“A window opening when doors were slamming shut all around me”: how John Fante changed a convict’s life


Please join us at Stanford on for a discussion of John Fante‘s 1939 novel Ask the Dust at 7 p.m. (PST) on Tuesday, Sept. 19, at Levinthal Hall in the Stanford Humanities Center, 424 Santa Teresa Street on the Stanford campus. It’s a hybrid event, so come virtually or in person. REGISTER FOR THE EVENT ON THE LINK HERE! The event is free and open to the public. Walk-ins are welcome, but registration is encouraged, whether you plan to attend virtually or in person. Read more about the event here.

Another Look takes on authors and books that we think deserve more attention.  Fante’s Ask the Dust was forgotten for decades after first appearing in 1939. Since being rediscovered in the 1980s, the novel has gained an enthusiastic international audience and influenced many writers. How much of an influence did Fante’s Ask the Dust have? Read the story below, from a Shoshone-Paiute American Indian prisoner whose life was changed by an encounter with Fante’s remarkable novel. Author Joel Williams’s story, republished from Fordham University Press’s John Fante’s ASK THE DUST: A Joining of Voices and Views (2020) with his permission, comes to us courtesy Stephen Cooper, English Professor at California State University, Long Beach. He is perhaps the world’s leading expert on John Fante.

In addition to the Italian Cultural Institute of San Francisco, this event is co-sponsored by the Continuing Studies Program and the Division of Literatures, Cultures, and Languages at Stanford.

I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I first heard about the Los Angeles writer, John Fante. The year was 2008 and the place was Mule Creek State Prison, a maximum-security California penitentiary where I was dragging in my twenty-second year on a twenty-seven-to-life sentence.

I was on the yard, hanging out with a couple of other skins near the pull-up bars, when we heard the gunshot. Men everywhere dropped. It was the guard tower’s mini-14, a totally different sound from the usual 40mm “Big Bertha” riot-control block gun. I had suspected something was about to go down ever since another skin — the term we Natives used for each other — had warned me to keep on my toes. Somebody was going to get moved on.

Stretched out prone in the dirt I lifted my head an inch to eyeball the yard. Guards with batons out and keys jangling on their utility belts ran past with medical staff trailing behind. Cordite filled the air as one man was hoisted onto a gurney and another was led off in handcuffs. Beside me Bear, a skin nicknamed for his size, rested his chin on a paperback.

“What book you got?” I asked.

Fante expert Stephen Cooper with Joel Williams.

“You don’t wanna read this.”

“Why’s that?”

“Cause you won’t give it back!”

I smiled and he tossed it over, something to while away the next several days when the whole prison would be on lockdown. Hours later, when we were told to get up and go back to our cells, I stuffed the book in my back pocket.

My neighbor, Norm, later told me through the vent that the guy who got stabbed on the yard was my cellmate, a Maidu Indian named Lance. I was stunned. Sure, Lance had a gambling jones and was always in debt. Sure, he smoked too much herb. But hell, he was a nice enough guy and for me that counted, what with most everyone else out to pick your pocket and cut your throat. So sure, the news hit me hard.

To get my mind off things I picked up Bear’s book. It didn’t look like much — no flashy cover, no promise of action or sleaze. The title was an odd one, Ask the Dust, by a guy from my stomping grounds in Los Angeles. His name was John Fante and I’d never heard of him but as I flipped through the first few pages I saw Bukowski’s name. I knew who he was so I read his introduction. And Bukowski revered John Fante. My literary hero, Bukowski, had a hero himself. I stirred up a cup of instant coffee, climbed into my bunk, and set off on a long night of reading.

And what a night it turned out to be. Fante’s character Arturo Bandini pulled me into a Los Angeles I’d never experienced, an earlier world colored with subtle shades of poetry and streaks of vivid emotion. Bandini was exuberant, alive, searching. I reread sentences, whole passages, soaking in the beauty of Fante’s words, wringing every nuance of meaning from his prose. And as always happened when I savored another writer’s work, I felt the tug of jealousy. I too wanted to create beautiful works and move people, and once again I’d been beaten to the punch.

Still, as the evening hours thinned I found myself developing a great respect for the man and the writer John Fante. The way he danced in and out of first, second, and third person felt so natural I had to wonder why more writers didn’t do the same. But more important, he wasn’t shy about pulling back the curtains on the “intermittencies of the heart”— a phrase I seem to recall from the forward to a Knut Hamsun book whose title escapes me, Mysteries,maybe? — those incipient ups and downs when we teeter between surrendered desire and prideful reluctance, the moments when we are at our best and our worst.[i] Embarrassing, yes, but honest, truthful writing. Fante had more colors on his palette than any other writer I’d ever encountered. And believe me, I’ve done a lot of reading, because when you’re doing a life term reading isn’t an academic pursuit but a matter of mental and emotional survival.

That first night with Ask the Dust sparked my curiosity. After each scene I paused to scan the front and back of the book, searching for more about Fante, a photo, anything. I was trying to glean something about the man, some clue about what lay underneath. Maybe I hoped to see some wrinkle, some scar, so I could point and say, “Ah, there’s his soul. There’s the cause of his genius. There’s his wisdom. His tragedy.” But the photos I found gave no clues. I lay there on my bunk thinking, “Who is this guy?”

Ten years later the spine of that book is cracked, the pages smudged with cigarette ashes. Flipping through it I see underlined phrases — an elevator man “who seemed to sneer every time you called your floor,” a cab driver who “leered salaciously and then took us to Temple Street.”[ii] My thought: a writer land-marking his story’s terrain with vagrant human feelings. I liked that, because any writer can show you but the greats make you feel.

And what’s up with those huaraches? In the holy Columbia Buffet, heavy with desire, Bandini zeros in on Camilla’s huaraches. The back-and-forth of their attack and counterattack is as hilarious as it is painful, right up to the end, when Camilla runs after Arturo to apologize:

“Young fellow!’ she called. “Oh kid!”

I waited and she came out of breath, speaking quickly and softly. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean anything —honest.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I didn’t mind.”

She kept glancing toward the saloon. “I have to get back,” she said. “They’ll miss me. Come back tomorrow night, will you? Please! I can be nice. I’m awfully sorry about tonight. Please come, please!” She squeezed my arm. “Will you come?”


She smiled. “Forgive me?”


I stood in the middle of the sidewalk and watched her hurry back. After a few steps she turned, blew a kiss and called, “Tomorrow night, don’t forget!”

“Camilla!” I said. “Wait. Just a minute!”

We ran toward each other, meeting halfway. [This is where my gut tightened — J.W.]

“Hurry!” she said. “They’ll fire me.”

I glanced at her feet. She sensed it coming and I felt her recoiling from me. Now a good feeling rushed through me, a coolness, a newness like new skin. I spoke slowly.

“Those huaraches — do you have to wear them, Camilla? Do you have to emphasize the fact that you always were and always will be a filthy little Greaser?”

She looked at me in horror, her lips open. Clasping both hands against her mouth, she rushed inside the saloon. I heard her moaning. “Oh, oh, oh.” (p. 44)

Nostalgically, I look back on the streets of Los Angeles that Fante wrote about, because I walked those streets as a young man. I revel in their familiarity, even if Ask the Dust came out nearly half a century before my time. I walked up and down Bunker Hill where the Angel’s Flight trolley used to run, I swam in the waves at Santa Monica beach. And that’s why the novel means so much to me, because Fante transfigured Los Angeles. He took the same raw materials of concrete, steel, and desert dust and changed them into this strange, beautiful, wondrous thing called art.

Bandini was my outsider hero. His thwarted yearnings for love, success, and happiness mirrored my own. Like me, he too had relocated to Los Angeles. As he puts it, “It was five months ago, the day that I got to town by bus from Colorado with a hundred and fifty dollars in my pocket and big plans in my head” (pp. 15–16). My own road to Los Angeles at the age of seventeen, motivated by the fear and disgust of having an abusive father, involved heading to the nearest freeway onramp with a pack on my back and sticking out my thumb. But I could relate to Arturo, feel the bite of his frustrations just as sharply as he did. At home as a boy, on the streets of L.A. as a teen, in prison doing time as an adult, I always shouldered my outsider status in private, keeping it to myself, the feeling that something intrinsic separated me from others. I took it as truth and accepted as fact that my life and whatever I did with it were disconnected from everybody else in the world. A painted black line on the ground separated us. And in Ask the Dust I found company and reassurance in the character of Arturo Bandini. Other guys on the inside had actors and athletes and rock stars. I had Bandini. I felt a deep kinship with him over his peers’ rejection because of his Italian American background, just as when the other kids called me “Beaner” because my mixed Indian skin got so dark in the summer.

Back in his room after the scene with Camilla, Arturo thinks back: “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” (p. 46). Then he admits, “their children hurt me, just as I hurt you tonight” (p. 46). By “you” he means Camilla but thanks to Fante’s finesse with the second person I felt Arturo’s confession as deep as Camilla would feel it, if only he would say it to her.

And the hard-edged poetry of Arturo’s words dug just as deep: “Eight dollars pouring out of my eyes, Oh Jesus kill me dead and ship my body home, kill me dead and make me die like a pagan fool with no priest to absolve me, no extreme unction, eight dollars, eight dollars” (p. 26). I learned those lines by heart, the sound of them, their rhythm, their mystery. Ask the Dust became my textbook. I carried it with me on the yard, took it with me to the chow hall, gave it my own clumsy half-witted literary criticism. But I felt on intimate terms with everything in it. That book became my secret.

Later, when I began to write, I kept that to myself too. My writing became a private walled-off part of myself, like my emotions. When I read, it became my habit to keep the cover turned away from prying eyes. TV Guide was a common sight in prison, but Isaac Babel? Flannery O’Connor? Ernest Hemingway? Raymond Chandler? What the hell was all that? Behind bars you could be as dumb, tough, or cruel as you wanted to be, but they’d never forgive you for being intelligent or sensitive. That shit you had to hide. If not, you might as well have a Kick me sign pinned on your back.

So to learn how to write I had to do it on my own, by myself. There were no creative writing classes in prison, and for the fundamentals all I had to go on was a grammar book. By this time I had gotten ahold of a typewriter. I also had a new cellmate, a Pit River Indian named Sam. Sam had a job in the prison factory sewing boxer shorts for 30 cents an hour, minus the 55 percent restitution tax subtracted from every penny he made. Still, he liked getting out of the cell and I liked him gone because then I could pull out the typewriter and pound away. The stories I wanted to write were beautiful and complex stories about women and love and life, to showcase some fictitious wisdom I had about the opposite sex. But what did I know? As Arturo realizes, “That’s your trouble: your ignorance of life. Why, my God, man, do you realize you’ve never had any experience with a woman?” (p. 18). He goes on: “Ha, great writer this! How can he write about women, when he’s never had a woman? Oh you lousy fake, you phony, no wonder you can’t write!” (p. 18). His words spoke my truth, and they cut me to ribbons. I hardly even had any visitors.

But in 2008, by way of a third party, I met a woman. She started coming to the prison on weekends to see me, and soon our meetings were filled with long discussions about books, films, music. She spoke five languages, was well traveled, had the life experiences and cultural interests that I had been thirsting for. At last I had someone who understood me. I felt at ease when we spoke.

The weekend after Lance got stabbed I couldn’t wait to tell her about Ask the Dust. She probably wouldn’t know who John Fante was so I would tell her what little I knew, the names of his other books, that he had died in obscurity, etc. But when I mentioned his name her reaction floored me.

“I know who he is,” she said. “A friend of mine, Stephen Cooper, wrote his biography.”

At that moment I recalled reading on the novel’s copyright page grateful acknowledgment to Stephen Cooper for the kind use of his personal archives.

“If you’d like,” she went on, “I can write to him and ask if he would care to correspond with you.”

I sat there trying to take it all in. In my world things never happened that way. Mostly they never happened at all. It took a moment to process what she was saying. That black line on the ground—was it starting to fade?

Soon enough Steve Cooper and I were writing back and forth, actual letters in envelopes since another thing missing where I lived was computers. He sent books now and then and he became my mentor. He reached out and offered a fellow writer’s hand: “Show what’s happening in the external world — individualized perceptions of concrete realities via the protagonist’s point of view, rendered as often as possible through the five senses — and trust that the inner world of emotion shines through.” From Steve I discovered the literary thread that connected Dostoyevsky, Hamsun, Fante, and Bukowski. Through him my world became richer. Bigger. This went on for years.

Then, on August 6, 2014, I attended my fourth parole consideration hearing. After three denials, each spaced three years apart, and a total of twenty-eight years served, I thought I was finally prepared. Showing accountability, remorse, and rock-solid parole plans, I also presented other evidence weighing in my favor. I had three published books, more than ten literary magazine credits, and support letters from friends, editors, and publishers. But of all the letters I received for that hearing, the one that carried the most cachet was the one written by Stephen Cooper.

Today I no longer live in a six-by-ten-foot concrete cell. I am no longer exposed to daily cruelties and degradation. And I am not crushed under the weight of despair and loneliness. Today I feel normal, settled in, happily partnered with another amazing woman, and working toward my college degree. Sometimes it all seems like a dream, like that feeling you get when you wake up knowing you’ve dreamt something, but you can’t tell exactly what and you feel it slipping away. I know I have to write all of it down, before it’s gone forever. That will be my task in the coming years.

Of my past, the memories and the wanted posters at the post office aside, there is one item that I brought out with me that is very important, a reminder of who I was, where I’ve been, and who I am today. It is what inspired me and gave me life, a reminder of the decision I made all those years ago to write. It is my dog-eared, underlined, highlighted copy of Ask the Dust. I see it now on the bookshelf across from me.

But the book also signifies something else. It represents another decision I made over thirty years ago, one that cost too many people too much. I was at a different crossroads then and when I made the wrong decision the world conspired to bury me, and I brought the shovel. When Ask the Dust appeared it was like a signpost in the road, pointing the way forward and out. A second chance at life, a window opening when doors were slamming shut all around me.

I still remember my throat getting tight and my eyeballs sweating the first time I read the opening chapters of Ask the Dust. Not because of any particular sentimental passage, but because I had stumbled across something remarkable: a writer who floated across the page on a river of emotions. And with it came an epiphany. Not only in my understanding of writing but in my life as well.

[i] “The Intermittencies of the Heart” is the title of a chapter in Sodom and Gomorrah, the fourth volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Joel has not yet read Proust and neither he nor his editors can figure out where he first encountered the phrase. We are letting his seeming recollection stand for what it’s worth [editors’ note].

[ii] Fante, Ask the Dust (Harper), 12. Hereafter cited in text with page number.

Tags: , , ,

Comments are closed.