Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

John Fante's Ask the Dust and Fictions of Whiteness

Academic journal article Twentieth Century Literature

John Fante's Ask the Dust and Fictions of Whiteness

Article excerpt

"I could never become one of them," Arturo Bandini declares at the end of Robert Towne's 2006 film version ofjohn Fante's 1939 novel Ask the Dust. Speaking here of his relationship to mainstream white American culture, Fante's Italian American protagonist proclaims his antiassimilationist sentiments. He will forever be a man of the margins, he insists, faithful to his memories of discrimination by the likes of "Smith and Parker and Jones," while also declaring himself, as a writer, a champion of all those he has come to know who have shared in such experiences. Although the film version strategically repositions these words, moving this speech to the end of the story for emphasis, its sentiments remain in keeping with the critical consensus on the novel. Although he finds the possibility of assimilation alluring for a period, ultimately Arturo "can only align himself against Anglo[s]" (79), as Katherine Kordich concludes, rediscovers his "feral ethnic self," as Kenneth Scambray sees it (119), and, finally, argues Jessica Maucione, "retains [his] Italianness by resisting and overcoming assimilative values and desires" (101). Arturo not only rediscovers "his own status as alien and outsider" (137), as Richard Collins suggests, but also locates himself with others who have experienced exclusion: "he and they would never become insiders, not in Los Angeles, not in California, not in America, not in the world" (139).

Ask the Dust offers considerable support for this widely accepted view of Fante's protagonist. Indeed, Arturo's apparent reconnection with the margins is the emotional crux of his narrative, and is perhaps all the more compelling for its contrast to the earlier moments when he echoes the discriminatory rhetoric once directed at him, reflecting what Donald Weber argues is the ethnic self-hatred that most critics see him overcoming in the end (69-71) (1). In this essay, however, I challenge these readings of the novel and their assessment of Arturo's ethnoracial position in particular. My argument proceeds from two assumptions that differ from the prevailing critical views. First, I contend that Arturo Bandini remains an unreliable narrator even at the end of the novel. Like Nick Carraway's in The Great Gatsby, his contradictions and evasions require careful scrutiny, despite the eloquent culmination of his narrative. Second, I distinguish between Arturo's ethnic feeling and the fact of his shifting ethnoracial and socioeconomic position.To use Thomas Ferraro's phrase, Arturo comes to "feel Italian" at the end of the novel, which in his case means identifying with those who suffer from ethnic or racial discrimination as he once did (2). Yet, such sentiments do not always translate into antihegemonic ideology, and Arturo Bandini provides a case in point for this distinction. Even as he articulates an increasing emotional connection to the margins, his narrative suggests that in fundamental ways he begins to define himself through racial terms that both enable his own assimilation into the mainstream and separate him from the very outsiders of whom he speaks and writes so eloquently.

Thus, contrary to his own claims and the many critics who accept them, I argue that Ask the Dust is less the story of Arturo Bandini's ethnic rediscovery than of his racial refashioning. His tale, in fact, provides a compelling illustration of what Matthew Frye Jacobson calls the "racial alchemy" of the melting pot, whereby certain groups assimilate into the mainstream of American culture by becoming white (7). As several critics have noted, Arturo reflects what whiteness studies scholars have dubbed the "in-between" or "middle-ground" racial status of Italian Americans in the first half of the twentieth century (3). I contend, though, that this middle ground marks only the starting point of Arturo's racial journey in the novel. Beyond the initial efforts to gain acceptance that others have noted, he begins to deeply internalize the idea of his racial whiteness. …

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