You can be sure that I'm never going to miss a chance to write about Don Carpenter. Not only is he one of my favorites, but no one writes about Hollywood better than he does. Which he ably demonstrates in The Hollywood Trilogy, recently published by Counterpoint. It's a volume that comprises three long unavailable novels: A Couple of Comedians, The True Life Story of Jody McKeegan and Turnaround. They, of course, come off the back of the republication of Hard Rain Falling and, just a few months ago, Fridays at Enrico's, and represent those years Carpenter toiled in Tinseltown. The result of which was fairly meagre: the incredible film Payday, a TV movie and an episode of High Chaparral, not to mention a purported screenplay based on Bukowski's The Post Office, which would never be made. No doubt there were many other unrealised projects.
All of which reminds me of the time I was visiting a writer friend. It was sometime in late 1969. I was driving the graveyard shift for Yellow Cab, the Zodiac was on the loose, and it was my night off. I arrived at my friend's place to ask if he wanted to go out and hear some music. I think Tony Williams' Lifetime was playing at the Both/And club on Divisidero, the band that included Larry Young, Jack Bruce and John McLaughlin, which everyone was talking about. My friend said, "Nah, I'm going to stay home and watch High Chaparral." I said, "High Chaparral?" He said, "Yeah, the episode that Carpenter wrote is on tonight." I rolled my eyes. Like, who cares? I never watched TV and only knew a couple who owned one. "You know, the guy who used to work at Discovery," he said. I said, "I know who he is, but I'm not going to sit around watching some fucking cowboy show just because he wrote it. Not on my night off."
Which is to say that we knew even then that Carpenter had some kind of form in Hollywood, though one senses that, other than the drugs and everything that goes along with that particular activity, it might not have been the happiest of times for him. However, it did result in these three novels, and a handful of stories, such as those that comprise The Art of Film from that early collection of his, The Murder of Frogs, another Carpenter book that thoroughly deserves republication.
Originally appearing in 1979, A Couple of Comedians is about a comedy team- think of a hip, drug-taking, women-chasing equivalent of Martin and Lewis. In that usual Carpenter blend of humour, pathos and tragedy, the novel, narrated by one of the comedians, moves from Northern California down into that den of vipers known as Hollywood, where the two comedians encounter various types, pick up women, do as much dope as they can and meet up with their director, an egomaniac responsible for enhancing the careers of the duo. As the novel progresses it becomes clear that one of the two men, and consequently their comedy act, is about to collapse. The True Life Story of Jody McKeegan, first published in 1975, concerns a young woman who, from an early age, has wanted nothing more than to be a Hollywood actress. She's had a rough life, moves through various men, using them and getting used by them, until, in her mid-thirties, she ends up with a Hollywood producer who just might give her the break she needs, even if it's a B-movie at best. The title sounds as though it might been something that would have appeared in Photoplay magazine in the 1950s, but the story is anything but that. Turnaround, which first appeared in 1981, is a coming of age novel centered around a young screenwriter, who has to learn the hard way how Hollywood works. Instead of writing screenplays, he churns out copy for Pet Care Hotline and gets advice from someone who runs the local porn bookstore.
When it comes to writing about Hollywood, Carpenter, who died in 1995, is, for me, up there with Fitzgerald's Pat Hobby stories, or the gonzo-infested fiction of Bruce Wagner. Still, there was another writer I kept thinking about while reading Jody McKeegan. At first I couldn't think who that writer might be. Then I realised it was Jim Tully. That might sound odd, given Tully's reputation, but Carpenter's novels have the same narrative arc, are written in the same clear prose, touch on the low-life as well as the high-life, whether Hollywood, pool hall hustling, card playing or prison life. Though, unlike Tully, and, to some extent, Fitzgerald and Wagner, nothing in Carpenter's world is clear-cut or one-dimensional. What's more, The Hollywood Trilogy is as complex and honest a portrayal of Tinseltown as you are likely to come across. Now if I could only track down that episode of High Chaparral.
London-based journalist and author of Pulp Culture: Hardboiled Fiction and the Cold War; Neon Noir: Contemporary American Crime Fiction; and Heartbreak and Vine: The Fate of Hardboiled Writers in Hollywood.