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.  


-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

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Underground Critics of the 1960s

While a lot- some might say too much- has been written about poet, novelists and music of the 1960s, little attention has been given to the critics of that era, particularly non-academic types who wrote for small magazines, be they literary, cultural or political, and who, to grasp the parlance of the era, might be termed underground critics, however much of a misnomer  that term might be. Some of these critics would be highly influential both at the time and in years to come,  while others would be influential for a time only to fade from sight.  Certainly a number of such critics during that era would influence me when it came to what I listened to, saw and read.

For instance, when it came to films, I avidly devoured articles by Jonas Mekas and Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice, the former writing about underground films, and whose taste and passion prompted me to exhibit films in San Francisco a few years later; while the latter offered an appreciation of a range of Hollywood and European films, not to mention auteur criticism. Naturally, I was also a keen reader of Film Culture,  in which I read not only the aforementioned writers, but sought out the likes of P. Adams Sitney, Ken Kelman and  John Fles. It was through Fles, whom I heard lecture in Los Angeles, and whose midnight screenings at the Cinema Theater I attended,  that I first heard about L.A. artists like Wallace Berman and George Hermes. Then there was Manny Farber's film criticism in the Nation, though it would be some years before I would appreciate the subtlety of his exquisite writing. When it came to music, mainly jazz, I never missed articles by LeRoi Jones, Nat Hentoff, Martin Williams, Frank Kofsky and AB Spellman, in Down Beat, the Village Voice or wherever else I could find them. All, in varying degrees, were supporters of the new music- Ornette, Trane, Shepp, Cecil Taylor- and, aside perhaps from Williams, articulate about  the relationship between the music and the politics from which it, to a large extent, derived.  It was a breath of fresh air to also discover a couple years later  publications  from John Sinclair and his associates at Detroit's Artist Workshop, like Change, Work, Wh'ere and Guerrilla (for which I'd become west coast editor) which, in its concentration on jazz and blues, combined poetry, criticism and articles regarding the social change that appeared to be imminent.

Donald Phelps

So hungry was I for intelligent criticism that I often found myself at the local liquor store on Haight Street to read the right-wing National Review, edited at the time by the venomous William Buckley just because it published articles by Guy Davenport and  Hugh Kenner. I probably read the NR as furtively as others read the porn magazines of which the liquor store kept a generous supply.

One of my favourite magazines of that era, and one which you could not have purchased at that liquor store, was Kulchur, which came out of New York, and lasted for twenty issues, from Spring, 1960 to Winter, 1965. The magazine included two writers-  Gilbert Sorrentino and Donald Phelps- who, at the time, would rank amongst my favourite critics, and whose work stands up remarkably well today. Phelps contributed to the first nine  issues of the magazine, while Sorrentino appeared in issues 3 to 16. Sorrentino would also edit the magazine, as would LeRoi Jones, Lita Hornick, Joel Oppenheimer, John Fles and Marc Schleifer. Both Phelps and Sorrentino contributed a range of intelligent articles and reviews which served ammunition in any number of debates and discussions with various academic literary honchos. What's more, both were political in their outlook, though it would be difficult to pinpoint what those politics were. Were they leftists, libertarians, anarchists, or what exactly? I had no idea, and still don't.

Phelps and Sorrentino were both born in 1929 in Brooklyn. Both attended Brooklyn College. Presumably they knew each, though Phelps claims in a 1974 essay on Sorrentino in Vort, that he first encountered Sorrentino on the pages of Kulchur. Sorrentino, who a couple years earlier had edited Neon magazine with Selby, would eventually become known for his own  brand of meta-fiction, the apogee of which was probably Mulligan's Stew. However, I've always been partial to his criticism, as well as to his very first novel, the incredible The Sky Changes, a road trip love-triangle novel that I read in a single sitting sometime around 1967. I also remember with fondness his articles on Hubert Selby, including Last Exit to Brooklyn, which he championed and helped edit. His piece "The Art of Hubert Selby" can be found in his exemplary book of criticism, Something Said (published by North Point Press in 1984, and subsequently reprinted by Dalkey Archives).

These days Donald Phelps' criticism has been pretty much forgotten.  Now he's primarily known as a historian of comic books, not graphic novels but traditional comics, and the author of Reading the Funnies (Fantagraphics, 2001), which is well worth checking out. But his Covering Ground- essays for now (Croton Press, 1969) with a typically sparse but evocative drawing of Phelps by Fielding Dawson, another Kulchur contributor, remains, for me at any rate, a lost classic and deserves republication.

For me,  Phelps was always the ultimate hipster critic: sharp, somewhat incomprehensible, passionate, and appreciative of all the writers I liked. Or maybe it was a case of my liking the writers he liked. Like Sorrentino, he covered a range of subjects, mainly literary but also political and cultural. In the first issue of Kulchur, he contributed an essay, The Muck School, about what was then euphemistically called sick comedy. While his controversial article A Second Look at Pornography in Kulchur 3, was an extended piece that placed the subject in the context of its time as well as place. In future issues Phelps also contributed articles on  Dashiell Hammett, Edward Dorn, Douglas Woolf, LeRoi Jones, Peter Taylor, William Eastlake, the police and the Warren court, satire and Jules Feiffer, the films of Allan Dwan, William Buckley, the Prayers Laws and church and state, I.B. Singer, Lil Abner,  Doc Savage and the Pulps, the self-immolation by a Quaker and a Catholic as protests against the war in Vietnam, capital punishment, Westbrook Pegler, Spencer Tracy, Anthony Mann, film critic Robert Warshaw, Philip Roth's Letting Go, and Pinocchio As well as appearing in Kulchur, Phelps, during the 1960s, contributed to The Nation, The National Review, Wivenhoe Park Review, The Second Coming, For Now and Rouge (where he wrote an excellent essay on Manny Farber). After that, the trail gradually grows cold.  On the other hand, one can still find blog posts by Phelps at the Comics Journal site, which includes articles on Calder Willingham's End As a Man and Preston Sturges' forgotten film The Power and the Glory.

Gilbert Sorrentino
As for Sorrentino, during  the 1960s though known primarily as a poet, published articles in Kulchur on Ron Loewinsohn, Charles Olson, Andrew Hoyem, Pablo Neruda, The Moderns anthology, and pamphlets by poets Aimé Cesare, Paul Blackburn, Clayton Eshleman, Fram Samperi, David Antin, Richard Brautigan, and Joe Brainard. He would go on to write about Denise Levertov in The Nation,  Marianne Moore in  The Park, 1968, the Reagan west in Guerrilla, Jim Brodey and Black Mountain writers in Poetry, and, later, in other publications he would produce articles on the likes of Michael McClure, Lorine Niedecker, David Antin, Louis Zukofsky Jack Spicer and Ross Macdonald.

In Phelps' essay on Sorrentino, the future comic book pundit would refer  to Sorrentino's poetry as  reactionary and conservative, though he gives such terms a positive spin:

Inspector Maigret and Sam Spade
"The most imposingly and movingly distinctive feature of Sorrentino’s work was always, in some of that word’s best and many of its worst senses, its reactionaries... Sorrentino’s block-like essays, often pummelingly indignant, occasionally hortatory (as, his study of the then-little-known Hubert Selby’s fiction) seemed founded on some promontory of sheer affirmation, massive response to particular occasion. In his writing, this reaction was predicated on neither barriers denied, nor barriers created; but rather, on fervent and visceral response against barriers which, correctly or not, he seemed to feel were prescribed and impassible: existing, therefore, only to be identified and either hailed or denounced — usually, the latter. Every such barrier represented, for Sorrentino, an implacable issue of taste, or candor, or esthetic integrity.

"It was a source of his basic, however abrasive strength as a critic, I think, that Sorrentino was both reactionary and, in the profoundest and most mobile sense, conservative: something but rarely encountered, liberal suppositions to the contrary; one reason being, that genuine conservatives, at least as much as genuine liberals, prize their spiritual autonomy and fluency. The impulse toward containment and sustenance of intangibles — toward, in a word, conservatism — produced, I daresay, much of the stertorous haranguing with which he laid upon targets of, sometimes, elephantine obviousness in the veldt-country of Kulchurmagazine. But it also evidently induced and projected a kind of foursquare unapologetic arrogance, and reinforcing it a reverence, which could be both refreshing and heartening; and were so, oftener and oftener among the increasingly salamander-like critiques which Kulchur multiplied with its final change of editors." 

Which makes one wonder what Phelps' politics actually were. After all, Phelps admires Sorrentino's poetry, his criticism and his first novel, The Sky Changes, though he's no fan of subsequent novels like Steelworks and Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. I have no problem with that. But I keep wondering whether  Phelps' politics might have changed over the years. And what was the story, if there was one, regarding his transformation from cultural critic to comic historian and pundit. Of course, that's what was always intriguing about Phelps. He was always elusive when it came to pinning down his politics, or figuring out exactly where he was coming from. The same could be said, to a slightly lesser degree, of Sorrentino, who, having emerged from the working class, appeared to be on the left, but used language in such a way as to make it hard to define just where on the left he stood. On the other hand, this was the early 1960s, when identification with political parties or, for that matter, popular front politics, seemed overly prosaic and part of the problem rather than part of the solution. Looking back, it seems as though the likes of Phelps and Sorrentino were writing from a world that no longer exists, one in which  ideas mattered, and the reader had to put in a small amount of work to understand and appreciate what was on offer.  But in the function and drift of early 1960s America, it was an oasis in the midst of a cultural and class-ridden desert.

Tuesday, January 07, 2014

Low Down by A.J. Albany

Subtitled "junk, jazz and other fairy tales from childhood," Low Down is the story of A.J. Albany's youth, spent much spent as misspent, in Los Angeles during the late 1960s and early 1970s. Daughter of the great be-bop pianist Joe Albany- best known for his work with Charlie Parker and Lester Young- and Sheila- a beautiful hipster, and Allen Ginsberg's pre-Neal Cassady  fiancé- Amy Albany was forced to grow up all too quickly, as she watched her parents descending into junkiedom. Joe would somehow survive that descent, but Sheila would disappear into the abyss, leaving Amy to assume, at an early age, the role of family adult. Joe was left raise his daughter in a world comprised of musicians, junkies, whores, sexual outsiders, probation officers and cops. Considering his circumstances, he didn't do all that badly, schlepping his daughter to clubs, where she would sleep on a blanket behind the bar, or leaving her with an array of dodgy, but loving, babysitters. Not surprisingly, Amy would turn into a child of the streets, her companions more often than not kids whose parents were similarly marginalised. Through it all, she remained preoccupied with how she could protect her father, whether from the law, dealers, landlords, or rip-off artists.

A.J. Albany's memory, informed by an incisive eye and turn of phrase, takes her days as a precocious five-year old to a wizened in-your-face teenager, an avid record collector, with tastes schooled by her father's music, and an attitude derived from having seen too much too soon. The scenes, most of them unforgettable, come in short, sharp shocks, as sleazy and sad as they are touchingly funny. There's pre-pubescent Amy being used as bargaining chip so her dad won't be sent back to prison by his parole officer. There's Amy meeting Satchmo- part Santa Claus, part God. There's Amy living in a string of run-down hotels and cramped rooms, surrounded by the desperate and downtrodden. It's not that she isn't aware of what's going on around her; it's simply it is what it is, including the suicides and the drug overdoses.  In the end, it's an exhilarating and courageous evocation  of growing up on the margins of the culture at a particular time and place: early 1970s L.A, before Reaganism, trickle-down economics, gentrification, tough love and austerity, when there was still a walkable wild side and an edge in the air.  It's also a heartfelt portrait of a gifted musician and  a loving depiction of a father-daughter relationship devoid of sentimentality. For me, Low Down can take its place alongside the likes of John Fante's Dreams of Bunker Hill, Dan Fante's Chump Change, John Rechy's City of Night, Art Pepper's Straight Life or David Goodis's Down There. I only hope the film adaptation, directed by Jeff Priess (Let's Get Lost's cinematographer), does the book justice.  After all, the track record for such projects isn't all that good.

Here's a documentary about Joe Albany.

And here a 2003 interview  with A.J. Albany.