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Will Colin Farrell make John Fante famous?

‘Ask the Dust’ gives a forgotten author another chance at fame. By Joe Tirella

If you never read or even heard of John Fante don’t fret: you’re far from alone. If you’re lucky one of his books will somehow find its way to you, which is exactly what happened to me. My friend J lent me his copy of “Ask the Dust” a few years ago after discovering Fante while living in Italy. Ironically, it was an Italian that introduced J to this great-unheralded Italian-American writer, since here in America, Fante is considered at best a cult novelist and at most a precursor to the far more celebrated Beat writers like Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. 

Of course, if you’re in need of a introduction to Fante you could go see the film version of “Ask the Dust” (out on March 10) starring Irish-born actor — or as the glossies magazines like to call him “the lusty leprechaun” — Colin Farrell and the uber-sexy Salma Hayek. The truth is, while the film is good, it won’t be winning any Oscars or earning millions at the box office. However, “Ask the Dust” — a labor of love for writer/director Robert Towne (best known for penning the Hollywood nouvelle vague classic “Chinatown”) — arrives in theatres during the lull of the post-Oscars season when even little films can find an audience thanks to the listless competition.

Fante’s InfernoBut first, the back-story: “Ask the Dust” was the second novel penned by Fante, who was born in Colorado in 1909 to Italian immigrants parents. After attending the University of Colorado and Long Beach City College, he began writing in 1929 and eventually made his way to Los Angeles. Fante found an influential mentor in critic H.L. Mencken, who published his first short story in The American Mercury magazine in 1932. He continued writing short stories for many of the leading magazines of the day including The Atlantic Monthly, The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, and Esquire, among others; then in 1938 his debut novel, “Wait Until Spring, Bandini,” appeared and introduced the world to Arturo Bandini, his alter-ego whose exploits he would chronicle in four of his novels, including 1939’s “Ask the Dust.”

But Fante needed and found a far more lucrative job than fiction writing so he devoted his time to screenwriting. He worked with Orson Welles (on the auteur’s ill-fated film “It’s All True”) and managed to eke out a comfortable living, eventually buying a home in Malibu. He was a great writer; but his dream of becoming a famous great writer along the lines of Hemingway or Faulkner or Fitzgerald had faded. Instead, he wrote to his friend, the writer William Saroyan (to whom he is often compared): “I am now a complete and ungarnished hack.”

Fast-forward many years. A young struggling Los Angeles-based writer named Charles Bukowski stumbles upon “Ask the Dust” in an L.A. library and instantly connects with it. And it’s thanks to Bukowski, who was so obsessed with Fante — “Fante was my god,” he famously wrote — that he insisted his own publisher, Black Sparrow Press, reissue all of his idol’s catalog in the early 1980s.

By then Fante had fallen into anonymity, his works long out-of-print. But despite being blind from diabetes, he continued writing, dictating to his wife Joyce Fante and even completing his Arturo Bandini saga with his final opus, 1982’s “Dreams from Bunker Hill,” the year before he died. It was right around then that all his books — as well as a few unpublished works — found there way back into print and Fante, finally gained some recognition for his Promethean literary talents. Arturo Bandini would have been proud.

A sad flower in the sandLike the film that inspired it, Fante’s classic novel — published at a time when having a vowel at the end of your name was hardly an asset in any walk of life, much less a writing career — is a story overflowing with passion and desire for love and poetry. (It’s worth noting that the original title of “Ask the Dust,” was “Ask the Dust on the Road”; clearly Fante was on to something long before Kerouac exploded on the scene and reshaped post-WWII American culture with 1957’s “On the Road.”) Writes Fante in a line that would make Kerouac weep with pity: “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.”

But more importantly this autobiographical book is also a quintessential American story about a struggling ego-centric writer (played by Farrell) living in L.A.’s run-down Bunker Hill district and his all-consuming love for Camilla Lopez, a Mexican waitress (played by Hayek). Both are two lost angels in a city that is supposedly full of them; and both are hyphenated-Americans in the pre-World War II world who wish their last names where Johnson or Lombard or anything that doesn’t regulate them to the ethnic outskirts of society where they reside. But because they are so similar and driven by almost identical illusions of grandeur — that oh-so elusive slice of the American pie that has fueled the dreams of millions of immigrants who land on these shores — they repel and resent each other, while at the same time love each other so much that it hurts.

An actor’s movieProps must be given to two top-tier Hollywood stars for accepting such non-glamorous, character driven roles; and without whom — let’s face it — this movie would never have been made. And while at first Farrell seems to be struggling with his character, he grows into Bandini as the movie progresses, and turns in a solid nuanced performance. His co-star Hayek is just transcendent: she imbues Camilla Lopez with life. It’s another reminder (in case you needed one) of what a great actress Hayek is when she’s given quality material (and how often has that happened?).

This isn’t blockbuster material but it’s a heart-wrenching story that’s crying to be told. And Farrell and Hayek go all out and bare themselves — literally: both get fully naked in a scene brimming with sexuality that, while tastefully done, will no doubt be attacked as another Hollywood-Blue State assault on Red State America’s values. (Oh, and by the way: it’s pretty damn hot.)

And lastly, credit has to be given to Robert Townes, who has been trying to get this film made for decades, the same way that Fante’s fiction has been crying out for attention. In all likelihood, “Ask the Dust” will play a short while before disappearing to DVD (maybe there’s even a Director’s Cut version in its future) but if you’re in need of a beautiful story and you’re still in a state of shock that a cliché piece of L.A. trash like “Crash” can win a best movie Oscar than see this movie; it’s a real L.A. story, one that is dirty and dusty with characters that yearn for redemption. Then read the book (recently given a makeover by HarperCollins). Arturo Bandini is waiting for you.

Joseph Tirella is a Senior Editor at Star.