There isn’t much online about the author Don Carpenter, who started his career in the mid-60s and died in 1995 of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. An online bio says he spent most of his life in the San Francisco Bay Area, where he befriended Anne Lamott and Richard Brautigan, and wrote a series of well-liked but generally poor-selling novels. His first novel, Hard Rain Falling, is enjoying a reissue through NYRB Classics, with a new introduction by George Pelecanos. (If you’re in the D.C. area, Pelecanos discusses the book September 10 at the Busboys & Poets off U Street.)
To discover the book now, as I have, is to feel a little like you’ve uncovered a sort of Swiss army knife of contemporary fiction, encompassing noir, crime fiction, prison fiction, gay fiction, and the domestic novel. Carpenter appears to be the only novelist who aspired to connect all these ideas, and certainly the only one who connected them in a way that felt at all coherent. Jack Levitt, the book’s protagonist, is a pool hustler with a short temper who spends time in Portland, San Quentin, and San Francisco. His adventures generally involve some mix of sex, alcohol, and bloodshed, held together by a sense of loneliness pervades nearly every moment of his existence. (It’s no accident that Beckett and Algren get mentioned in passing.) It’s a sort of ur-Corrections, a catalog of all the efforts one man makes to shake off his feeling of isolation, and how he fails at it pretty much every time.
What the book isn’t is an existential novel—though Carpenter’s narration is deeply interior, it’s not especially philosophical. Also, it’s bitterly funny at times, or at least reflects a certain kind of gallows humor that I don’t recall in the French existentialists. This bit, in which a fellow prisoner talks to Jack about one of the worst places he’s been incarcerated, captures some of Carpenter’s tone:
“When I came in here, I was a mild socialist. I suppose I dreamed of a world in which all men received equal treatment before the law, and the function of the law was to see that everyone received equal treatment. Perhaps I even dreamed that in a mildly socialist world, we might even stop murdering each other’s children, since there would be nothing to gain from it. I have been in here two weeks now, and when I get out I’m going to make a very formal ceremony of going down and registering as a Republican. I have been in here two weeks, and like all the rest of us I have been stripped, absolutely stripped, of every single emotional and intellectual value, every basic urge, every desire; everything that distinguishes me as a human being from other human beings, or even from other animals. My privacy is gone, my pride is gone, I have no status, nor is there any way to get any status in here. My sexual urges, as weak as they are, have no possibility of satisfaction. My other appetites have been reduced to the point where I eat, drink, sleep, crap, piss, scratch, and yawn all for the same thing—the mere satisfaction or rather, reduction, of a primal itch I’d be better off without.”
Carpenter wrote nine other novels, and a few story collections as well; recommendations about where to go next are welcome.