- John Fante's Ask the Dust: A Joining of Voices and Views ed. by Stephen Cooper and Clorinda Donato
We encounter John Fante today in a peculiar critical position. A writer who struggled for recognition throughout his lifetime, who "has had to wait for [his] moment," as Stephen Cooper and Clorinda Donato write in introducing John Fante's Ask the Dust: A Joining of Voices and Views, is in danger of finding that such a moment has passed before it had a chance to arrive (4). Having made his Italian-American identity the subject of his early fiction, which peppered the pages of the American Mercury throughout the 1930s, Fante found himself editorially pigeonholed as exclusively a purveyor of such material—too "ethnic" and too working-class to claim a space within the canonical center of American modernism. Since Fante's work began to be rediscovered shortly before his death in 1983, devotees have labored doggedly to bring him in from the cold, not so much to restore as to establish a reputation, but results have been mixed. Fante has at least become the variety of writer to whom the prefatory adjective "cult" is customarily applied, suggesting an ironic sort of unpopular popularity. Usefully indicative of the limits of Fante's posthumous critical reevaluation, though, is the fact that a writer whose best-known works are love letters to Los Angeles and its environs did not merit inclusion in the most recent attempt at a major survey of his literary region, the capacious 2015 collection A History of California Literature edited by Blake Allmendinger.1
The critical challenge of locating Fante today is in part that his particular experience of otherness and marginality, rooted in his status as an Italian-American—which suffuses his writing, profoundly shaped his publication and reception history, and limited the horizons of his reputation—is less legible as such than it once was. Viewed through the lens of today's urgent political and cultural imperatives, Fante can easily seem just another of the straight white men against whose longstanding critical hegemony canon-broadening efforts constitute a much-needed counternarrative. It is a bitter irony that a writer who sought to chronicle the tragic iniquities of life on America's ethnic margins but received only "out-of-print oblivion" for his troubles now finds himself, for some readers, representative of an establishment that never admitted him in life (Cooper and Donato, 2).
Although Fante wrote several novels and a multitude of short stories over a fifty-year writing career, his 1939 novel Ask the Dust remains the focus of a large proportion of Fante scholarship and the work on which his reputation principally rests. So precarious and ambiguous does that reputation remain, though, that the rationale for a fresh look at Fante's most enduring work is clear. Cooper and Donato have assembled a volume that feels alive to the preconceptions that some readers may bring to Fante, but is not a tetchy defense: instead it makes a generous case for a broader appreciation of Fante by expanding the diversity of available critical perspectives on Ask the Dust far beyond the range of previous scholarship around the novel. Cooper and Donato speculate that "it has taken this long for Ask the Dust to receive its critical due because many of us have had to wait for the right critical tools to understand it," and the "new paradigm in Fante scholarship" represented by this collection bears that proposition out (5).
Reflective of that "new paradigm" is that in format and content this is not a straightforward scholarly essay collection, and is the better for that. Composed of five sections, only the first of these exclusively comprises "conventional" academic critical responses to Ask the Dust. The following four parts contain, variously, explorations of Ask the Dust's adaptations and afterlives in other media, personal reflections by famous fans and common readers alike on their relationships with Fante's...