Ask the Dust (1939)

I first heard about John Fante and his alter-ego Arture Bandini on NPR. His son, Dan Fante, who has recently published another novel was being interviewed one evening about his life and his fathers. From memory, while trying to hold back tears, he recited this quotation from Ask the Dust:

"Los Angeles, give me some of you! Los Angeles come to me the way I came to you, my feet over your streets, you pretty town I loved you so much, you sad flower in the sand, you pretty town!"

I was already interested in the novel because of the way Dan Fante was describing his father's work when the interviewer on NPR mentioned that this novel had gone out of print, but when Mr. Charles Bukowski found out about this he immediately rectified the problem. In the Black Sparrow reprinting of the novel, Bukowski writes the introduction and states "Fante was my god." In the biography and letters published at the end of the novel  about Fante's life, there is also included a poem written by Bukowski about Fante's struggle with diabetes and loss of his legs.

I hate to admit that part of the reason I loved this book so much was because I have already devoured almost everything by Bukowski and I needed something new. Fante, like Bukowski, does write in a similar type of style, maybe a gritty realism, but truthful even when the truth is dirty. However Fante is more human and more naive, but also more relatable than Bukowski. He doesn't spend all day taking beershits and sleeping with women with nice legs and big butts and puking in pianos. Both authors also write in a picaresque style, however Fante's seems to have more of a central theme, or a few central themes. Being away from home and struggling to become the writer he knows he can be is an important theme that runs through the entire novel and even makes him question his religion and his ethnicity at times. But his neurotic relationship with Camilla also runs tangentially to these themes. Here lies another difference, Fante writes women better than Bukowski.

It was later made into a film with Selma Hayek playing Camilla. Nothing against Hayek but I don't think the movie would live up to the novel.

Transcript of the interview that I heard on NPR.


Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894)

Throughout the course of the novel Pudd’nhead Wilson, Mark Twain does some interesting work with actions that are taken at night while almost everyone is asleep. Sleep has an interesting function in describing people; they can sleep like a baby or they can “sleep like any other miscreant” (125). People can spend the night tossing and turning while they are thinking about their lives, and they can also take advantage of others who are vulnerably asleep.

A lot of events go on at night when the characters are alone and reflective. Early in the novel, while “Percy Driscoll slept well the night he saved his house minions from going down the river… no wink of sleep visited Roxy’s eyes” (34). The real infant Thomas à Becket Driscoll is laying asleep in bed while Roxy concocts her plan to switch the white child for her own black child. The only reason Roxy’s plan can work is because she performs it at night while everyone is asleep. Of course later in the novel Tom kills his uncle while his uncle is asleep and Wilson discovers that Tom is the real murder after “sleep[ing] himself fresh” (153) and having a dream that “’… seemed to unravel the puz—‘” (154). The function of Tom cowardly killing his uncle to pay off his debt serves the function of painting him as a complete villain for taking advantage of a sleeping man. Wilson is not able to solve the murder mystery until after he takes a nap at night and is alone to clear his head.

The quality of sleep is also discussed in the novel, especially Tom’s quality of sleep. This is interesting because it tells the reader a lot about Tom’s mental state and conscience. It is said that Tom onboard the riverboat on his way to St. Louis to finish paying his gambling debts, he “slept the sleep of the unjust, which is serener and sounder than the other kind, as we know by the hanging-eve history of a million rascals” (121). Later the reader learns that “for a whole week he wasn’t able to sleep well, so much villainy which he had played on his trusting mother preyed upon his rag of conscience; but after that he began to get comfortable again, and was presently able to sleep like any other miscreant” (125) after selling his mother down the river. Both of these descriptions of his quality of sleep liken him to a thief or a villain. Lastly, and almost most interestingly, after finding out that he was switched at birth, “every now and then, after Tom went to bed, he had sudden wakings out of his sleep, and his first thought was, ‘Oh joy, it was all a dream!’” (74). Tom’s trouble sleeping is a statement about his character but also about the state of his guilty conscience.

The thoughts and actions of these various characters while they are alone, and everyone else is asleep, speaks to their character and personality. Some characters in the novel have to wait until night to carry out their evil deeds, but some also need to wait for the night to have a clear mind. Bedtime is also the time that characters like Tom are forced to face their guilt, but not for long since he does not have a conscience.


Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884)

Last time in class, we discussed the different identities Huck Finn takes on in the first half of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Huck takes on many identities throughout the course of the novel, but rarely his own; he is only the real Huckleberry Finn in situations with people he can trust like Jim and Tom Sawyer. The reason that Huck is on the run from his own identity is in part because he does not know who he is as an individual, but also because so many people are trying to influence him. People like Ms. Watson and Widow Douglas are trying their hardest to save him, but Pap is trying equally as hard to undo their attempts and corrupt him. This struggle between good and evil is ultimately why Huck feels that his only way to individual freedom is faking his own death.

After faking his murder, Huck must find a new identity to replace his old one. He tries on variety of successful and unsuccessful identities and even twice attempts to take on the identity of an adolescent girl but learns the obvious lesson that he is a not a female, cannot pass as a female, and should stick to characters that he knows more intimately and naturally. More often than not, Huck Finn plays the part of an adolescent male who is lost (like when he meets the Grangerfords), misguided (sometimes literally by a drunk), or caring for ill family members. One element that all of these personas rely on is pity from his audience for his situation in life. Huck plays down his intelligence and common sense in order to secure this pity, but also because he knows that he can trust no one. After his adventures with the Duke and the King, two men who also enjoy taking on new fake identities as well, Huck quickly learns that it is not good to take advantage of people’s pity or trust in the ways that the Royal Nonesuch con-men do because ultimately it will catch up and tar and feather you.

When Huck luckily lands in the lap of Tom Sawyer’s extended family, the Phelps’, Huck is overjoyed to take over Tom Saywer’s identity. He thinks to himself after finding out his new identity, “but if [the Phelps’] was joyful, it warn’t nothing to what I was; for it was like being born again, I was so glad to find out who I was….. Being Tom Sawyer was easy and comfortable…” (215). The reason Tom Saywer’s identity is so “easy and comfortable” to take on is because Tom’s life is not too different from Huck’s. There are two major benefits, the first being that he does not have to make up an elaborate biography and the second being that being Tom Sawyer is closest he will get to being himself at this time. Both boys are the same age and come from the same town and both are basically parentless- except that Tom has the good fortune of having extended family that is willing to take care of him.

Huck is “born again” into Tom’s family and, despite his tone at the end of the novel towards being “sivilized,” Huck can be satisfied with that life. At the end of the novel he finally feels self-assured and safe enough to become Huckleberry Finn again, especially after Jim reveals that Pap is dead and, coincidentally, Ms. Watson, his Christian savior, has also died. Huck has been trying to escape his own identity as the mischievous adolescent son of a drunkard throughout the entire course of the novel and now hopefully the fight over who will receive his soul in the afterworld is over.