Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter (New York Review Classics)
A Caught by the River classic: reviewed by Ian Preece.
Maybe I’ve spent too long with autobiographies, frequently the last place you’d find the truth, but honesty is a rare thing in books — you can’t put a high enough premium on it. Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling, first published in 1966, cuts through the bullshit, tells it straight and takes it all to another level beyond any self-consciousness. No wonder that Carpenter eventually turned the shotgun on himself – he’d probably had enough reality (or at least it is tempting to speculate as such; in truth it seems he was beset by a series of debilitating illnesses, culminating in pneumonia and glaucoma, and, unable to write, took matters into his own hands 16 years ago this week.) His work hadn’t exactly set the world on fire either – well, not in terms of sales. He wrote seven novels, all but one remains out of print, numerous screenplays — unsurprisingly he was deemed up for the job of Charles Bukowski’s Post Office (sadly never made) — but is known, if at all, for Hard Rain Falling. The recent reissue from the (excellent) New York Review Classics series looks vaguely like a crime novel with its blurry Ken Light cover shot of a speeding car, but its load is somewhat heavier. It’s a slice of clear-eyed realism, and Carpenter wielded a voice as measured, hardened and unequivocal as, say, Cormac McCarthy today. There are echoes of the prison works of Chester Himes, the pace and directness of Edward Bunker, the pool hall hustling of Nelson Algren, the doomed inhabitants of David Goodis’s world, and a healthy slab of the warmth, poignancy and desperate humanity you get wrapped up with all those greats. But no matter how detailed and rich Carpenter’s narrative, his main concern was on matters of how to live – not simply how to elevate oneself above the rat race in America; but of how to reconcile being a grain of sand on life’s infinite beach with anything approaching a state of happiness. For Jack Levitt, Carpenter’s main character, life is one knock-back after another. Or as Billy Lancing, Levitt’s prison confidante, puts it:
‘ . . . there ain’t no God and the world is the worse fuckin place there is an we’re all out to eat each other up and everything goes, an I’m just a speck in the universe full of specks an one of these days there’s gonna be one less speck . . .’
The action may be fast – drink, violence, assault, jail, a kind of salvation – but this is far from standard-fare crime. If Terrence Malik were to film Hard Rain Falling, interludes of galaxies colliding would provide suitable markers for the three sections of the novel, the separate stretches of Jack Levitt’s difficult road.
The sections are roughly divided between 1947 (escape from orphanage, housebreaking and hanging with a bunch of ne’er do wells in the pool halls of Portland, Oregon); the mid-fifties (the meat of the book; a series of chilling encounters in various prison yards); and California 1956-1960, where Jack glimpses redemption, a relationship that is too good to be true and, unsurprisingly, a not particularly happy ending.
It’s around the time of a second brutal incarceration in solitary confinement that the early set-backs of Jack’s life begin to bottom out; the heavy showers of misfortune merge into one long downpour of, well, if not existential dread, then certainly prison brutality. If that doesn’t sound like a whole barrel of laughs, it isn’t, but Carpenter’s tone is such that the black outsider humour which underpins it all is seldom a few pages away, and there’s a wonderful sense of not taking it all too seriously – whatever hardships may befall us, and there are certainly plenty for a man like Jack Levitt, man is essentially a ludicrous creature, so we may as well deal with whatever fate throws at us, have another good Irish whiskey, and just get on with it.
Just getting on with it encompasses what George Pelecanos speculates (in the nyrb introduction) ‘must have been a shocking plot development at the time of the book’s release’. It’s still quietly arresting today, as Billy and Jack, with a shared past in the pool halls of Portland and looking for a way out, become lovers in San Quentin. Quietly arresting in, as Pelecanos writes, ‘a matter of fact, non-exploitative and frequently moving’ kind of way. The same, I think, can be said for all the sexual relationships in the book, but it’s through Billy, a free spirit and an electrifying pool player, as well as many a long hour left alone to think in his cell, that Levitt comes to realize the only way forward is through love. The outcome for Billy is less fortunate.
On his release Jack becomes entangled with Sally, a bohemian spirit, also somewhat alone in San Francisco. The sex is wild and free; Jack gets a steady job parking cars in a parking lot; they have a son, named Billy, primarily so that Jack can set about correcting the ways of the world by bringing up a child in a proper balanced way:
There would be no cast-off, shitty toys for Billy; no empty nights with no one to be comforted by; on the other hand there would be tears, injustice, cuffing, yellings-at and discipline. But the boy would know deep inside that it was done with love by a human being, not by an abstract machine. Of course, that was what it amounted to; the boy would be loved. It was that simple.
Sally also sets about providing a cultural education for Jack.
He spent a month wading through Ulysses, which Sally had told him was the greatest novel ever written. He threw it aside late one night and said to her, “Baby, I just can’t cut it. That book’s as full of shit as a Christmas goose. It’s too much for me. I like Bloom a lot, but I can’t stand his goddam crazy wife or that asshole Stephen. He’s just a turd. I don’t want to read about turds.”
“Maybe it is a little too advanced for you,” she said. She was, Jack realized, just sitting there doing nothing, and probably had been ever since he got home, and God knows how long before that.
Another time Sally takes him to see a production of Waiting For Godot.
‘ . . . when they left the theatre she began talking about Beckett’s use of language. Jack interrupted her and said, “Hell, it seems simple enough to me. They’re waiting, that’s all. It don’t matter what for.”
“Doesn’t,” she said automatically . . .
“It’s not that simple,” she said, but she was not sure why it was not that simple.
“I’ve done a lot of that waiting jazz,” Jack said. “I know what it’s like.”
I, for one, can’t wait for the reissue of Carpenter’s comic novel set in Hollywood, A Couple of Comedians (1979).
Even before parenthood, though, Sally is beginning to tire of Jack’s belated discovery of the wonders of the world. Probably one of my favourite sequences in the book is Jack’s first coastal drive vaguely in the direction, I guess, of Big Sur. And here, finally, is where Caught by the River readers should definitely sit up and take notice.
Fresh from the monochrome, dehumanized reality of concrete and incarceration inside San Quentin, Jack is overwhelmed by the wild technicolour beauty of California and the sight of the Pacific, suddenly bursting through the haze and suburban sprawl, the wide blue ocean ‘impossibly deep and blue’ and the ‘kelpy iodine smell to the air’. He becomes overawed by the ‘perfection of calm and beauty, the tide pools, the scuttling hermit crabs, the tiny green shrimp, the rock fish and snails and flowery anemones, such a peaceful community, right there at your feet . . .’ There’s a sort of time-lapse sequence as, unstoppably, he’s drawn further down the beach and into the ocean, almost becomes it as he’s caught out by a high roller and turned over. It’s incredible and beautifully moving, and I’m sure Dennis Wilson was taking note, but the only sadness is that there is a bitterness, something sour in Sally’s witnessing of this. You know the relationship . . . Jack. . . Don Carpenter . . . all of us are doomed.