Last night we had a pretty amazing class—at least for me—discussing John Fante’s Ask the Dust. I didn’t come in with too many pre-exisiting ideas of how to teach the book (it’s only my second time teaching it), but rather I approached it with a question that I myself can’t yet fully articulate: why did I assign this book in a hardboiled fiction course? Ask the Dust is not detective fiction, it’s not a particularly convoluted plot, and murder isn’t even on the menu. So why? I danced around ideas in the comments of Paul Bond’s post on the novel, and tried defending the addition in the comments on Sara Clay’s post, but the argument was still half-baked.
Not until we started talking about the book about 20 minutes into class last night (the first twenty minutes of class discussion focused on their blogging) did Ask the Dust really start to open up for me, and it came out of a comment from Jessica Philippon who described the novel, and more specifically Arturo Bandini’s perspective on life, as existentialist. This is a term we hadn’t discussed at all yet, and it’s one often used to describe the various characters in the great detective fiction and film noirs of the 40s and 50s. What’s cool is that this initial comment started framing the way we understood Ask the Dust as part of the larger trajectory of the course. My definition and framework for existentialism was slow to start (and I will be returning to it with more precision on Thursday) because I hadn’t really prepared to talk about it at all, but over the course of the following hour our reading of the novel started to align with the idea of Ask the Dust as an existentialist, hardboiled Los Angeles novel sans complicated plot, murder and mayhem. It’s a vision of a poverty-filled world in which nature is brutal, life is all too short, and interactions are inherently violent. The characters that play out this scenario in Ask the Dust are the ones forgotten by the popular novels and films of the day, not much happens to them other than the constant realization that they will one day return to the dust that everywhere surrounds them. As Fante notes, life is an “endless struggle to keep the desert down….living was hard enough. Dying was the supreme task” (120). And for a second Fante snapped us all out of the apathetic ledger of murders of Red Harvest or Miller’s Crossing to think for a moment about what a supreme task dying is, and what a monumental chore it is for each and every one of us to come to terms with what it means to exist. Ask the Dust is a landmark of great literature in this regard, and if for nothing else this novel is on the syllabus to return the class, and the hardboiled genre, to a sense of the humanity that gets lost in all the dust.
There came over me a terrifying sense of understanding about the meaning and pathetic destiny of men. The desert was always there, a patient white animal, waiting for men to die, for civilizations to flicker and pass into the darkness. Then men seemed brave to me, and I was proud to be numbered among them. (120)
That may be the most hopeful thing I have read in a very long time, and Fante seems to get at the empowerment of existentialist thought rather than the all too commonly touted despair. And this is what we talked about last night. I am content.
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Rather than reading the Archer stories solely as mysteries, thrillers, entertainments, and detective stories (though of course they can exist solely on that level for readers who are interested in them as such), we’d do ourselves a favor to consider them in a few other ways as well. In the massive reference work World Authors 1950-1970, published by the H.H. Wilson Company, Macdonald wrote that The Galton Case and Black Money “are probably my most complete renderings of the themes of smothered allegiance and uncertain identity which my work inherited from my early years.” Of course, in Black Money the smothered allegiance occurs between the lovers Ginny Fablon and Tappinger.