At Least, At Most: The Novels of Don Carpenter

At Least, At Most: The Novels of Don Carpenter

At Least, At Most: The Novels of Don Carpenter

With his plain, weather-beaten prose, Don Carpenter was a good enough novelist not to have to prove it.


“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.

The unpredictability of the journeys his characters take is articulated by Semple, the protagonist of Blade of Light, who’s locked in a violent ward. He thinks, “I keep waiting for the world…. But this is the world. I keep wanting to get out. I am out, this is out, this is it, there isn’t any more.” It’s the same conundrum faced by Franklin Plover in Getting Off. Reading this unsparing novel of middle-aged, middle-class dissatisfaction can be a suffocating experience. Plover wants to be out in the world but finds that freedom feels amorphous, pointless. Living the unencumbered life he was convinced was passing him by–novel sexual opportunities, perhaps a chance at a new career, the sloughing off of the burden of playing the good husband–he feels as if he’s arrived in a land where everything looks familiar but nothing makes sense.

These sorts of reversals take a comic turn in the Hollywood novels. Carpenter realizes that a change in fortunes, a change in business and bed partners, a change in reputations, constitute the normal course of events in Tinseltown. The opening chapters of Turnaround diagram the demarcation of the social strata in the movie business. We go from the roomy comforts of a studio chief’s Bel Air mansion at dawn (the honcho finishes his morning swim to find that a servant has, to use P.G. Wodehouse’s verb, shimmered in as undetected as Jeeves and left a fluffy towel); to a hotshot filmmaker’s Malibu home, where every blind is drawn and he and his girlfriend are on the tail end of a cocaine bender; to an aspiring screenwriter’s tiny apartment near La Cienaga, overlooking the U-shaped court and kidney-shaped pool that, decades before, must have seemed so elegant to the transplants lured to California.

Those social lines will be traversed by the novel’s end, and on some level the characters realize how illusory their status is, how quickly it can all change. Carpenter’s movie novels are lighter in tone and mood than the work that preceded them. For me, they are also his most mature, controlled and pleasurable writing. They’re significant not just for what distinguishes them from other Hollywood and Los Angeles novels but for how their ironic sense of chance and refusal of easy moralization are reflected in the darker waters of Hard Rain Falling.

For too long, the Hollywood novel has been defined by Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust, a book whose portrait of Americans hitting the physical limits of the country and finding that their dream of paradise is a sham has always struck me as an expression of contempt for its characters and its setting. It’s also clear that the novel’s high reputation stems in large part from that contempt. As a Northern Californian, Carpenter was not, in his Hollywood books, defending home turf. But I imagine that any Californian must be aware of the disdainful Easterners’ sniff–call it the Annie Hall view–that infects so much writing about it. What could seem to them a more “authentic” Hollywood novel than one like West’s, which reduces everything to repellent grotesquerie? And yet the attitude Carpenter brings to the subject seems to me to help explain the lack of judgment and unpredictability of Hard Rain Falling.

Carpenter writes with a great deal of affection about Hollywood in the early ’70s. Whether or not he participated in all the perks of easy drugs and easy sex, he doesn’t condemn those who do. If that seems like a small thing, it’s worth remembering that, whether an author is liberal or conservative, there is virtually no such thing anymore as a novel or a movie that does not employ casual drug use and casual sex to herald an impending downfall. What are all the addiction memoirs but arguments for chemical and sexual temperance? Here’s one-half of the comedy team in A Couple of Comedians in the middle of a long-distance drive:

I drove from Sonoma Mountain to Hollywood on a Monday, eating my way south as usual, pancakes with raspberry syrup, fried eggs O.M. with fried potatoes and bacon, rye toast with apple butter, always an eightpack of Coca-Cola on the floor of the car for me to uncork, draw off about half and put the bottle between my legs, five or six handrolled joints in my shirt pocket, a little bit of cocaine under the rug next to the eightpack just in case I got sleepy; B.L.T. on toasted white bread with tall glasses of milk and french fries, lots of french fries, sometimes stopping at McDonald’s for a couple of big orders of french fries because McDonald’s makes the best, but not ordering anything else because nothing else measures up to the fries; vanilla milkshakes, orders of fried clams.

This passage is pure appetite. It’s also remarkably unpiggy. Pleasure is taken easily and taken for granted and all within the space of a sunny road trip. The eponymous heroine of The True Life Story of Jody McKeegan possesses very little appetite during her rise to fame. She falls into acting as easily as she falls into bed with the first producer who realizes she has talent.

Carpenter wrote his Hollywood novels from 1975 to 1981, which is to say the years from the peak of the renaissance in American movies that began in the early ’70s to the year after the debacle that was Heaven’s Gate heralded the death of the personal studio movie. To read these books now is to enter a lost world, the brief period of New Hollywood glamour in which old-fashioned deal-making could result in new kinds of movies that were nonetheless able to find large audiences. The movies were often open-ended, not rounded off in the way that years of classical Hollywood filmmaking had trained viewers to expect. That openness could be attributed to the new movie audience’s hunger for less pat conclusions, or it could be an easy reflection of the aimlessness people felt after the assassinations, after Vietnam, after Watergate.

If anything aligns Carpenter’s interests with a business designed to sell dreams and the hedonism of the characters, it’s the chance element in his books, the way people become lovers, the way movies get made and turn into accidental hits, or how the wrong vibes that crash a project in a few seconds never rise to the level of exhilaration or descend to the depths of tragedy. Jody McKeegan’s story opens with a sister who is a good-time girl and an absent father, and closes with her deciding that a shot of heroin isn’t quite what she’s in the mood for at the moment. What’s missing is that certainty of disaster we are trained to expect will rear its head in all narratives where characters stray from the straight and narrow.

Jack Levitt, the protagonist of Hard Rain Falling, has a hard-luck beginning far worse than Jody’s. The son of an itinerant ranch hand and the teenager he gets pregnant, Jack is given up for adoption. While he’s a child his father dies, a burnout at 26; his mother kills herself. By the time we get to Jack he’s 17, running with a hard crowd on the streets of Portland, locked out of his cheap hotel room for lack of money and seemingly without the brains or ambition that will secure him any kind of a future.

The hard passage detailing the fate of Jack’s parents, which closes the prologue, prepares us for a world in which fate is decided long in advance:

A horse kicked him and he died the next day of a brain hemorrhage; he had been trying to knock loose the balled ice under the horse’s hooves, and he slipped and wrenched the horse’s leg and the horse kicked out and got him right on the temple, and that was the end of him. The accident happened in 1936, and he was twenty-six years old, almost twenty-seven. He never did get to see his son.

Neither did Annemarie. She had been living with the Indians for a long time now, and seemed all right, but when she heard about Harmon’s death, something went out of her–something the massed hatred of the white people of the town had failed to diminish in all that time–and a few weeks later she killed herself with a 10-gauge shotgun. She was twenty-four at the time. The Indians buried her.

Such plain, weather-beaten, ineradicable prose is the kind that Cormac McCarthy can never resist fouling up with his mythic tumbleweeds a tumblin’ through. And it’s characteristic of the unforced prose that Carpenter wrote throughout his life.

Carpenter must have known that we’d be tempted to expect Jack’s story to be a social-problem tale. He dashes that expectation right away, first with a description of Jack–“He had penetrating, flat, almost snakelike blue eyes which ordinary citizens found difficult to look into…even when he smiled there was too much ferocity in his expression to relax anyone”–and then with one of his desires:

He wanted some money. He wanted a piece of ass. He wanted a big dinner, with all the trimmings. He wanted a bottle of whiskey. He wanted a car, in which he could drive a hundred miles an hour…. He wanted some new clothes and thirty-dollar shoes. He wanted a .45 automatic. He wanted a record player in the big hotel room he wanted, so he could lie in bed with the whiskey and the piece of ass and listen to “How High the Moon” and “Artistry Jumps”…. And he knew that every single one of his desires could be satisfied with money. So what he really wanted was lots of money.

Anyone who’s seen even one gangster movie, one saga of a juvenile delinquent who thought he could beat the straight world has an idea where this is going. And for the first few sections, Carpenter seems to be fulfilling the plan. We read of Jack’s palling around with Denny Mellon and Billy Lancing, a light-skinned black boy who takes on all comers at the poolroom Jack frequents. These sections are masterful evocations of lowlife atmosphere that fall neither into romantic melodrama nor the tough-guy view of the gutter. And when Jack is picked up for breaking and entering and sent to reform school, Carpenter’s prose begins to sing.

When Jack is sent into solitary confinement–a dark hole with a slop bucket where he loses all sense of time, all sense of self–Carpenter renders scenes that are psychically terrifying:

It occurred to him that after he had been in endless darkness beyond all question of time that he would die in there, simply die of the immense loneliness, and that when he died no one would know about it for days, and when they finally did find out, they would unlock the door and remove his body and put it into a wooden coffin and bury it somewhere, without a marker, and that they would put into the files that his case was terminated, and that Jack Levitt was no longer an administrative problem.

Though Carpenter scours the potentially preachy theme of man as faceless cog in the system to expose depths of existential pity, what follows in Hard Rain Falling is not an endless downward spiral. Jack gets out of juvie, tries to make a go of it, gets tossed into prison and winds up in a marriage he doggedly tries to make work. All of these events happen almost by accident. Carpenter may have the grit of Nelson Algren in his prose, but he’s got a sense of the comedy, sometimes grim, of chance. That’s how the book can open on the eastern Oregon prairie and end on the beach at St. Tropez without seeming either farce or Horatio Alger tale. And it’s why Jack’s marriage, even at its happiest, can seem like a web of silken thread stretched over an abyss, threatening to bust at any minute. The pain in these sections, the sense of an unlikely yet heartfelt refuge threatening to collapse, give the novel’s final sections an air of premature mournfulness.

The deepest emotion of the book, though, is reserved for the sections when Jack and the no-longer-young poolroom ace Billy Lancing meet up in prison and become lovers. Without slighting the dangers and violence of prison, Carpenter’s section on Jack’s incarceration has some of the melancholy of the prison scenes in John Cheever’s Falconer but none of Cheever’s sodden quality, the slightly operatic self-pity of the scene where the inmates gather to masturbate in sorrowful silence.

Prison homosexuality is, in much realist fiction, presented strictly as either rape or a degradation born of necessity. What Carpenter writes is a love story, and a love story all the more touching because Jack cannot quite transcend his shame and admit that it’s love as much as lust that brings him and Billy together. “If homosexuality was absurd,” Jack reasons, “what about no sex, or masturbation, or normal sex itself? Wasn’t it all equally absurd, futile, and comical? Think of the things people do to each other, and for each other, just to get rid of an itch!” But if Jack thinks of his relationship with Billy in those limited terms, his creator does not.

I don’t wish to reduce Hard Rain Falling to anything as trite as a plea for sexual tolerance. But the final moments of Jack’s affair with Billy are not just the most heartfelt in the book (the pages that follow feel like a very long coda) but the embodiment of Carpenter’s dedication to taking us to an unexpected place, in terms of plot and narrative and the dimensions of human frailty. “How many times we had to play like we was just jackin off?” Billy asks Jack. “How many times we have to pretend it wasn’t love. Now you know it’s love and I know it’s love, and I’m tellin you I love you. And I want you to tell me. To say it. In words…. Jack. I want you to kiss me. Once. That’s all. You can’t talk; at least, at most, kiss me. You got to. If you love me, kiss me.” But Jack can’t, which only leads to his full-hearted, well-deep realization of his love for Billy when Billy is no longer there to receive it.

It’s hard not to see in that passage the course of a varied and hard-to-pin-down career. Jack and Billy’s affair has the refusal of conventional morality in favor of a higher, more nuanced morality, a writer’s unembarrassed access to emotion and the sympathy with the outsider or the unconventional that would be visible, in all their settings, in Carpenter’s subsequent novels. It’s Billy’s words that inadvertently get at the depths of Carpenter’s plainspoken and glorious prose, books in which the “at least” of a good story, good characters and plain writing seems an “at most”–the gift that fiction can give us.

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