“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.