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. Read More »
November 6, 2013 | by Jonathan Lethem
1. Her Voice in the Night. The disc jockey broadcasts all night from the lighthouse. She back-announces her selections in a murmuring, insinuating tone that, while it wouldn’t disturb a sleeper, might seduce the long-distance trucker or the fisherman on the deck of a boat offshore, some night-shift laborer twiddling the dials of a transistor, barely able to grasp its signal through the wavering night air.
2. The Swamp. Yet no, we find we will have to adjust this account. This account is out of order, already entirely misleading, we must begin again; for in this place, there are no long-distance truckers or fishermen on boats. The lighthouse stands not at the juncture of land and sea but at the periphery of a swamp, a vast mire around which the city has erected itself. The lighthouse, once a bold, phallic monument, is dwarfed by skyscrapers, by the cathedral-like domes of vaulted banks, by gleaming condominiums, by monuments of commerce. The lighthouse is only a relic, dragged here by those with an intention to junk it. For it is also the case that the swamp has become the city’s dump. Perhaps the planners once believed the city’s detritus could landfill the mire, stabilize its quicksand core. The swamp might, after the disposal of tonnages of the city’s inconvenient clutter, become ground upon which a pleasant children’s park or a serviceable parking lot could be constructed. But no. The acreage has instead displayed a seemingly infinite capacity for engulfing the rejected material, for devouring structure and remaining nonetheless a moist and murky swamp. Read More »