John Fante and the great American novel.

How Hitler Nearly Killed the Great American Novel and Charles Bukowski Saved It

Never before has a novel encapsulated downtrodden, depression-era Los Angels like John Fante’s Ask the Dust, and it’s not even close.

It’s a pure masterclass through and through, one of the greatest pieces in the literary canon without even trying. It’s often been touted as the Left Coast’s answer to Gatsby, their Great American Novel.

The way Fante describes the city and goes into deep, ruthless detail about its poor and struggling underbelly is nothing short of stunning. He makes even the hardest and hungriest of times seem beautiful. And that’s where his greatness lies.

“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 said flower in the sand, you pretty town!”

John Fante, Ask the Dust

But we almost never got to read it. It took over fifty years for the novel to get its proper place in bookstores worldwide, letting it become the classic that it is today instead of being lost in the literary shuffle forevermore.

A young John Fante in Los Angeles.

First editions start flowing off the press but Hitler has other ideas

After a slew of short stories published in highly reputable magazine and a successful debut novel, Wait Until Spring, Bandini, Fante released Ask the Dust, the second installment of the Bandini Quartet.

second installment of the Bandini Quartet in 1939 with 2,200 first edition copies of Ask the Dust.

Around 2,200 copies of the first edition were released in 1939, but it took nearly 20 years for the paperbacks to reach the market, and another thirty before it was widely read. All because of one terrible man and his biography.

That man was Adolf Hitler, and the biography was Mein Kampf.

Fante’s publisher decided to mass produce the controversial biography without authorization and set it loose in the world. They quickly found themselves embroiled in an intense legal battle that nearly bankrupt the company.

Fante’s masterclass was quickly put on the back burner and the Great American Novel of LA was nearly lost forever. The money that was supposed to go towards marketing and a mass release were gobbled up by highly-paid lawyers and legal fees.

But then, just when all appeared to be lost, a dirty old man came along to save the day and his God in one fell swoop. And save the day he did.

Ask the Dust, the quintessential American novel describing downtrodden Los Angeles.

Charles Bukowski comes and saves the day (a sentence I never thought I’d write)

When he was poor, young, starving, and trying to make it as a writer himself, Charles Bukowski stumbled across Fante and Ask the Dust in the LA public library.

While the two wouldn’t meet for many, many years, their lives would one day become forever intertwined. The student would one day rise to unbelievable fame and change the teacher’s life and legacy. And the rest is history.

But for a long time, Bukowski was nothing more than a fan and poured over every word the Italian wrote and let it seep deeply into his own style. You can see it clear as day when reading Buk’s work. He’s a funnier, cruder Fante. Just like he’d always wanted.

“John Fante was God.”

Charles Bukowski in his introduction to the 1980 republication of Ask the Dust

After his career had taken off and he’d become the infamous golden goose of Black Sparrow, Bukowski pushed for a mass republication of Ask the Dust and all of Fante’s other work.

In 1980, Bukowski’s wish came true. Ask the Dust was released again—properly the second time around. Overnight, John Fante became a living legend. His destiny had finally been fulfilled, his place on literature’s Mount Rushmore cemented.

More than 60 years after its first lackluster publication, Ask the Dust finally got to spend several well-deserved weeks atop the New York Times’ Best Seller’s List. Thank you Buks. We’re all forever grateful.

John Fante square in downtown Los Angeles.

Becoming the classic that it always should’ve been

The literary world and contemporary landscape was forever changed following the fabled second publication. Nearly everybody in America who wanted to write a novel worshipped Fante.

To those out West he was nothing short of God. I mean, he wrote their Great American Novel and got a square named after him because of it. That, and a deep cut reference from David Foster Wallace himself in his own debut.

Not a bad legacy to leave behind if you ask me. Long live Bandini, may he never be forgotten.

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This will be a long, winding journey, but a necessary one nonetheless. And I can’t wait to share it with you.

Thank you,

Nicholas Coursel