“As far as Harry was concerned, Victor Ramdass Singh was just another Nervous Camera director, who worked tirelessly to make the audience realize at every moment that the picture was indeed being directed.” This passage appears in Don Carpenter’s 1975 novel The True Life Story of Jody McKeegan. No one who reads the eight other novels or the volume of short stories Carpenter published during his twenty-year career could ever call him just another Nervous Writer. You can comb through his work for flourishes and not find any showing off. Mostly, as John Wayne says of Ricky Nelson in Rio Bravo, he’s good enough not to have to prove it.
Born in Berkeley in 1931, Carpenter spent most of his life in Mill Valley, California. The Northern California suburbs serve as the setting for his 1971 divorce novel, Getting Off, as well as The Dispossessed and From a Distant Place. His 1965 debut novel, Hard Rain Falling, and Blade of Light, from 1968, are set among the petty criminals and dead-enders of California and the Pacific Northwest. Carpenter also worked as a screenwriter, his most famous credit being for Payday (1973), starring Rip Torn as the dissolute country singer Maury Dann. His stint in Hollywood inspired three novels: The True Life Story of Jody McKeegan, A Couple of Comedians (1979) and Turnaround (1981). Toward the end of his life, Carpenter suffered from a slew of illnesses, including tuberculosis and diabetes resulting in retinitis so severe he was able to read or write only for a few minutes at a time before his eyesight began to fade. In 1995, in his Mill Valley apartment, Carpenter killed himself with a bullet to the chest. Until New York Review Books decided to reissue Hard Rain Falling (with an introduction by George Pelecanos–an inspired choice) as part of its ongoing, invaluable Classics series, all of Carpenter’s work had been out of print since before his death. I can only hope that the folks at NYRB decide more should come. In particular, the three Hollywood novels (perhaps collected in one volume) deserve rediscovery.
Pelecanos calls Carpenter a populist writer, as opposed to a popular one. What he means is that Carpenter’s work is unfussy, written in a straightforward style that is discernible without overwhelming the material; it’s focused on character and story, grounded in a recognizable, vividly rendered world. But Pelecanos also, understandably, can’t quite classify Carpenter. He notes that Hard Rain Falling has links to both crime writing and, for want of a better phrase, the “literary” novel. Ultimately, he sensibly decides that classification (and Carpenter loathed the classifications of literary criticism) is beside the point.
And yet, having recently made my way through most of Carpenter’s fiction, I can sympathize with Pelecanos’s need to pin down just what this body of work is. That’s because Don Carpenter is an odd combination, offering specificity of place and delineation of character (Pelecanos correctly identifies Carpenter as a realist) within narratives that don’t conform to any one genre.
Halfway or even three-quarters of the way through, it’s hard to tell where any Don Carpenter novel is going. The sense of free-floating happenstance around which the three Hollywood novels coalesce isn’t just a reflection of laid-back Southern California showbiz life but a measure of the author’s reluctance to follow predetermined courses. That unwillingness is already present in Hard Rain Falling and Blade of Light. Because of the characters–small-timers, last-chancers and no-hopers–and the grittiness of settings, the books lead you to expect the downward spiral of the social-realist novel or its comparatively mandarin offspring, the hard-boiled novel. Except that Carpenter isn’t investigating the societal causes of his characters’ travails, which is fortunate, since the few passages where he attempts an indictment in Hard Rain Falling are the weakest in the book. And even at their worst, Carpenter’s characters have not shut themselves off from emotions, so the nihilism of the hard-boiled novel doesn’t take hold. The empathy Carpenter stirs for his characters, his ability to render them riven by grief without sentimentalizing them, might best be summed up by a line from Blade of Light: “Human beauty was based on such a grotesque set of values, anyway.” With a declaration like that, nearly everything is up for grabs in a Don Carpenter novel.