Arturo Bandini and the Quest for the Male American Identity

By D. R. Gayton

Sitting at my desk I turn my head and look over my shoulder out the window across the saddle point where the 110 Freeway meets the 101 and gaze at the skyscrapers that now sit atop Bunker Hill.  I look and I try to recollect.  I have met Arturo Bandini in my past. I have met Arturo Bandini many other times under many different names.  I have met him in Chicago under the name Scott, Paul, Collin, David, Mark.  I have met him here in Los Angeles under the name, Brando, Luis, Kevin, and even Homer.  They were all writers, and they were all young.  They all moved to the big city to escape the confines of the small town.  So what makes Arturo Bandini, of John Fante’s Ask The Dust so unique? Nothing, except that in creating him, John Fante was finally able to articulate the heartbreaking insecurities and ambitions that accompany the youth and inexperience of many young American men.  For at heart, Ask The Dust is genuinely a love story, but like many other love stories, it is also a story about an irreversible loss.  Arturo Bandini did not lose Camilla Lopez to the desert, nor to marijuana, nor to the road, nor to other men, Arturo Bandini lost Camilla Lopez to his personal insecurities.  Those insecurities stemmed from the fact that as a young American man living in a capitalist, racially segregated Los Angeles, he felt insecure about his Italian descent, his virginity, and his poverty.

Recent literary scholarship around John Fante has been centered around what Melissa Ryan calls his “hyphenated ethnicity”, and how through his fiction he attempted to “negotiate an Italian identity in an American context” (Ryan 2004).  In fact, it is Arturo Bandini’s Italian-American identity that initially informs the content of his early anxieties and sets the foundation of his insecurities as a young man living in Los Angeles.  “When I was a kid back home in Colorado it was Smith and Parker and Jones who hurt me with their hideous names, called me Wop and Dago and Greaser” says a remorseful Bandini as he lays in bed recollecting the hideous and racist remarks he had made towards his love interest, Camilla.  “I hurt you like they hurt me,” he remorsefully goes on, “for tonight I had acted like them. Smith and Parker and Jones, I had never been one of them.”   Here, it is important to note the last line, “I had never been of them,” for growing up in Colorado he had never been allowed to be part of the dominant WASP culture.

As the child of Italian immigrants, growing up in the 1920’s when Italian-Americans where still being discriminated against, one can rightfully assume that he had been relegated to a second-class status.  Of this second class status the young Arturo Bandini was keenly aware.  The rejection and belittlement that he experienced in his early years permeated his entire being and throughout the novel it seeps out in vituperative outbursts against himself, Camilla and the world at large.  In this sense, Arturo Bandini is like a caged animal, however, he is a caged animal that loathes his captors and yet desires to be accepted by them and allowed to be a part of their world.  “This is why you write” Bandini tells himself “because those who hated you in Colorado will not hate you if you write a book.”  That is, he suspects that by writing a book he will be able to proof his own worth in front of the Smiths, the Parkers, and the Jones who hurt him.

This sense of lack of worth permeates Arturo Bandini’s entire being to the point where it dictates some of the most important aspects of his life.  This is most notable in his relationship towards women. A virgin from the outset of the book, Arturo Bandini has never been with a woman; for how could he have had any sexual experience when he completely lacks the confidence necessary to speak to a woman, to woo a woman (or mate)?  In his mind he dreams about women and imagines himself as a great author “stepping out of a big black car, and she was there too, proud as hell of me, the lady in the silver fox fur.”   At the heart of the matter however, Bandini is terrified of women.  “Those girls of my childhood, those girls of my boyhood, those girls of my university days.  They frighten me, they were diffident, they refused me,” Banini frankly states.

It is very telling that these early experiences of rejection not only aggravated Bandini’s lack of self worth, but they were also the very same experiences that caused him to fall so deeply in love a Mexican-American girl named Camilla. In this sense, it is almost as if in the novel Camilla stands in as a double, the other side of both Fante and Bandini.  That Camilla is an attractive 20 year old with strong indigenous looks and a “smoking” body is easily understood in the text.  However, what may not be so apparent is that Camilla is also an embodiment of all the hurt that Bandini has carried along with him.  In other words, he loves Camilla to excess because in her he sees himself.  If he had been wounded as a child by the racism of his town, in Camilla he finds a being who had been doubly reviled because she was Mexican and because she was a woman.   Further, perhaps reflecting on his own second class status as a child of immigrants, in Camilla, Bandini saw yet another who was not just treated as a second class citizen, but treated as a second class citizen in her own land.

If Bandini was unable to sexually perform that one day at the beach with Camilla, it wasn’t because he did not love her, or desired her, it was simple because in his “sexual innocence” he was unable to separate the idealized, eroticized, racialized image of Camilla away from Camilla the woman, and his own feelings of lack of worth.

To further confound Arturo Bandini’s dilemmas in Ask The Dust, he is deep in the grasp of poverty.  Although Bunker Hill had once been an affluent district of Los Angeles, by the time Bandini begins narrating his story, Bunker Hill has fallen into squalor, the great Victorian mansions had been converted into sordid hotels and rental units in order to accommodated the hordes of new comers that descended into Los Angeles at around the time of the Great Depression.  Amidst this poverty and housed in the Alta Loma Hotel, Bandini can hardly afford to put food on his plate.  Again and again Banidini speaks of oranges.  “They were the days of plenty” Bandini says, then continues:

plenty of worries, plenty of oranges.  Eat them in bed, eat them for lunch, push them down for dinner.  Oranges, five cents a doze.  Sunshine in the sky, sun juice in my stomach…it was so sad down there in my stomach.  There was much weeping and little gloomy clouds of gas that pinched my heart.

Later on, after having spent an entire night looking at Camilla through the window of the Columbia Buffet the oranges come back.  He had spent hours looking at Camilla through the window because he could not afford to go inside the restaurant, and the following morning upon waking and realizing that he had only oranges to eat he wanders across town aimless, only to return to his room and sob in despair.  “You were born poor, son of miseried peasants, driven because you were poor, fled from your Colorado town because you were poor, rambling the gutters of Los Angeles because you are poor” Bandini states, reiterating his self pity and loathing in Chapter two.

Camilla could have forgiven his poverty, comfort him in his insecurities and even provided him with the urgent need he had to physically bond with someone, however, to Bandini none of that matter, nor could have possibly envisioned it.  The real tragedy of Ask The Dust was that in his youth and inexperience, Arturo Bandini was completely incapable of forgiving and accepting himself.

I think its very revealing about the psychology of the author that more than 40 years later, and only two years before his death, John Fante , blind at that point, was still thinking and writing about his early days in Bunker Hill. For it was at Bunker Hill were he lost more than just a woman like Camilla, it was in Bunker Hill were he missed out on a real opportunity at escaping his shameful fantasies and perhaps attaining genuine happiness.  It is this loss of experience and the “what-could-have-been” that is ruefully mourned across the pages of Ask the Dust.  That we are wiser for it at the end of the journey and of the novel, is really of very little consolation.







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