The reading season

A father and son top our fall reading list of Western lit

There is no such thing as a “reading season,” exactly. Still, when summer vacations end and temperatures cool, tradition dictates it is time for dusting off neglected classics and attending to the new ones.

Ask the Dust

John Fante


We have committed at least two Californias to modern memory. One shares an intimate armrest with Nevada. Another has now drifted far enough into history that it is too distant to breathe in and taste without a stronger conduit than a shared border. That second California is the stomping ground of Antonio Bandini. John Fante’s alter ego in Ask the Dust, Bandini is a literary mystic, flippant but sincere lover of women, robber of milk trucks and occasional loaner of loose change. Moreover, he is an honest channel to a lost California, full of romance and bred during the post-industrial era. Next year, Ask the Dust marks its 70th year since first publication. The book chronicles Bandini’s experiences as an unprivileged writer surviving, barely, between the wars, in downtown Los Angeles.

Bandini’s journey is too vivid to be ignored. Writer or not, anyone reading the life of Fante’s flesh invention inevitably submits to the dusty romance of his struggle. His zealot voice in Ask the Dust is infectious. Life is writing, and writing life, for Bandini. “Here I go and it feels so good, so sweet and warm and soft, delicious, delirious. Up the river and over the sea, this is you and this is me, big fat words, little fat words, big thin words …”

This book is brilliant, magnificent. Its lets us lie back with Bandini, cast our lot in with the other dignified tramps of Los Angeles, the great, gold hope of the West Coast, and, like our guide to this other California, bend our experiences into art with, in Bandini’s words, all other desires asleep.

Kissed By A Fat Waitress: New Poems

Dan Fante

Sun Dog Press

In his new collection of poetry, Kissed By A Fat Waitress, Dan Fante—son of writer John Fante and poet Joyce Fante—explores a slightly more sedate voice than the one he put forth in A gin-pissing-raw-meat-dual-carburetor-V8-son-of-a-bitch from Los Angeles, in 2002.

Dan Fante, like his father, left home at age 20 to explore the world. The younger Fante added heavy drinking and drug abuse to the mix, topping his mounting list of destructive life experiences by knocking up his girlfriend, then leaving her. Now he wears a suit and reads poetry backed by a live jazz quartet. Beneath the lights, his pink scalp shines under gallery lights as he reads.

Fante’s Kissed By A Fat Waitress, is a guileless, straight-forward collection, written in a style unique to Fante but that still summons fair comparisons to his father’s work and to that of Charles Bukowski. Fante’s poems never quite erupt into the borderline bitter laughter of “Buk,” but they are equally divulging. A surprisingly naive and sentimental voice sometimes emerges—especially when Fante references his father as in here ya go Pop—this one’s for you—but Fante makes it work.

Literary Nevada

Cheryll Glotfelty (editor)

University of Nevada Press

This has fairly been called the first comprehensive anthology of Nevada literature. For those of us who acknowledge that there are volumes of reasons to know and love Nevada, this 831-page compendium represents a good start. More than 200 selections populate the book, including many brief, but vivid sketches by well-known writers, such as Will James, Wallace Stegner and Jack London.

In an excerpt from The Road (1907), London describes a summer day spent in Reno, in 1892, begging for food and avoiding arrest. “Already a lot of my brother hoboes had been gathered in by John Law, and I could hear the sunny valleys of California calling to me over the cold crests of the Sierras. Two acts remained for me to perform before I shook the dust of Reno from my feet. One was to catch the blind baggage on the westbound overland that night. The other was first to get something to eat.”

The work of combing through hundreds of books to compile these Nevada fragments thankfully has been done for us. The usual suspects are present. There are selections from Walter Van Tilburg Clark, Mark Twain, and Robert Laxalt, as well as excerpted works from more contemporary writers such as Hunter S. Thompson, Mario Puzo and Terry Tempest Williams.

The volume also contains a large chapter that features Native American stories and myths from the Western Shoshone, Northern and Southern Paiute, and Washo tribes. There is a lot to absorb from this collection, not necessarily in two or three sittings. Read some tonight, then freeze the rest for tomorrow, next week, or next year.