Don Carpenter's Last Laugh

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Don Carpenter was a writer’s writer. Born in Berkeley, California in 1931, he grew up there and in Portland, Oregon, served in the Air Force during the Korean War, and returned to earn a B.S. from Portland State and an M.A. in creative writing from San Francisco State. In 1966 his first novel Hard Rain Falling was published to critical acclaim, and for the rest of his life he was a professional writer. He lived in Mill Valley, California and was part of a group of writers—Evan Connell, Curt Gentry, Leonard Gardner, Gina Berriault and others—who met regularly at the Book Depot there, and at the no name bar in Sausalito.

Carpenter was never as successful or celebrated as his good friend Richard Brautigan. His novels and short story collections were praised by critics and fellow writers but did not sell well. He found work in Hollywood as a screenwriter, most notably for an unproduced screenplay of Charles Bukowski’s Post Office, and for Payday, starring Rip Torn as a country music singer. His novel about show business, A Couple of Comedians, was praised by Norman Mailer as “the best novel I’ve ever read about contemporary show biz.” Anne Lamott dedicated her 1994 book Bird by Bird to Carpenter, and praised his then work in progress Fridays at Enrico’s as a masterpiece in the making.

After Carpenter’s suicide death in 1995, his daughter, Bonnie Carpenter Howard, became executor of his literary estate, coping with an unwieldy mass of manuscripts, letters, clippings and photographs, the detritus of a writer’s life. She eventually placed his archive in the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.

By the early 2000’s, Carpenter’s books were out of print but not out of reach. I remember reading a few of his novels simply by borrowing them from Sonoma and Mendocino County public libraries, and easily and inexpensively obtaining others at used book stores. More recently a couple of younger writers, George Pelecanos and Jonathan Lethem, have championed his work. In 2009 Hard Rain Falling, was reissued by New York Review of Books with a new introduction by George Pelecanos, and this year Fridays at Enrico's, “finished” and with an new afterword by Jonathan Lethem, was published by Counterpoint Press. Counterpoint has also announced a 2015 publication of his “Hollywood Trilogy”: A Couple of Comedians, The True Story of Jody McKeegan, and Turnaround.

Hard Rain Falling has been praised as a great hard-boiled novel, a novel of juvenile delinquency and an inside look at prison life. I’m not exactly on the bandwagon here. I’m glad I read it. I particularly like the opening section and some of the poolroom scenes, but I think it drags in places, spends too much time inside the head of the protagonist and, like a lot of first novels, tries to do too much. It’s not a fast-paced pulp novel, and it's not quite literary fiction. It falls in between and is hard to categorize, an ongoing problem for Carpenter in his quest for commercial success.

Fridays at Enrico’s is a different kettle of fish. It’s a writers’ book from the word go, the story of two aspiring novelists named Charlie Monel and Jaime Froward. Initially I was charmed by this book’s evocation of San Francisco in 1959. There are plenty of authentic details of the place and time: Figone Hardware on Grant, the Hot Dog Palace on Columbus, McDonald’s Used Books on Turk Street (“where most books are priced at 50 cents”), the Co-Existence Bagel Shop, the Place, the Coffee Gallery, Tosca Café, and Charlie’s $45/month North Beach apartment. Some of the scenes bring to mind Jerry Kamstra’s The Frisco Kid, set in North Beach during this same era.

I was also curious that the novel’s Library of Congress description starts with: "Beat Generation-Fiction". Yes, there are some scenes in North Beach, but the only prominent writer in evidence is old Walter Van Tilburg Clark at San Francisco State. It’s not until the book’s second section, set in Portland two years later, that the Beat connection becomes explicit. New characters are introduced, including Linda McNeil, who used to live in S. F. and knew “Jack Kerouac, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, William Burroughs and Gregory Corso.” Still, it’s misleading to characterize this as novel of the Beat Generation. Linda never becomes a central character, and prominent writers, except for Clark and two brief appearances by Brautigan, are not used as characters. The book’s title is also somewhat misleading. Enrico’s was a North Beach bar/restaurant where Carpenter and many other writers used to hang out, drink and talk about life and writing. This novel is about life and writing, hence the title. But scenes at Enrico’s are at a minimum.

With that said, I love this book and its characters. Carpenter does not deal in types but creates real people the reader cares about and wants to spend time with. And he does not seem to work at verisimilitude, but simply lays things out the way they really were. The action covers a period of 15 years and moves from San Francisco to Portland, back to the Bay Area, to San Quentin Prison and to Los Angeles.

The section called “C Block” is mostly about Stan Winger, an aspiring writer and petty criminal whom Charlie and Jaime befriend in Portland. I was thinking I wouldn’t like this part of the book, that it would be an ironic and moralizing comparison of prison life with free society. But I was wrong. It is mostly about writing and writers. While incarcerated at San Quentin, Stan decides to use Dashiell Hammett as a model and figure out how to write hard-boiled stories. He plots out a novel, Felony Fuzz:

He knew if he was to sell it to Fawcett it had to be like the other Gold Medals, fast action, clear straight language, no bullshit ... pulp fiction, none of that silly sentimentality.

This section reads easily, with short, clipped sentences echoing its subject matter. Stan gets out of prison and finds success as a writer of fast-paced novels and as a Hollywood screenwriter, where being an ex-con is no handicap, but gives him more clout with directors and producers. He eventually reunites with Charlie and Jaime. Some of their interactions are reminiscent of scenes in Larry McMurtry’s Terms of Endearment and All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers.

There are plenty of surprising turns of event as Charlie, Jamie, Stan and their colleagues cope with the vicissitudes of the writing life. I enjoyed each of the novel’s 85 chapters, which could almost have headings like: The Sweet San Francisco Air, Brand New 1961 Volkswagen, The Honorable Book Scout, and so on.

Of course questions loom about what shape this manuscript was in before Jonathan Lethem worked on it. His afterword states that he did some cutting and rearranging but did not add a great deal: “There might be five or eight pages of my writing.” Whatever he did, it was unobtrusive and seamless. This is Don Carpenter’s book, and it’s one that all the writers I know will want to read.

While the current Carpenter revival may not raise his reputation to the level of Brautigan’s or Connell’s, it’s heartening to know that the work of a very good writer has not been lost or forgotten.

For more information about Don Carpenter, and some excellent short pieces by him, check out the Don Carpenter Page or Woody Haut’s blog. Bonnie Howard has also started a Don Carpenter page on Facebook. Finally, here's a Don Carpenter original on Litkicks: the author's memoir of a 1964 poetry reading at the Longshoreman's Hall in San Francisco.

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(Thanks again to Dan Barth, who has been writing about hippie-era authors like Ed McClanahan and Richard Brautigan on Literary Kicks for nearly as long as this site has been around!)

4 Responses to "Don Carpenter's Last Laugh"

Thanks for the article, Dan, and for inspiring me to re-read Carpenter's novels, and finish reading "Fridays." I enjoy all your articles. Look forward to more. If you ever collect your "literary letters" in a book, please let us all know.

by John Kaye on

Excellent piece. When I lived to Mill Valley (1973-85), Don and I became close friends, hanging out, talking shop, etc. He always inspired me. Thanks for the tribute.

Thank you, Dan. That was a thoughtful review.

Kind regards, Leha

by Steve Paul on

John Kaye: I've been delving into the life of Evan Connell and would love to hear from people who knew him through Don Carpenter and others. Thanks for spreading the word.

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