April 14, 2014 | by Jonathan Lethem
Editing Don Carpenter’s final manuscript.
Part of my job as a clerk at Berkeley’s great used bookstore Moe’s, in the early nineties, was to scour the massive wall of fiction and confront the books that weren’t selling. Out of all the staff I claimed this task because it interested me the most, and because it suited my vanity to be able to claim that “I run the lit section.” Codes, written in pencil, and discretely tucked into the corner opposite the asking price, revealed when a given title had hit the shelf. After six or eight months you reduced the price. Once it had been knocked down a couple of times, two options remained: chuck the book into the pile of discards under the staircase, or take it home and read it.
A Couple of Comedians, with its great title and Norman Mailer blurb, got me to flip it open. When right there in the stacks I was met with Don Carpenter’s punchy prose, and with his grabby, wry, and humane outlook, I took the book home. I read it. I loved it. I looked downstairs, in our pocket-size paperback stacks, and found a copy of Hard Rain Falling, Carpenter’s first novel, repackaged with a Tom of Finland–style painting and corresponding jacket copy to sell as “gay lit” (“The hard-hitting novel of a young street tough and his inevitable journey toward prison—and self-knowledge …”). I read Hard Rain Falling and thought it made two masterpieces in a row. The suggestion given by the dust jackets of the two books—and the move from the Northern California bildungsroman of Hard Rain Falling to the entertainment industry hijinks of comedians—was of a writer who, failing to sustain a literary career, had migrated to Hollywood and was, all too typically, never heard from again.
My next move—a compulsive one, for me, when I discovered an out-of-print writer—was to go to Peter Howard’s Serendipity Books, a legendary Borges-like physical compendium of seemingly every book ever published, which happened to be just down the street from my house. You could call my visit the equivalent, nowadays, of googling. At Serendipity, sure enough, I found a run of all of Carpenter’s early books, including an autographed copy of Blade of Light I purchased and still own. I also found the three late-eighties books published by Jack Shoemaker’s North Point Press. Carpenter, from the evidence, had not only survived Hollywood, but was alive and writing and living nearby. After I’d read a few more of the books I flirted with the idea of find my way up to Marin and presenting myself to Carpenter as his “biggest fan” (“and I run the lit section!”). It appeared that finding him might not require more than puttering around Mill Valley’s central square for a few hours, and poking my head into a coffee shop or two. I didn’t manage this—whether for the better or worse, I’m spared knowing. In 1995 came word that the sixty-four-year-old Carpenter, who’d been suffering a host of illnesses that severely restricted his ability to work, had killed himself.
Though I wasn’t actually alone in my admiration, it took a while for Carpenter’s scattered constituency to discover one another. For years he was “in print” only as the protagonist of a few anecdotes in—and as the dedicatee of—Annie Lamott’s talismanic writer’s handbook Bird By Bird. George Pelecanos and I both advocated for Hard Rain Falling to Edwin Frank at New York Review Books, and when it was published in their reprint series, with a Pelecanos introduction, it gave occasion for tributes from fans like Ken Tucker and Charles Taylor and Sarah Weinman, readers familiar with others of the books, and with Carpenter’s great screenplay, Payday. For all of us, Carpenter, though difficult to categorize and never famous in his own day, was a writer who mattered, one who not only wouldn’t go away, but grew more significant in memory. This in turn encouraged those who were caretakers of a substantial unpublished manuscript—Shoemaker, and Carpenter’s daughter Bonnie—to reexamine the case for publication, after a nearly forty-year time-out. That’s where this more specific story of Fridays at Enrico’s begins.
When asked by Shoemaker if I’d weigh in on the “unfinished” manuscript that had been supplied him by the estate, I felt exhilarated and trepidatious. Even a single additional paragraph of Carpenter felt like a gift, but what if the book wasn’t good, or wasn’t good enough? Plenty of writers slide toward the end, and though I was grateful for the existence of Carpenter’s last few books, they weren’t exactly the ones I was prone to obsessively rereading, or recommending to others. Then again, who would I be, to presume to recommend against publication? I’m a fan of scraps, fragments, letters, any trace of a writer I admire; I like The Castle and The Crack-Up and Edwin Drood. Still, it might be perverse to follow the rediscovery of Hard Rain Falling with something marginal. Not while the terrific Hollywood novels, and others that Carpenter had deemed ready, and which had been embraced by readers, if too few, remained out of print.
My concerns were misplaced. I’ll leave it for others to rate Fridays at Enrico’s amid Carpenter’s best—I’m too far inside this book now to play the role of its evaluator as well—but from page one the manuscript cast me as an appreciative reader, not a triage nurse. The voice was in place, the architecture solid, Carpenter’s wily purposes well enacted throughout. It had a fine ending, too. Knowing the book existed, that Carpenter had pulled it off, whether destined to be published or not, made the world a slightly but crucially bigger place. I told Shoemaker I thought he should publish, and that I’d do what was necessary. The chance to flatter myself by coming in like Mariano Rivera in the ninth was irresistible.
I retyped the whole book, wanting to get Carpenter’s syntax into my body, to trust myself with anything I changed. More than anything, I took stuff out. Carpenter’s unedited draft restated certain motifs, making preliminary gestures in an early chapter for effects he’d carried through in later pages, so I deleted the preliminary gestures. He used the word but too much, and his characters “grinned” or were “grinning” far too often—they still probably grin too often, but I did what I could. Some things I took out only to put back in: an apparently irrelevant bit of business with a parking attendant, for instance, turned out to set up a writer’s inspiration for a story a few pages later. Carpenter was subtle. Among his subtleties was a restriction of the book’s vocabulary, which, despite seeming repetitive at times, gave the novel a certain humble integrity, bringing the voice into the range of the characters and their world. I’d only wreck it if I tried to impose variations. Four or five chapters I needed to turn inside out—they’d begun on the wrong foot, but the right foot was waiting, a page or two in, for me to bring forward. Against what I removed I added just a few passages, covering some missing transitions, the odd inexplicable lapse or two. There might be five or eight pages of my writing in the book, but I’d like to think you’d never guess which, should you bother even to care. Mostly, to be truthful, this was a job of data entry: the book proved itself right by the way it refused to be altered, moving through my fingers, as a house might prove itself sound by being lived in a while.
Fridays at Enrico’s is a book about writers, lots of them. But it never feels insular, because none of the characters, even those who publish, effectively inject themselves into any “literary” milieu. They remain outsiders and strivers, defined by their struggles even to believe they can lay claim to this calling, let alone turn it into some kind of career. In their estrangement simultaneously from the lives of common working folk yet also from any exalted or precious notions of living the life of an “artist”—and in the way they mediate their estrangement through drinking—Carpenter’s characters recall those of Richard Yates. This may partly be a matter of simple realism in the depiction of a certain lives that were being lived in the fifties and sixties, but as a final statement this book reminds me specifically of Yates’s own, the underrated Young Hearts Calling (admittedly a book cursed with one of the worst titles going). Of course there were twisty little ironies attendant in rewriting a manuscript that concerned not only writers writing manuscripts, but writers being rewritten by editors, and feeling bitterly betrayed by the results. The task even had the power to make me self-conscious of my typing habits, so keenly does Carpenter attend to this now-retro feature of his characters’ avocation (there’s also an important learning-to-type scene in Carpenter’s second novel, A Blade of Light). I hadn’t retyped an entire manuscript since one of my own in the early nineties. It’s a good habit, one I may have to resurrect.
Of course, the book’s writers, like Carpenter himself, were estranged from the literary establishment in a way Richard Yates could never have conceived: by three thousand miles of incomprehension. In a tender and revealing reminiscence of his close friend Richard Brautigan, called “My Brautigan: A Portrait from Memory,” Carpenter wrote, “Over the years (our) walks and talks got to be more and more about what Richard called the East Coast Literary Mafia. Richard’s work was known and respected all over the world, in many languages, but somehow he could seldom get a good review in America. He made the whole thing into an East vs. West issue, which maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t.” The tone is typical Carpenter, compassionate, and worldly without being cynical. The West Coast traditionally celebrated in American letters is an allegorical one, encoding Manifest Destiny, presenting the place as an existential testing-ground for notions of utopia and self-reinvention, even if only to expose the bankruptcy of those prospects. Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West, Ken Kesey, the Beats, even Brautigan himself can be understood on these terms (ironically, it’s a fundamentally Eastern view of the West). The California in Don Carpenter’s books, whether Northern or Southern, and the settings in Portland, Oregon, reveal something simpler but in some ways stranger to consider. Carpenter writes as someone who knows the West as a real geography, with a culture of its own, a place to live out the usual quandaries of existence, rather than a petri dish for American Destiny. For that reason, too, his view of the writer-in-Hollywood is free of the clichés that plague the genre.
Speaking of Brautigan, the notion has clung to Fridays at Enrico’s that the project began for Carpenter as an attempt at a memoir of their friendship, or even a biography. I can’t really see how this explains the resulting book, except that novelists frequently begin with one thing and end up with something else. Carpenter was plainly a true native of the realm of the novel, so that any portraiture or self-portraiture here—and surely there’s both—has been distributed among several characters, then subsumed in the other kind of “truthfulness” that a novel, by its form, demands. For what it’s worth, the character of Stan Winger—my favorite in the book—seems directly influenced by the life story of Malcolm Braly, the much incarcerated author of On the Yard, in my opinion the other best prison novel in U.S. literature—besides Hard Rain Falling, that is.
Yet I have no evidence that Carpenter knew Braly personally, not that I’ve done much digging. I still know barely more about Carpenter’s actual life story than you can learn from the dust jackets of the books, from the interstices of William Hjorstberg’s encyclopedic biography of Brautigan, and from the lovely volunteer Web site maintained by the estimable and modest “Chris.” It was there at the Web site that I discovered, in the scanned pages of a priceless 1975 interview, that Don Carpenter only ever spent a single night behind bars: “Seaside Oregon. Carrying six cans of beer down the street. Moping with an intent to gawk. That’s the most jail time I’ve done.” How, then, did Carpenter attain his extraordinarily sympathetic portraits, in Hard Rain, Blade of Light, and now in Enrico’s, of the prisoner’s life? The usual way: with his ear, with his curiosity, with his vulnerabilities, with his talent. In the same interview, discussing Blade of Light, Carpenter makes clear he sees incarceration as a baseline condition, that of selves stuck in bodies, and bodies stuck in fates: “He’s inside there, and he knows he’s trapped in there, just as you know you’re trapped in here, see? … I mean, you know, we’re all caught in this thing. We all wake up at three o’clock in the morning saying ‘How am I gonna get out of here? … Can I start over? Can I do anything to be someone else?’” Consider that those were the words, in 1975, of a man who had yet to lose his health, and much of his eyesight. In that light, it’s hard not to see his portrayal of Stan Winger, locked in solitary confinement and working to set in language a vivid description of the fresh taste of the first sip of a glass of beer, as a self-portrait of a writer in a failing body reconstituting a world of sensory pleasures from which he’s increasingly barred. Similarly, near the end of Enrico’s the female novelist Jaime Froward reflects on her apprentice days in the woods outside Portland, learning to write while caring for a new baby, days fiercely lonely and embattled as she lived through them, yet in recollection the finest she’d ever known. In the breadth of human experience imparted by this book we’re taken as near to memoir as we’d ever require from Don Carpenter, who said, “If I was able to express my views of the universe without writing fiction, I would do so.” Lucky for us he couldn’t.
Jonathan Lethem’s latest book is Dissident Gardens.
A version of this essay appears as the afterword to Fridays at Enrico’s. Copyright © 2014; reprinted with the permission of Counterpoint Press.