Friday, March 28, 2014

Beyond the Surf: Chance by Kem Nunn

One of the few writers whose work I want to read as soon as it appears, Kem Nunn, with books like Tapping the Source, Dogs of Winter and Tijuana Straits, is best known as one of the foremost practitioners of what is loosely termed called surf-noir. Unlike his  fellow surf-noirist Don Winslow, Nunn has yet to write an epic novel like the incredible Power of the Dog, nor relies upon minimalist chapters or books that could just as easily be  screenplays. No, Nunn's novels are decidedly more conventional and more consistent affairs. Invariably intelligent, they also make for compulsive reading. But as good as his surf novels are, Nunn's latest, Chance, is, despite a flaw or two, a major step up. It's a truly scary book, beautifully written about obsession, power, and the vagaries of the human mind.

Set in San Francisco, the novel centres on neuropsychiatrist Chance, a high achiever from a wealthy family whose life seems to be collapsing around him.  He's about to be divorced, he's got problems with his daughter, and his practice has hit the skids,  most of his work deriving from his performances as an expert witness in court cases. To make matters worse, he falls for one of his few patients, a woman with multiple personalities, who happens to be married to a violent and corrupt cop. Chance needs help and has it thrust upon him in the form of an  overgrown psychopathic vigilante-type who never sleeps.

Chance is one of those noir anti-heroes, not dissimilar to the sort one might come across in a Jim Thompson novel. In other words, well meaning, helpless, marginal, and caught in a spiral over which he has less and less control. In fact, he's so marginal psychologically one wonders how he could have possibly qualified as a neuropsychiatrist. With dodgy ethics to boot, he definitely needs help, mostly for matters mental. The best one can say is that he is only human. Which means he allows his obsessions to get the better of him. And chooses his friends badly. Though at least he  has friends. And while everyone at one time or another fantasises about seeking retribution on those who deserve it, Chance, a normally mild person with a checkered past, does so by proxy, which only adds to his problems. 

After finishing the book, I couldn't help but wonder how Nunn's recent career as a TV writer for  shows like Sons of Anarchy, John From Cincinnati and Deadwood, might have influenced his writing of this particular novel. If it has influenced him, it's, on the whole, probably for the better.  His writing seems to have become more lyrical, tighter, with an even better sense of pacing and suspense.  But, on the other hand, it might also have had an adverse effect. While the novel builds to a strong, nail-biting climax, it's final few pages, once the dust has settled- here I don't to give anything away- reads like something of an add-on. If I'd been his editor, I would have asked him to cut those final few pages down or take them out altogether.  For me it seemed somewhat confusing, even unnecessary, particularly if one takes into account the fireworks that precede it. Sure, it could be that I read those last  pages late at night, unable to put the book down, wanting to finish it so badly that reading it was practically making my eyes bleed. But that final page could even be interpreted as Nunn pitching for a sequel. That might work for a TV series but not for a novel. I could be wrong, but that's how it  felt to me in what is  otherwise an excellent novel. Of course, the ending could just as easily mean that Chance's obsessions are about to be recycled. In which case, the novel is more subtle than I'm giving it credit for. I wouldn't put it past Nunn. But, then, you can read it and decide for yourself.http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Goodis: A Life in Black and White by Philippe Garnier

It's been some thirty years since the French edition of Philippe Garnier's groundbreaking book David Goodis: La Vie en Noir et Blanc first appeared. Finally, thanks to noir supremo Eddie Muller, we have an English edition, translated by Garnier himself. But to say it's a strict translation of the original would be somewhat misleading. Because Garnier has made more than a few alterations, adapting it for an American readership, which means he's added some bits and taken away others. Nevertheless, the essential information remains intact; likewise,  the function and drift of Garnier's narrative.  

Personally, I'm somewhat partial to the original edition, which I came across in the mid-1980s thanks to my late friend Mike Hart, then working at Compendium Books in Camden Town, who told me about the book.  So on my next trip to Paris  I bought a copy, although  at the time I couldn't speak or read a word of French. The woman at the small Left Bank book shop asked me why on earth I was buying the book if I didn't know the language. I simply told her it was for a friend.

In fact, it was Garnier's book and a handful of others- Mesplede and Schleret's Les Auteurs de la Serie Noire- Voyage au bout de la Noire, novels by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Claude Izzo, and magazines like Polar, Folk and Rock, Les Inrockutibles and Cahier du Cinema- that prompted me to learn French. Looking back, reading that original edition was like entering a secret world, known only to the inhabitants of the book.  What I also liked, and still like, about the book is it's refusal to conform to the dictates of what constitutes a biography. Instead, it's as much about the author's investigation, as he tries to locate the cultural remains of a writer who, up to that point, has proved elusive and close to being forgotten. In true noir fashion, Garnier hits the road, digging through archives, traipsing through the streets of Philadelphia, tracking down anyone who knew the man. Typically for Garnier, there's no shortage of information, even if some of it might at first glance seem tangential. Which, for me, makes his subject all the more interesting, though it no doubt infuriates anyone seeking a more conventional biography. It's those tangents that I've always enjoyed in Garnier's writing, here illustrated by an assortment of side trips, be it his short history of Gallimard's Serie Noire imprint or memos written by producer Jerry Wald regarding the film The Unfaithful and the never to be filmed Up Till Now, both of which Goodis worked on, albeit with varying degrees of intensity and commitment.

Writing for an American audience also allows Garnier the opportunity to set the record straight and settle some old scores. For one thing, he does his best to debunk some time-honoured myths regarding his native country's over-the-top adulation of Goodis, as well as other noirists, the more neglected and purportedly dissipated the better. Conversely, Garnier pricks the myth to which some Americans still desperately cling regarding  France as the ultimate arbiter of hardboiled tastes. Of course, only a sometimes cranky Frenchman living in America could get away with it. And well that he does, because it  allows him to give us the lowdown on Serie Noire's eccentric editorial policy- cutting novels to a specific length, insisting on a uniform style and vocabulary, title changes, etc.- and to  make light of the French obsession with pulp fiction in general. But Garnier doesn't there. He also has an understandable a moan about those who, over the years, have purloined his work, often without citing the source. Not quite cricket, but I suppose it goes with the territory. After all, his book has always been one of the only sources on Goodis. And to drive his point home, Garnier has a further dig at armchair Goodis pundits, maintaining that few if any have bothered to follow up on his work or gone to the sources he visited all those years ago.  

As Garnier points out, when the book appeared in France not a single Goodis novel was in print in the U.S.. Still, one can't help wonder what would have been the result had this edition appeared in the early 1990s, around the time Black Lizard and Zomba were reprinting Goodis's novels. As perhaps the first book on a noirist written by someone from a  new generation of readers, publishers at the time were hesitant, apparently unappreciative of not only the book's subject but its approach.  I remember a highly regarded independent publisher who'd been offered Garnier's book telling me some fifteen years ago that he turned the book down because  it was more about Garnier than Goodis. Of course, my estimation of that publisher took an immediate nose-dive. But the book does rely on the author's intervention, but, for me, that only adds to its flavour. In a sense, the book's style bears some relationship to so-called gonzo journalists, not so much by Hunter Thompson as Garnier's late friend  Grover Lewis (see Garnier's 2009 Freelance: Grover Lewis a Rolling Stone, published by Grasset), a writer who, like Garnier, like to place himself on the margins of his stories, and willing to go wherever the story might lead him.

In managing to capture the story behind story, Garnier skilfully provides a context, if not all the details of Goodis's life.  In fact,  most of what informed punters know about Goodis- from his work to  his dilapidated car, his troubled brother, his eccentric personality, or his penchant for large black women- derives from  Garnier's book. After thirty years, A Life in Black and White remains essential reading and, along with Polito on Thompson, Sallis on Himes, Freeman on Chandler, one of the best studies yet of a hardboiled writer.

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Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Plot and Story: Mike Nicol's Of Cops & Robbers and John Harvey's Darkness, Darkness

A few weeks ago I heard the novelist Percival Everett make a passing statement to the effect that story is not necessarily the same as plot, that plot represents the story, or, at any rate, possesses a metaphorical relationship to it.  I was thinking about Everett's statement while reading two recent novels: Mike Nicol's Of Cops & Robbers and John Harvey's Darkness, Darkness.  Because both  manage, through their plots, to make the stories embedded within them crystal clear.

I first came across Mike Nicol's writing in the early 1990s with his book A Good Looking Corpse- The World of DRUM- Jazz and Gangsters, Hope and Defiance in the Townships of South Africa. For me, it was an eye-opening book that took me into the world of underground black culture during the Apartheid era. Naturally, when I  heard that Nicol was writing crime novels (he also wrote Mandela: The Authorized Portrait) I knew I had to read them. Though I haven't yet got around to his earlier novels, Of Cops..., set mainly in Cape Town, has a story to tell, and as evocative of the region as it is politically incisive.

Illustrating that corruption, greed and violence know no colour or party line, Nicol's novels begins with a hilarious theft of rhino horns from a Cape Town museum, then quickly moves from there to cover-ups, Apartheid era death squads and a narrative that moves between the past and the present. Along the way one meets characters of various classes and colour, including protagonist, Fish Pescado, a blond, surfer-investigator, who comes across like a Don Winslow character by way of George Pelecanos, while Fish's formidable girlfriend, Vicky, is a lawyer with a gambling problem.  Together they find themselves up against the powerful, and those who do their bidding, who, for the most part, turn out to be as  stupidly comic as they are brutal. In fact, it seems that in the new South Africa, with its racial mix and recent past, it is, as the title suggests, difficult to distinguish the cops from the robbers. Meanwhile, traces of the past continue to linger.  

Of Cops... is a slow burner of a novel, whose investigation that doesn't really kick-in until some two-thirds of the way through. Prior to that it's all about back-story and scenes that establish the relationship between story and plot, none of which can be said to be irrelevant. While bits of argot  might be unfamiliar  to  American or British readers, the vernacular only adds to the richness of the novel. This deceptively complex and political novel shows that Nicol is right up there with new wave compatriots like Roger Smith and Deon Meyer, and, for outsiders, a book that will give you an entirely different slant on modern-day South Africa.

At one point in Nicol's novel, the reader's attention is directed towards a photograph of Mark Thatcher. It's a signifier of gaping proportions. After all, not that many years ago young Thatcher,  was convicted in South Africa  for an attempted coup in Equatorial Guinea. Sir Mark's view of Africa as a place to be exploited was perhaps something he inherited from his mother who despised Nelson Mandela almost as much as she hated the former National Union of Mineworkers' leader Arthur Scargill. Which brings us to Maggie's warped world and a novel by the always excellent John Harvey.

For me, Darkness, Darkness, to be published in May, ranks as one of John Harvey's best, mixing, as it does, the  personal and the political, and featuring the world-weary Harvey copper Charlie Resnick.  If this is, as advertised, Resnick's final appearance, at least, after some three decades traipsing across the mean streets of Nottingham,  he goes out in style. Darkness..., like Nicol's novel, switches between the near-present- Thatcher has recently keeled over at the Ritz- and the past, namely the 1980s miners' strike. A heartfelt portrait of the East Midlands then and now, Darkness... is evidence of not only how the past affects the present, but how the present demands a revision of the past.

Harvey has a good eye when it comes to portraying that part of the world, whether urban Nottingham or the pit villages, which are now bleak reminders of what they once were.  Like Nicol, Harvey presents the reader with an array of characters, from the picket and soup kitchens to police constabularies. But here's it's the women who hold the narrative together, much as they did the during the strike. Not only Jenny, a first-time activist married to non-striking Notts miner, whose body is found thirty years after the event, but Catherine, of Nigerian descent, in charge of the investigation. She is handed the job because the last thing the brass want is for the case to make waves. But once Catherine brings Resnick on board, waves are going to come regardless. After all, Resnick knows the players, and back in the day he was the officer responsible for gathering information on striking miners. Together he and Catherine interview the relevant parties, their investigation taking them back in time when, for a brief moment, there was a glimmer of hope that the pits might be saved and Thatcher toppled. It was also an event that altered gender relationships in mining communities. However, just as  women would play a large part in galvanising the strike, so they would eventually bear the brunt of the subsequent decimation of those communities. Times have changed for everyone,  but some things have remained the same. Thirty years later, Catherine a black policewoman in Nottingham might be in charge of an investigation- unheard in the 1980s- but she's no less  susceptible to male violence and domination.

For me, the portrayal in Darkness... of the circumstances, or the story surrounding the crime, is as interesting as the crime itself. This even though I was never able, as I usually am, to guess who might have murdered Jenny. Which I suppose is as it should be. On the other hand, if I had any criticism, it would be the novel's over-reliance on local accents and syntax, which, regardless of their accuracy, sometimes comes across as parody. I've always been of the Lawrence Block school, believing one should deploy regional accents and colloquialisms sparingly. But more importantly, in an age when history can so easily be erased, Darkness... is really about memory: the memory of  those involved in the strike, Resnick's memory of the woman he loved, Catherine's memory of the reasons she wanted to join the police. A few years ago I mentioned the strike to a woman in her mid-thirties. She looked at me and said,. "A miners' strike?  When was that?" Everett was right, plot is not the same as story. However, Darkness... and Of Cops... contain plots that make their stories crystal clear, and manage to accomplish that with no small amount of style.http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Friday, February 21, 2014

Edgar Ulmer: A Filmmaker at the Margins by Noah Isenberg

A few years back I was fortunate enough to catch a season of  Edgar Ulmer films at the National Film Theatre. Of course, Detour has always been a favourite of mine. I think the only other Ulmer film I'd seen at the time was his creepy, failed masterpiece Black Cat, starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, with a screenplay by hardboiled writer Paul Cain. So I was hoping to see as many of Ulmer's other films as possible.  I'd always been fascinated by this Hollywood-outsider, at least ever since reading Peter Bogdanovich's interview with Ulmer when researching my book Heartbreask & Vine. Over those few days at the NFT I caught, amongst many others, Ulmer's two other films that can definitely be classified as noir-  Reckless and Murder Is My Beat, both low-budget and workmanlike-  the verité-styled People On Sunday, which was his first movie, made in Weimar Berlin with Robert Siodmak, Billy Wilder and Fred Zinnemann, and a sampling of films made for the Yiddish and African-American audiences.

Taken as a whole- he's credited with having directed at least fifty-three films- his work is, of course, uneven, but never less than interesting. Working fast under constant budgetary restraints, he seemed to be able to move from the ridiculous to the sublime, no matter the genre, be it noir, westerns (Thunder Over Texas, The Naked Dawn), science fiction (Planet X, The Amazing Transparent Man), pirate movies (Pirates of Capri), historical films (Hannibal) a film about nudism (Naked Venus) or classical music (Carnegie Hall). As Mid Century writer-producer Jack Pollexfen said, "I think Edgar could get more on the screen with less time and money than any other director I worked with. He could get more values than any of the other B budget specialists."

Born in Moravia, Austria-Hungry in 1904, Ulmer must have always felt like a fish out of water in Hollywood. Cultured, with considerable experience in the theatre- he'd worked with, amongst others, Max Reinhardt-  Ulmer was sort of the Zelig of 20th century cinema, having seemingly worked everywhere and  with everyone.  His 1934 Black Cat, made at Universal, should have been the start of a long and illustrious Hollywood career. Unfortunately, Ulmer happened to fall in love with the wife of the nephew of Universal boss Carl Laemmle. This led to the director's exile in New York where he survived by making those films for Yiddish speakers and African-American audiences. It was just the beginning of what would be an itinerant career. Ever hopeful of getting back on the Hollywood studio ladder, he would spend several years  in Europe, making mostly forgettable films. And when necessary,  he found work as a set designer, cameraman or director of second units.  Back in the States, he was apparently even the cameraman on Timothy Carey's cult classic of the 1960s The World's Greatest Sinner.

Not surprisingly, Ulmer's directorial skills were appreciated more in France than in the U.S.. As far back as 1961,  Cahier du Cinema ran an  eleven page interview conducted by Bertrand Taverier and Luc Moullet. Though not every New Waver was  ecstatic. Godard, for instance,  thought the adulation overdone. However, Ulmer could always talk a good game, elaborating and inventing where necessary. As Tavernier points out in the preface to Isenberg's book, directors like Ulmer "often live in a dream world where they are even inventing themselves the projects." Tavernier goes on to say that Ulmer seemed like a fictitious character, known to tell outlandish stories, many of which turned out to be true. A strange combination of unrealised talent and chutzpah, the under-achieving Ulmer combined an immigrant's urge to succeed with an appreciation of popular culture, even if that appreciation was sometimes misplaced. But without a major studio to latch onto, he drifted towards Poverty Row studios like PRC and Mid-Century Films, receiving as little as $300 for  Thunder Over Texas and Man From Planet X. After completing his final film, a WW2 drama entitled The Cavern, in 1964, he ended up working on The Doris Day TV show. Ulmer  died on September 30th, 1972.

It's all here in Isenberg's book. It's a long book to plough through, but, having said that, there's a great deal in it, including not only the customary biographical information, but numerous stories from, and about those who financed, produced, worked on and acted in Ulmer's films, including Karloff, Lugosi, Tom Neal and Barbara Payton. To his credit, Isenberg manages to disentangle fact from fiction, no mean feat in itself. Moreover, the book, for me, was worthwhile just for the pages Isenberg devoted to Detour, particularly regarding comparisons between the movie with Martin M. Goldsnsith's 1939 novel.

Most recently reprinted  by Black Curtain (before that O'Bryan House and Black Mask), it's easy to see why Ulmer wanted to adapt Goldsmith's novel. Written in a cinematic, hardboiled style with a narrative point-of-view that alternates between the protagonist, Alex Roth, and his girlfriend, the would-be actress Sue, it's as though Mike Gold, after penning Jews Without Money, had decided to turn his hand to hardboiled fiction.

Goldsmith was born in 1913 in New York. An inveterate hitch-hiker, he wrote his first novel, Double Jeopardy in Mexico and saw it published in 1938.  Before that he'd published a handful of short stories and in 1938, to pay for a trip to Hollywood, he filled his battered Buick with out-of-work actors and motored west. The journey gave him the idea for Detour. Once in Hollywood he worked as a stagehand by day and wrote Detour by night, selling the  novel to PRC with the stipulation that he write the screenplay.

While you wouldn't know it from the film, Goldsmith's novel sits comfortably in the tradition of Jewish working-class pulp fiction when it comes to style, content and language. Though the film revolves around Al Roberts, a jazz musician, in the novel protagonist Alex is a classical violinist, who, to survive, plays in a jazz band in a nightclub where he meets Sue. When the latter goes to Hollywood, Alex pawns everything he owns so  he can hitch-hike across the country to join her. After Alex's  money runs out in Dallas, he meets Haskell and then the man-hating Vera. But Goldsmith's screenplay is not nearly as lurid as his novel, which is filled with pimps, whores, drugs, and suicide. Goldsmith would go on to write several movies, itwo other novels and  the story that would become Narrow Margin. He also wrote for TV programs like The Twilight Zone and Playhouse 90. Anyone interested in Ulmer's film, or hardboiled noir fiction could do worse than seek out Goldsmith's novel.

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Sunday, February 09, 2014

Fridays at Enrico's by Don Carpenter

Even though Don Carpenter died before finishing Fridays at Enrico's, it would never have guessed this was not a finished product. In  fact, I'd hate to think how good this novel would have been had he actually been able to complete it. Because Fridays at Enrico's represents Carpenter at his best, by which I mean it is every bit as good, if not better than, Hard Rain Falling or short stories collections like The Murder of the Frogs.

A sprawling novel, centred on four writers, Fridays... moves from Portland to San Francisco, Mill Valley, Sausalito and Hollywood. Taking place over some fifteen to twenty years, it's about how these four writers relate both to one another and to the world. Of course, I agree with the general notion that one should approach any novel about novelists with no small amount of trepidation. On the other hand, I can't think of any other book about writers that's as engrossing and deeply felt, with the possible exception of Roberto Bolano's Distant Star, however dissimilar that book might be.  But like Bolano's poets in Pinochet's Chile,  Carpenter's prose counterparts  encounter all the  exigencies embedded in that long march from late-Eisenhower to early-Nixon. And the author accomplishes this without any unnecessary extrapolation, unstinting as he is when it comes not only to the economics of writing, but the megalomania, obsessions, paranoia and vulnerability of those taking that journey.

The four writers  include Dick who early on sells  a story to Playboy, only to find his career hoisted on that particular literary petard;  the Korean war vet Charlie who, while San Francisco State, is feted for his promising work in progress- a gigantic war novel that hangs albatross-like from his portable typewriter; his middle-class girlfriend Jaime, herself a talented writer who eventually succeeds, only to find the rewards for such success double-edged; Stan, a professional thief and jailbird who becomes a Malcolm Braly-like Gold Medal author and eventually, along Charlie, a run-of-the-mill Hollywood screenwriter. By now, if one has had the good fortune of giving  Carpenter a fraction of the attention he deserves, it should be clear that, along with the likes of Gavin Lambert and Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby stories, Carpenter was one of the most incisive writers about Hollywood,  producing Tinseltown stories and novels (The Turnaround, The Two Comedians, etc.), and where he toiled for some time, churning out screenplays for Payday,  The Forty-Eight Hour Mile, episodes of High Chaparral and The Outsider, as well as  unrealised projects, like Charles Bukowski's Post Office.

Of course, getting so deeply  into the minds of these four writers isn't necessarily pretty. After all, his characters are only human. Here, for instance, is  Stan describing on paper the sexual thrill he gets from breaking into houses:

"There was something incredibly intimate about being in somebody's house, as if he and the people of the house were very close. And yet he would do these things. Things have nothing to do with making a living. Things he didn't to think about. Most of the time he was neat and careful, just going to the places where he knew people kept their valuables. But then, their jewellery or cash in his pockets, an even stranger feeling would overtake him. He might find himself pissing on the bed or into bureau drawers full of women's underthings. What the hell was that all about? Often he would take a crap on the dining room table, or somewhere else just as bad. Or sit down and have a meal out of the refrigerator, with this intense sexual feeling passing through him, making him brave beyond sanity. When, in fact, he was a complete coward."

That voyeurism relates to the feeling Dick gets from watching Stan and Dick's girlfriend, Linda together:

"Silently he tracked Stan and Linda through the trees, his heart still, his mind alert. Then he watched  them in the clearing, just out of earshot. He didn't want to move any closer, and various birds were making a lot of noise, so he could only watch. When they started kissing and rolling around on the ground, Dick got so excited he almost cried out, and urgently wanted to jack off. He was in an anguish of jealousy and so turned on he wanted to shriek... [He] watched Linda and Stan like a voyeur through a window. To his relief and disappointment they didn't strip and make love right before his eyes."

Nor was Carpenter ever one to accept cultural stereotypes, whether that of the  hard-bitten man or nurturing woman. The latter, for instance, are more likely to strike out on their own while the former are left to look after the children. And although Charlie has spent years working on that war novel, Jaime, seeking something beyond motherhood, in a matter of months writes a best-selling memoir about growing up in the City, which prompts  Charlie to retreat into himself. Though he's not the only character  in Carpenter's novel who's needy, insecure, insulated, and desperate for affirmation. Nor is he alone in his desire to break out of a kind of self-imposed Laingian knot:  "He didn't want to bullshit, and as for the truth, he didn't claim to know the truth. Unless, of course, the truth was bullshit. Tricky."

As for the locales, clearly Carpenter knew them only too well. After all, back in the day, he had hung out with  Brautigan, Evan Connell, Curt Gentry and Anne Lamott, and doubtlessly spent many a Friday night imbibing at Enrico's and similar places. But even though this is no memoir- or at least I don't think it is- it cuts very close to the bone. Because Carpenter likes to get inside his characters, which means they are always capable of surprising the reader. No mean feat in itself. I remember  writing some time back something to the effect that Carpenter never quite equalled his first novel, Hard Rain Falling. In fact, I now think he equalled that book on various occasions, but none more so than with this novel.  I know it's something of a cliche, but Fridays at Enrico's is one of those books you wish would go on forever, its characters so memorable that you can't help but think about them and what they might be doing long after finishing the novel.   http://www.facebook.com/facebook-widgets/share.php

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Don Carpenter- From Hard Rain Falling to Friday at Enrico's


Don Carpenter has long been one of my favourite writers, particularly when it comes to Hard Rain Falling and his short stories. To celebrate the publication of his final novel, Friday at Enrico's, here is an annotated bibliography of his work, followed by very short biography. Watch this space for a review of Friday at Enrico's.

-Hard Rain Falling (1966)  Arguably Carpenter’s finest work. Really three novels, tracing the life of protagonist Jack Levitt. Like Chester Himes, Carpenter can be tender as well as tough,  hardboiled as well as literary: “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.”   According to Carpenter, Levitt  was partly based on a friend who had spent eighteen months in San Quentin, “later became a buddy of Jack Kerouac’s, and fascinated me, both as character material and as a person.”
-Blade of Light (1968)  Like Hard Rain, Carpenter’s second novel is set amongst petty criminals and dead-enders in California and the Pacific Northwest: Locked in the violent ward, Semple, the protagonist of Blade of Light,  says,  "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." Possibly the uncredited source for the Billy Bob Thornton movie Sling Blade.




-The Murder of the Frogs and Other Stories (1969)  Carpenter’s first collection of stories, including the remarkable two-part novella “Hollywood Heart - Hollywood Whore”: the first part about  a successful novelist brought to Hollywood, and the other about  the mogul responsible for bringing him. But it’s the mogul who, however ruthless, turns out to be the more fascinating, if not  sympathetic, character. There are no easy passes in Don Carpenter’s world, in fact no one gets a pass at all.  

-Getting Off (1971) A no-compromise novel about middle-aged, middle-class dissatisfaction.  Living the unencumbered life Plover thought  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. Richard Brautigan’s blurb of the novel sums up the novel:  "In microscopically-accurate detail Getting Off searches through the emotional odds and ends of an American marriage that has just turned into a pile of junk. This is a very brave book about love."


-Payday (1973) Screenplay by Carpenter, directed by Daryl Duke, produced by Ralph J. Gleason, and songs by Shel Silverstein. 36 hours in the life of a manipulative country music singer, Maury Dann, superbly played by Rip Torn, and based on the likes of  Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, and various honky-tonkers who made their crisscrossing the highways, playing one night stands, and indulging in as much sex, drinking and drug taking as possible.   An immediate cult film if a box office failure, this is country noir at its best, as Carpenter and director Duke take a long dark pessimistic look at American life in  the post-60s era. Makes the likes of Nashville and Crazy Heart seem tame in comparison. 

-The True Life Story of Jody McKeegan (1975) One of three novels inspired by Carpenter’s stint in Hollywood.  Jody McKeegan's story begins with a good-time girl and an absent father, and closes with the former deciding that she’s not in the mood for another shot of heroin. But this isn’t your usual disaster-laden morality tale.   The heroine of The True Life Story of Jody McKeegan cares little about her rise to fame. It’s just something that happens, no different from falling into bed with the first producer that crosses her path and who recognizes her talent. Carpenter said it that it was the “most painful and difficult book of my career...Dutton published the book as if they were ashamed of it, and the first public notice that the book even existed came from a total trashing in the New York Times.” 

-The Post Office (1977) Carpenter’s screenplay adapted  from Bukowski’s novel which unfortunately never  made it to the screen. Still one can’t help wondering what the film, in the hands of a capable director, would have been like.  Because if ever there were two writers made for each other, it’s Carpenter and Bukowski, which, in turn, might have been cause for it being just another unrealized project.  


-A Couple of Comedians (novel - 1979)    Carpenter considered this is best book. And it reads like it. It concerns an upbeat comedy team and lifelong friends David and Jim. Each year they come to Hollywood to make  a movie, then move on to  perform in Las Vegas. Jim is a ladies man, extrovert, and unreliable, while David is more of a recluse, and the narrator of the novel. After coming down from the Sonoma hills, they sweep through Hollywood before coming close to being consumed by their status, their personalities and their differing life-styles.  With its movie moguls, PR men, aspiring actresses, and hangers-on, it’s another Carpenter hilarious yet sad novel about Hollywood, unrelenting in its critique. 



-Turnaround (novel - 1981) The title comes from  Thoreau- "A man has but to get turned around once in this world, to find himself lost."- but also refers to what happens to scripts once they go into development, meaning it’s either dead in the water (“turnaround hell,” as James Crumley used to call it) or its been given to a producer ready to reimburse costs. In this novel, Carpenter traces the development of a family of high-level performers from the perspective of three generations and recounts  the struggles of a screenwriter whose status doesn’t match the quality of his output, and is so concerned about failure that he has to drink himself to sleep each night.  His  companions are, for the most part, minor actors and technical people who keep the industry running and who live  in run-down motels.  This is hardboiled fiction of a different kind, hard-edged, democratic and lacking in sentiment. 

-The Class of '49 (1985) Consists of a novel, Class of ’49, and two stories, “One Pocket” and “Glitter: A Memory.” Class... is a rite of passage narrative focusing  on a group of high school students in Portland- a would-be writer, a hanger-on, a young woman interested in ballet, a girl who wants to be Queen of the Rose Festival, a young man with no ambitions but who gets his girlfriend pregnant, a student body president and an outcast. Taking place over a single year, it explores  their triumphs as well as their failures.    “One Pocket,” along  with Tevis’s The Hustler, is probably the best story ever written about  pool. While “Glitter...”  is another Carpenter Hollywood story in which deception, fantasy and illusion are the order of the day.

-The Dispossessed (1986) Carpenter’s penultimate published work takes place around  a diner in a small suburban California town, not unlike Mill Valley where the author lived for many years.  The diner, situated opposite the public square, attracts both locals, transients in various stages of dissolution, drunks, drug-dealers and their customers, and veterans of actual or imagined wars.  A TV feature on Valerie, a black homosexual who squats at the curb knitting a bedspread, attracts even more eccentrics to the area, which threatens the uneasy truce between the residents and the various longhairs, runaways and drifters. When two women are brutally murdered, things turn nasty. With the police convinced that  the culprit has to be one of the street people, the desire order suddenly supersedes the need for  justice.  Though the tone of the novel remains light, the ambiance becomes progressively darker. A frenetic narrative that moves beyond the usual crime narrative, and raises questions about the justice system, tolerance, and the relationship between the have’s and the have-not’s.  
-From A Distant Place (1988) Carpenter’s final published work is another melancholy and episodic novel that opens with a chaotic Thanksgiving feast which eventually culminates  in an all-night poker game. The party's hostess is an attractive, 45-year-old alcoholic divorcee and ex-stewardess who reminisces about  her glory days with the airlines. Among those who show up  are her ex-husband, a lawyer and philanderer, and their 20 year old,  dropout son.  Carpenter details  the woman’s descent into boozy blackouts as well as the son’s slide into crime, imprisonment and eventual employment, which, if nothing else,  gives him a certain amount of  self-esteem. His story that becomes  the novel’s focal point, along with a raucous double-date, in which the mother and an aging waitress drink and drive all over L.A. with their  wealthy beaux. There’s a sad tinge to the world that Carpenter depicts, as things fall apart and  the middle-class slowly fades into oblivion.     


-Friday at Enrico’s.  Apparently Carpenter had finished the novel prior to killing himself. Others say he was still working on it. Whichever, it remains unpublished. Considered by some to be his masterpiece, it centers on the author’s regular lunches shared with writers like Brautigan, Evan S. Connell and Curt Gentry at the North Beach cafe in the mid-1970s. One hopes it will eventually see the light of day.  







Biography

-Born in Berkeley in 1931.


-Early years were spent in Berkeley and in Lafayette, Ca.

-In 1947 moved to Portland, Oregon, where he finished high school. 

-During the Korean War served in the Air Force during the Korean War, Carpenter was  stationed in Kyoto, Japan where he worked for  Stars and Stripes alongside cartoonist Shel Silverstein. 
-Returned to Portland and attended University of Portland. 
Married Martha Marie Ryherd in 1956 and moved to San Francisco, attended San Francisco State where he received in M.A. and briefly taught English
.-Published Hard Rain Falling, and was lauded as a serious literary figure.  Around this time the Carpenter family (which now included two girls, Bonnie and Leha) settled in Mill Valley, Ca. at which time he became a full-time writer. 
-Involved in Bay Area writing scene along with Evan S. Connell Jr., Curt Gentry and Richard Brautigan. Often found at Enrico’s and other North Beach coffee bars. 
-Worked at Discovery Books next door to City Lights.
-Spent twelve years in and out of Hollywood writing for movies and television (High Chaparral, Bonanza) and would spend the next decade writing about that experience. 
-Payday for which he wrote the screenplay appeared in 1973. Immediately becomes a cult film, lauded in periodicals like Rolling Stone, received a standing ovation at Cannes. 
-Deeply affected by Richard Brautigan’s 1984 suicide.
-Distrustful of doctors, Carpenter contracts  tuberculosis, then diabetes, which led to the loss of his eyesight and his subsequent reclusive existence.  
-Commits suicide  in 1995. According to the coroner’s report, death caused by a single, self-inflicted gunshot. He was 64. At the time of his death, Carpenter was at work on Fridays at Enrico's




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