Maybe it’s just me, but I think with each passing year it becomes more and more difficult to discover a new favorite book (it goes for movies as well). You know, the kind of book that immediately gets under your skin and seeps into your DNA. It happens, but not like it did when I was younger when my taste was still being shaped. My taste is still changing, I guess, but not like it did when I was in my formative years. I’m more confident in what I like now and certain in what I hate. I know what I like and try to stay away from things I don’t in other words. Life is short and there’s no time to waste exploring the movies of Larry the Cable Guy or the novels of Chuck Palahniuk.
But this blog post isn’t about what I hate. It’s about what I love. I’ve fallen in love with the late Don Carpenter. Well, that’s not exactly right. I’ve fallen in love with Carpenter’s first novel, Hard Rain Falling, originally published in 1966. The book isn’t long (it runs only 308 pages), but it feels epic in its modest way. It feels like a personal epic, charting the life of a petty criminal named Jack Levitt as he roams the pool halls of Portland, Oregon (my hometown) in the late 1940s to his time in San Francisco and prison in the 1950s to his post-prison years in Frisco where he marries a wealthy woman and tries to go straight. That’s its basic plot. The novel’s misfit characters, its seedy setting, and the cleanness of Carpenter’s otherwise muscular prose would make for the prime ingredients of a crime novel. But as writer George Pelecanos points out in his fine introduction to the New York Review Books edition, this isn’t a crime novel although it partly deals with criminals and their milieu.
The real dramatic weight of the book, however, is about male bonding and the struggle of standing tall when the weight of the world aims to crush you. It’s about existing at the bottom of it all. It’s about realizing you’re fucked but that you still have to get on with it every goddamn day. So you try to have a good time while the seconds tick down. Because whether you’re a rich man or a poor man, a law-abiding citizen or a thief, a God-fearing man or a non-believer—you’re going to die. Everything you once believed in, everything you ever accomplished, everything you ever dreamed of doing, won’t matter in the end. That’s so obvious it’s simplistic and stupid of me to even focus on it, but every day most of us live our lives in denial of that simple fact. It’s understandable why most of us don’t fixate on it every day. We have jobs, families, loved ones, and obligations to focus on. To contemplate too much on the impermanence of our lives would be morbid and selfish and unhealthy.
Carpenter paints a harsh world for his characters. Hard Rain Falling deals with the same thematic elements that noir writers like Cornell Woolrich, David Goodis, and James M. Cain regularly dealt with. Carpenter, though, isn’t interested in tying the narrative to melodrama, which was something noir writers routinely did. I rather enjoy melodrama and there’s nothing wrong with a writer going for outsized emotion if it’s handled with commitment. But that’s not this book. This is a page-turner in its way, though it’s a character-driven one and plot is always incidental to the emotional momentum built up from what happens to Jack throughout the book. At the heart of this story is, surprisingly enough, a love story between Jack and a black pool hustler named Billy Lancing. The two first meet in Portland at a pool hall and there’s plenty of racial tension in those scenes. They are not fast friends. Years go by and both men go through their own significant struggles in life. They both wind up at San Quentin Prison, become cell mates, and eventually lovers. It’s powerful stuff… and emotional. Their relationship, which peaks roughly halfway through the book, nevertheless underlies everything Jack does afterward when he’s back on the outside trying to keep his shit together in San Francisco. The final act of the book almost feels far-fetched… melodramatic. Jack the pauper and ex-con falls into the realm of the fast-living moneyed, and he scrambles to hang on when he becomes romantically involved with a quick-witted beautiful rich woman. What started as a naturalistic post-World War II novel thoroughly in the hard-boiled tradition segues into a picaresque tale with a subtle absurdest edge as it cruises into the 1960s.
There’s no sentimentality here, no melodrama to distance us from the pain. There’s nothing false to comfort us along the way. There’s no bullshit. Carpenter isn’t Woolrich or Goodis or any of the other noir writers that when at their best turned being on the skids into dark poetry. Carpenter eschews any pretense toward doomed romanticism, instead writing about his losers and bums and criminals with clear-eyed realism. There’s a real tenderness running through the novel, however, particularly in the second half. Underneath the book’s hard exterior, underneath the toughness of its prose, underneath its snarl, is an insight and sensitivity that haunted me long after I finished it.
It’s wise about the world. It’s wise about people like us. And I can already tell this one won’t be too far from my grasp no matter where I end up in the world.
That’s a damn good feeling to have. Let’s hope that the NYRB will republish more of Carpenter’s work. It’s too vital and honest to be forgotten.