Sunday, February 09, 2014

Fridays at Enrico's by Don Carpenter

Even though Don Carpenter died before finishing Fridays at Enrico's, one 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.

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