Saturday, September 27, 2008

Zeroville by Steve Erickson

Do we dream movies or do movies dream us? That’s the foundation on which Erickson, the author of several surreal-noir narratives set in a bleak future-present Southern California, constructs his latest and most fluid novel. As the title suggests, everything begins at zero-level, with the arrival in L.A. of Vikor, a cine-autistic who sports a shaved head, one side of which is tattooed with an image of Montgomery Clift and Liz Taylor from Stevens’ A Place In the Sun. A refugee from a religious father who equates innocence with depravity, and a seminary unable to countenance his doorless architectural project, Vikor is marginal enough to have descended from another planet. It’s the day after the Manson murders, and Vikor is odd enough to be a potential suspect for those grisly murders. However, the police interrogation troubles him less than the fact that, in celluloid city, the couple tattooed on his head is too often mistaken for James Dean and Natalie Wood. Seeking refuge in a downtown cinema, Vikor, who loves movies because he’s certain God hates them, watches Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc and Kubrick’s 2001, films that confirm his belief that movies are mostly about repression and sacrifice.

Zeroville recalls an era when a new generation of film-schooled directors was making its presence felt. Like Kaspar Hauser in a land of vipers, Vikor wanders through a world in which few can afford to take him at face value. Eventually he becomes a film editor, yet one who eschews continuity. Due to exigencies of the industry and his growing reputation, Vikor is finally given free reign in the editing room. Producers hope his agenda will see him through, though they’re never sure where that agenda comes from or what it’s going to produce. Is he, they wonder, a genius, an idiot or merely insane? Not realizing Vikor’s world derives entirely from lines and attitudes others give him, which means he functions as a fogged-up mirror to all that’s redundant. No wonder he hasn’t heard of Vietnam or Europe, and when Patty Hearst is kidnapped, doesn’t know if it’s because her kidnappers hate Citizen Kane or because they love it. Though he does find a few others equally obsessed and marginal, including a petty thief, a female escort, and, most importantly, the daughter of a mysterious woman rumoured to be Bunuel’s illegitimate offspring. Inevitably a cult hero, Vikor prefers scouring his film collection in search of single frames that, when spliced together, comprise a film that will show the true reality of movies. After all, Vikor knows we are defined by the films we see. Filled with surprises, Zeroville is about what movies are and why they matter. Moreover, it reads like a dream. Or should one say a movie.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter

First published by Harcourt in 1966, Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter would briefly make it onto the fringes of the best-seller list. Unfortunately, after a handful of reprintings- the last a Ballantine paperback edition in 1987- the book was to pretty much vanish from sight. I remember briefly meeting Carpenter- it was Richard Brautigan who introduced us- at a San Francisco coffee house in the late 1960s. At the time I had no idea Carpenter was a novelist, much less one with a truly great novel under his belt. But then it was unlikely that such a hardboiled, street-wise rendering like Hard Rain Falling was going to qualify as a livre du jour in that particular time and place. After his initial success, Carpenter would continue to publish, only, like so many others, to fall victim to the lure of Hollywood, caught between embracing its promise of fame and fortune and rejecting its advances and the inevitable compromises accompanying them. So It’s hardly surprising that many remember Carpenter simply as the screenwriter of the 1973 cult movie Payday, in which Rip Torn plays a third-rate Hank Williams. It’s a film Carpenter co-produced with the late jazz writer and San Francisco Chronicle critic Ralph J. Gleason. Carpenter followed Payday with a screenplay based on Charles Bukowski’s novel Post Office, which, however interesting, would become yet another aborted Hollywood project.

It might have been published forty years ago, but Hard Rain Falling reads like it could have been written yesterday. Built around the life of Jack Levitt, an orphan who grows up to be a drifter and constantly in trouble with the law, the book’s honesty, insight and lack of sentimentality make both the narrative and its protagonist heart-renderingly real: “He was buried inside his skin, bones, and nerves, and he would have to get out of there if he was to understand his pain. If it was pain. He knew people suffered agony, and he wondered if what he felt was agony. It did not seem like the descriptions of agony. He wondered if it wasn’t just self-pity again.” Moving from Portland pool halls to San Quentin, where Levitt falls in love with his cell-mate, to the mean streets of San Francisco, the novel, which takes place between 1929 and 1963, carries an intensity that perhaps only a young writer willing to pour out his soul can instill in their work.

In effect, Hard Rain Falling revises both the juvenile delinquent novel, so popular during the late 1940s, and the prison novel. In doing so Carpenter creates something unique, a coming of age street novel that unflinchingly examines race, class, male sexuality and the injustices perpetrated by the criminal justice system. In this way it can be classed alongside books by authors like Robert Tasker, Jack London, Clarence Cooper Jr, Chester Himes and Edward Bunker. Coming out of the Dreiser school of social realism, Hard Rain Falling is not only brutally honest, but also beautifully rendered. What’s more, no one, Walter Tevis and Richard Jessup included, writes more convincingly about the complex world of poker and pool-hustling. Though he would go on to publish some ten books, including at least three Hollywood novels, Carpenter was never able to recapture the magic of Hard Rain Falling. Sadly, in 1995, plagued by medical problems, and haunted by Brautigan’s suicide, Carpenter, at age 64, ended up shooting himself at his home in Mill Valley, California. As a reminder of how cruel and beautiful this world can sometimes be, Hard Rain Falling deserves greater recognition and a publisher willing to reprint what must surely constitute one of the best American novels to appear, however briefly, during the last fifty years.