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

1 comment:

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