A magazine asked me to write a freeform encyclopedia entry for Arturo Bandini a while back, which I happily did; but then they changed the format on me, to something considerably more dull and straightforward, and wanted me to do my work over again. This I didn’t do, and they let it slide and never paid me. So I’m posting it here, because I thought it was rather good, just as it was.
“Ah Camilla! When I was a kid back home in Colorado it was Smith and Parker and Jones who hurt me with their hideous names, called me Wop and Dago and Greaser, and their children hurt me, just as I hurt you tonight. They hurt me so much I could never become one of them, drove me to books, drove me within myself, drove me to runaway from that Colorado town, and sometimes, Camilla, when I see their faces I feel the hurt all over again, the old ache there, and sometimes I am glad they are here, dying in the sun, uprooted, tricked by their heartlessness, the same faces, the same set, hard mouths, faces from my home town, fulfilling the emptiness of their lives under a blazing sun.”
Ask the Dust, John Fante
Not an immigrant himself, but the child of immigrants, pugilistic, angry, often starving, a wordsmith of an underbelly Los Angeles, a chronicler of a dark side of the moon city in the thirties, passionate, purposeless, bigoted, supremely egotistical, and cut through with more self-loathing than quartz in a California schist, this is Arturo Bandini, John Fante’s magnificent creation and alter-ego in his novel Ask The Dust. He steps onto the stage like many an unlettered peasant torn between two continents. “You are a coward, Bandini,” he says of himself, “a traitor to your soul, a feeble liar before your weeping Christ. This is why you write, this is why it would be better if you died.” Openly modeled on Fante’s own younger self, Bandini is a soul in agony, driven to prove himself, too poor to be a successful drunk, too self-conscious to bed a hooker, and almost choking on his own self-regard. Much as Fante remained a writer’s writer for most of his life, valiantly obscure until he was championed by Charles Bukowski, Bandini is an outsider’s outsider, his immigrant’s rage more closely twinned to Dostoyevsky’s murderous protagonist Raskolnikov. But unlike Raskolnikov, or many of the other deadbeat literary anti-heroes that bear the mark of Bandini’s paternity, there is a wild, unstoppered energy to Arturo, a lifeforce that plunges him headlong into the world, even if it’s often a world of his own hopeless dreams and unreasonable desires. His faults are the follies of too much passion, of caring too deeply, of youth in the moment of explosion, and as much as he is a mirror to torment, he is equally a mirror to a more brilliant world, whose cracked shards shimmer ever so briefly with the grace of a life lived to its very utmost.
At night, the junkies take over the square. They are almost vaporously thin, like the dead even before they shoot up. They have ruined most of their veins and bend forward to stick the needle in the backs of their knees or other parts of their legs. The happy ones are curled up fetally, oblivious to everything. A tall South Asian man with a tense, fierce face asks me several nights in a row if I want anything. “Hash? Junk? Anything?”
Read the whole story here.
At the end of November last year, I gave up taking the subway. A few reasons. I’d just returned from a six-month trip to India and being confronted with the same grim faces on that underground steel coffin brought home to me the fact that I was… well… home. And being back here, how profoundly not at home I felt again in New York City.
Of all the tedious rituals of city life to return to, the subway was the most dispiriting. It starts with the descent into those airless caverns, and only gets worse, at least for me. I hate waiting. In fact, hate is too mild a word. I abhor it, I vilify it, if I met Waiting in a dark alley in the middle of the night, I would do my best to snap its ugly neck. There is something deeply infantilizing about the long (or short) waits we have to endure before the train arrives, for here we become wards at the mercy of the Metropolitan Transit Authority, the unloved orphans it consumes daily and who must always bow to its caprices, begging, “Can we please just get on your train, sir?” Maybe the train arrives within thirty seconds, and we find ourselves thankful for the wretched crumb of timeliness thrown at our feet, or maybe we wait a quarter hour, or even longer, staring down at the devastated concrete that floors these torture chambers of the modern world, if only so as not to look at the devastated faces surrounding us, in the mornings ejected unhappily from their beds, in the evenings ejected exhausted from offices.
In and of itself, the wait seems reasonable. The subway is a public good, it provides the infrastructure to move millions of people every day, and keeps a city like New York from grinding to a halt. And it’s good for the environment, and for health, and nominally, there’s a democratic spirit at work. We’re all in it together underground, a bit of London in the Blitz transported westward. But as one wait piles on another, as one line is added to another, those dreary, stifling minutes underground become intolerable. For the modern city, that compacted horizon of lives stratified, one on top of the other, each crushing the one below, finds its condensate on those lonely platforms and inside those deadening train cars. The city, if it is anything, is a dirge of choruses all of them memorializing “the wait.” The wait at the stop light, the wait for the elevator, the wait in the lunch queue, the wait on the phone for customer service, the wait for the delivery man, the super, the cable guy, the wait at the laundromat, the wait for a table for dinner, the wait at a bar for the barkeeps’ eye, the wait for the sorely underpaid cashier to acknowledge your existence, the endless wait for the city to do the same.
And once you’re on the train, it gets no better. For inside, you sit or stand, carried along powerlessly, literally shuttled back and forth underneath the city, not even blood in its arteries, for blood has a vivifying function as it pumps along. Inside the train, you become a null, a being waiting again to arrive, as if you have been murdered and await resurrection as a zombie. We become children once again, ruled by the whims of an unknowable and towering parent, powerless in its presence, and all around is the evidence, the faces of the fellow travelers reduced to ashen replicas, their nearest counterparts the democracy of bodies turned to stone in Pompeii. If this is democracy, it’s democracy of lives lived in hell, it’s democracy of the coming apocalypse, it’s democracy stripped of soul, of breath, of anything that might be imagined as human, a cudgeling, murderous reduction of city dwellers to cave dwellers, and cave dwellers to the newly dead.
Perhaps I’m laying it on a little thick. People do take the subway, sometimes they smile, sometimes they laugh, and most of them arrive on the other side apparently alive. And without it, the lives of the vast majority of people in this city would become intolerably difficult. But with it too, I believe, life becomes intolerable. When millions are forced, on a daily basis, through the meat grinder that is the subway, year in and year out, what else can it do but make ghosts of us, demoralized and hypnotized by an industrial ideal of the efficient city and its proper functioning.
All these incredible images by Travis Ruse.
While Nathanael West seeks to wound others, John Fante aims the knife at his own heart.
Arturo Bandini exists at the intersection of several wide boulevards of self-loathing. The self-loathing Dago, the self-loathing dickhead, the self-loathing artist. Mixed in is a glorious egotism, a love of self and belief in his own ability struggling to burst free; all the while, sentimentality butts heads with a tempered viciousness. Arturo Bandini is John Fante’s creation, the anti-hero of his novel Ask The Dust, and he is a creation who could only have been dreamt up in mid-century Los Angeles.
Ask The Dust appears the same year as Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, but where the latter turns a caustic eye toward the outer world, and pours scorn on everyone who inhabits the day-to-day of contempoarary dream factories, Fante stares inward. His Klieg lights illuminate his soul, not the murky goings on in the studio back lot, and he meets the world with viciousness that is coiled into a sentence, not a fist. The only stars mentioned here are the real ones, in the faraway night sky, and this is not a city of freeways, but one that lives, tenuously at best, on the edge of the Mojave Desert. Sand is flying westward, ever threatening to bury this dreambirth city and all who claim to live in it.
But Bandini’s life is the artist’s life, constantly mocked by the fact of its own self-consciousness. His moments of triumph are accompanied by the inner dialogue that these will be used, transformed, put eventually into words; as readers, who are reading those words, we become intimate with a young man’s despearation for life, for immortality, for art, for self-creation, for self-destruction, and for love, and all of this simultaneously, as if watching him with Argos eyes. Fante’s art, his artist Bandini, is the art of laceration and while Nathanael West takes us on a journey that at times feels mythic, that could almost have been plotted by the picaresque storytellers of ancient Irish epics, Fante’s inward journey sears the blood out of his own veins and leaves the body, as if cut up after an autopsy, as little more than a wretched reminder on a coroner’s steel examination table.
West seeks to wound others, Fante aims the knife at his own heart.
One of John Fante’s literary heros was Knut Hamsun. He was also an artist of self-laceration, but unlike Fante, he ended life as a fascist and an open supporter of Adolf Hitler. As a token of his loyalty, Hamsun sends to Goebbels the Nobel Prize medal he was awarded in 1920. Such a fate could not have met Fante. Unlike the hero of Hamsun’s classic Hunger, Fante’s Arturo Bandini is drawn with a desperate tenderness; his blood is our blood, his rage is our rage, his need breathes through every pore of his skin and sings like a song of a thousand silent hearts. Hamsun’s journey was the nihilist’s trek, shot through with disgust, as was, years later, Louis-Ferdinand Celine’s. Both writers met similar ends as supporters of fascism and artists of nihilism. Fante remains the optimist, for what he sees when he peels back the final layer is a human being in the fullness of his humanity, which is a frail creature indeed who stands on the edge of a vast and unknowable desert.