting of his Arturo Bandini quartet. When his novels failed to bring either success or an income, he turned his hand to writing screenplays for Hollywood. He said to his friend, California author William Saroyan, of this part of his career: “I am now a complete and ungarnished hack.”

Ask the Dust - A Summary

In John Fante's autobiographical novel, the hero Arturo Bandini leaves his home in Boulder, Colorado, to pursue his dream of being a novelist in Los Angeles, California, which in depression era 1939 was the haven of writing dreams come true. Riding high on optimism from having sold a short story to a literary periodical, Arturo settles into the "land of promise" by taking up residence in the Bunker Hill district.

With promises of advance payments in the mail, while Arturo seeks to work out his destiny as a novelist, he meets a Mexican waitress named Camilla who has a bitter and vindictive streak. She also has a man she loves so is not interested in a second. A tragic love triangle develops between Arturo, who loves Camilla, and Camilla, who loves Sammy, a waiter who is dying and even more bitter than Camilla, and Sammy, who loves neither Camilla nor anyone else.
The non-starter romance between Arturo and Camilla dramatizes one of the themes of Ask the Dust. Racism in Southern California was heated, with racist distrust and disdain targeted against Mexicans and against Italians. Consequently, Arturo and Camilla make an awkward and socially unfortunate couple that draws doubly racist attention toward them.

An earthquake hits Los Angeles and, finally, emergency brings out the kindly, human face of otherwise racist Los Angeles. The national guard presence reminds us that natural disaster and social chaos required then what it requires today.

While the earthquake shows the best of Los Angeles, Camilla reinforces the worst when, in the early clouds of dust, traffic and smog polluting the streets of Los Angeles, Camilla vanishes from Arturo's life. Alone, he's left to evaluate his growth from his hardships and he sees that he has become a better writer and human being who has, to some degree at least, thrown off the violence and suffering of his early life.   

Noelle Thompson eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is one of the "Bandini Quartet" novels, and a really good one at that.  The character in this set of novels is Arturo Bandini:  always a writer struggling to make his way in the world while living in a a rundown Los Angeles hotel (almost a house of ill-repute) of the 1930s.

As a starving writer, the Depression looks rather bleak for Bandini.  In this novel he lives off of oranges alone (it seems).  He publishes a short story here and there (such as his "The Little Dog Laughed"), but no one seems to care.  Truly hungry, Bandini wanders into a shabby restaurant where he meets a waitress named Camilla Lopez.

This is where Arturo Bandini's life begins to change.  Bandini is enamored of Lopez.  Unfortunately for Bandini, Lopez already is in love with someone else (a waiter named Sam).  Unfortunately for Lopez, Sam is NOT in love with Lopez.  Still, Bandini loves her.  Through this love, Bandini tries to defeat both poverty and guilt.

The unstable Lopez is finally put in a mental asylum.  She is moved from asylum to asylum before she escapes.  When Bandini looks for Lopez, she is hiding out in his own apartment!  The run off together, ... and one would think things turn out okay.  Nope.  Right after Bandini secures both a house on the beach and a dog, Lopez leaves to find the sickly Sam! 

In conclusion, this dystopian novel had a dystopian ending:  with Bandini dedicating his most recent book to Camilla Lopez, but then throwing it into the desert sand.