Authors: Don Carpenter
(1931–1995) was born in Berkeley, California, and grew up on the West Coast. He served in the air force during the Korean War, attended the University of Portland, and received a B.S. from Portland State College and an M.A. from San Francisco State College. Carpenter, his wife, Martha, and their two daughters settled in Mill Valley, near San Francisco, and he became good friends with the local writers Evan Connell and, especially, Richard Brautigan. His first book,
Hard Rain Falling
, was published in 1966 and was followed by nine other novels as well as several collections of short stories. Carpenter also wrote for the movies and television and spent a good deal of time in Hollywood, the subject of several of his novels. Plagued by poor health in his later years, he committed suicide at the age of sixty-four.
is the author of sixteen novels and was a writer, story editor, and producer on the HBO series
Hard Rain Falling
Introduction by George Pelecanos
New York Review Books
A couple of years ago the memoirist and fiction writer Chris Offutt urged me to read Don Carpenter’s
Hard Rain Falling
, first published in 1966. As promised, it was the kind of infrequent reading experience that can only be described as a revelation. Inexplicably, the book has long been out of print, and its republication is cause for celebration.
Many debut novels boil and sometimes overboil with a voice edging toward manifesto; it’s rare to see one hit the mark with the assuredness, maturity, and authority of
Hard Rain Falling
. It is not, as it has often been described, a crime novel, though it does concern itself peripherally with criminals and their milieu. I hesitate to classify the novel as either a literary or genre work because I’m not sure Don Carpenter would have cared about the distinction. By his own admission he aimed to write cleanly, with his intended audience the general public rather than the gatekeepers of academia.
Hard Rain Falling
is populist fiction at its best. It is not just a good novel. It might be the most unheralded important American novel of the 1960s.
The book begins with a prologue set in eastern Oregon in 1923. In the small town of Iona, a young cowboy named Harmon Wilder meets a sixteen-year-old runaway named Annemarie Levitt and impregnates her. She goes away to a home for unwed mothers and returns to Iona alone. Harmon Wilder becomes a hardworking employee of a ranch and a drunk with looks damaged by alcohol and the sun. Annemarie goes to live with the Indians. Harmon is killed at twenty-six when a horse kicks him in the head. Not long after, Annemarie ends her life with a ten-gauge shotgun. Carpenter finishes the prologue in typically terse style: “She was twenty-four at the time. The Indians buried her.”
We first meet Jack Levitt, the abandoned son of Annemarie, in 1947. Having escaped from an orphanage, he now runs with a group of hard teenagers who hang on the corner of Broadway and Yamhill in Portland, Oregon. Jack is large, strong, and good with his hands. He can fight but has no other discernible talent. He’s at the age when the brains of certain boys are disproportionately wired for impulsive behavior over conscience or reason. His needs are elemental:
He knew what he wanted. 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.
Jack’s not a sociopath. He’s a young man who’s never been socialized or loved.
In Portland, Jack befriends Denny Mellon, a loose, larcenous boy, and Billy Lancing, a spectacularly talented, genial young pool player who has drifted into town on the hustle. “The color of his skin was a malarial yellow, and it was obvious from that and from his kinky reddish-brown hair that he was a Negro.” The issue of Lancing’s race will reappear throughout the novel, and Carpenter handles it with honesty. Also, Carpenter’s descriptions of pool halls and the intricacies of various billiard games are top-shelf, as are his tours of the rooming houses, diners, and boxing arenas of the Pacific Northwest. Fans of Nelson Algren, Walter Tevis’s
, and W.C. Heinz’s
will find much to admire in this book.
After an incident involving a break-in, Jack is sent to reform school in Woodburn. His stay includes months in solitary, detailed by Carpenter in a frightening, bravura piece of writing. Jack’s next stop is a stint in the state mental institution in Salem. He is released; boxes semiprofessionally; does jail time in Peckham County, Idaho, for “rolling a drunk”; and gets work in eastern Oregon “bucking logs for a wildcat outfit.” Drifting down to San Francisco, he meets up with Denny Mellon, now in his mid-twenties and a full-blown alcoholic, in a poolroom. They go to Denny’s room in a flophouse overlooking Turk Street, and hook up with two brittle young women, Mona and Sue. Jack has his way with both of them. The sex is loveless, mechanical, and artfully described. Here Jack begins to feel the first touch of self-awareness and realize his true nature:
You know enough to know how you feel is senseless, but you don’t know enough to know why. Sitting in another lousy hotel room waiting for a couple of girls you’ve never seen before to do a bunch of things you’ve done so many times it makes your skin crawl just to think about it. Things. To do. That you dreamed about when you couldn’t have them. When there was only one thing, really, that made you feel good, and now you’ve done that so many times it’s like masturbating. Except you never really made it, did you. Never really killed anybody. That’s what you’ve always wanted to do, smash the brains out of somebody’s head; break him apart until nothing is left but you. But you never made it.
Jack’s realization is not enough to save him. He hits bottom with Denny Mellon, with Mona, with himself. He goes on a long drinking binge and considers taking his own life:
For a moment he felt a drifting nausea as his mind helplessly moved toward the idea of suicide. He steadied himself and faced it, as he had known all the time he must: I am going to die. Why not now? He felt cold and sick. Well, why not? What the fuck have I got to live for?
The whiskey bottle was in his hand, and he lifted it, holding it up before his eyes. Do I want some of this? Do I want another drink? Suddenly it was very important to know. If he did not want a drink, he did not want anything. If he did not want anything, he might as well die. Because he was already dead.
"Bullshit," he said aloud. “Bullshit. I’m just in a bad mood.” He tilted the bottle to his mouth and drank, his eyes closed.
Jack stumbles once again, as he knew he would. Trusting the wrong people, not yet fully understanding the mechanics of a system that has kept him incarcerated his whole life, he’s sentenced to adult time at San Quentin in Chino. There he meets up again with Billy Lancing, in for “bopping” aa check. They become cell mates and confidantes. And, in what must have been a shocking plot development at the time of the book’s release, they become lovers. Carpenter’s handling of masculinity issues and homosexuality at San Quentin, where “the prison seemed alive with affairs,” is matter-of-fact, nonexploitative, and frequently moving.
One day while Jack was walking past the salad table with a stack of hot clipper racks, he happened to glance over in time to see one man slip a plastic ring on the finger of another man. Both were ordinary-looking men, one a burglar and the other a thief, but the expressions on their faces were ones Jack could never remember having seen on a man: one of them shy and coy, an outrageous burlesque of maiden modesty; the other simpering with equally feminine aggressiveness.
Billy confesses that he has fallen in love with Jack, and asks Jack for reciprocal words. Jack can’t bring himself to say them or to give his friend one kiss. What happens next will chill the reader to the bone and has such a spritual impact on Jack that it puts him on a new road.
The next section of the novel takes place from 1956 to 1960 and details Jack’s improbable but wholly believable transformation. Because Carpenter is a realist, he knows that the damage done to Jack at his very core can never truly be healed. So we leave Jack Levitt broken but not defeated, drinking a wealthy man’s fine whiskey. It is an oddly optimistic ending, a gift from a writer who saw the beauty in the here and now. Jack has the day and a future. It is all any of us can hope for.
Hard Rain Falling
tells a ripping good story, but it is above all else a novel of ideas. It falls squarely in the tradition of Ken Kesey’s
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
and Norman Mailer’s
An American can Dream
, books that prefigured the counterculture movement in their challenge to conformity and the system. As in all good literature, it attempts to answer the question of why we’re here and does so in a provocative way. It’s the kind of novel that can and should be read many times over. It sent me back to my desk, jacked up on ambition.
Writers write for various reasons: money, fame, pleasure, posterity. Don Carpenter did not receive international acclaim or a great deal of wealth in his lifetime. Maybe he wanted it; it’s not for me to say. I like to think that he was in the posterity camp. Certainly his work bears that out.
“I’m an atheist,” said Carpenter, in a 1975 interview. “I don’t see any moral superstructure to the universe at all. I consider my work optimistic in that the people, during the period I’m writing about them, are experiencing intense emotion. It is my belief that this is all there is to it. There is nothing beyond this.”
And yet, he found a piece of immortality with this book.
THIS BOOK IS DEDICATED TO MY WIFE
AND TO BOB MILLER
“They can kill you, but they can’t eat you.”
Three Indians were standing out in front of the post office that hot summer morning when the motorcycle blazed down Walnut Street and caused Mel Weatherwax to back his pickup truck over the cowboy who was loading sacks of lime. The man and woman on the motorcycle probably didn’t even see the accident they had caused, they went by so fast. Both of them were wearing heavy-rimmed goggles, and all Mel saw was the red motorcycle, the goggles, and two heads of hair, black for him and blond for her. But everybody forgot about them; the cowboy was badly hurt, lying there in the reddish dust cursing, his face gone white from pain. The Indians stayed up on the board sidewalk and watched while Mel Weatherwax and one of his hands carried the hurt cowboy into the shade of the alley beside the store.
The doctor got there after a while and then he started cursing, too, as he sat on his knees and probed the cowboy’s body with his fingers. Quite a few people were standing around, now, watching the doctor, and some women among them, but that didn’t stop his cursing. It turned out there were some broken ribs, and moving the cowboy had probably rammed the broken ends through his lungs. He died less than an hour later, still lying in the alley, and by this time the sun had moved enough so he was out exposed to the heat again. One of the town women was standing over him with a parasol trying to shade him, but she was so busy talking to a friend that the parasol got waved around, and didn’t do the cowboy much good. He had already died some time before the woman noticed it, and then she gave a little scream and jumped back and went off down the street looking mortified.
There was still a crowd around Mel Weatherwax after the body was hauled off and he was telling again what had happened when the young man from the motorcycle and his girl friend walked back into town. He had his goggles pushed up into his dusty hair, and she had hers down around her neck, and there was a purplish bruise on her cheek. They were both dusty and tired-looking, but the young man pushed his way into the crowd and said to Mel Weatherwax, “Hell, I busted my motor. Is there a garage in town?”
“Sonny boy,” Mel said, “you just killed one of my cowboys. Nobody in this town is going to fix your damn motorcycle.”
The year was 1929 and the Depression had already been on two years in that part of eastern Oregon, so Mel wasn’t worried about getting another hand. But he was glad to have that boy there to blame the accident on, and once the idea caught fire with him he lost his temper and hit the young man in the face, knocking him back through the crowd, stumbling, until he came to rest right at an Indian’s feet. The young man wiped the dust and sweat off his face with the back of his hand and looked up, grinning, at the Indian. A handsome young man, his teeth made brighter by the sunburn on his face. “I’m damned,” he said, “a damn Indian.” Then he got up and attacked Mel Weatherwax, and pretty soon some of the other men had to drag him off. The girl stood back from it all, in the shade, and watched. She was slender, dirty, blue-eyed, and very young, and she looked tired, but she had a glitter in her eye as she watched the fight, as if she liked what she saw. After that, when anyone saw that look in her eye, he knew there was going to be some trouble.
With the fight over, things calmed down, and Mel, being defeated, offered to buy the young man a drink, and they all moved off toward the Wagon Wheel. With that job open none of the men out of work were going to let Mel out of their sight until he had made his pick. As it turned out, the young man got the job, and he and Mel and the other hand rode out of town in the pickup together, leaving the girl at the hotel by herself. On the way out to the ranch they picked up the motorcycle and put it in the back, and out at the ranch they tried to fix it, but some of the parts were broken, and the frame was bent. Harmon Wilder, the young man, told everybody he had stolen it in Oakland, California, and didn’t care what happened to it.
There wasn’t any funeral for the dead cowboy; he didn’t have any family and, since it was early summer, all the men on the ranches were too busy. His body was put into a wooden coffin and hauled out to the ranch and buried there.
The next time the Indians saw the girl she was waiting on tables in the hotel restaurant. None of them went inside the hotel; they saw her through the big window that looks out over Walnut Street. In those days they didn’t have jobs; they lived on checks they got at the post office from the Federal Government. The checks didn’t stop until late in the 1930s when the lumber business got so busy the mills started hiring Indians. So in 1929 some of the Indians would come to town almost every day, and stand around in front of the post office, talking and watching the town goings-on. If the chance came up they would get some whiskey and take it off somewhere and drink it. They got to know Harmon Wilder pretty well, because unlike a lot of the other cowboys he didn’t mind buying the Indians whiskey. He even went drinking with them once or twice. And once, when the two Federal agents from Portland came to town and closed the Wagon Wheel, Harmon and a couple of others drove up to Bend and bought a case of Canadian Club, and Harmon sold three quarts of it to the Indians. It seemed as if the whole town was drunk that night, although it was just millhands, cowboys, and five or six Indians. Those two Federal agents got into a fight trying to find out where the liquor came from, and one of them was hit over the head with an empty bottle and had to be driven forty miles to the hospital.
Not long after that the State police came and got the girl. Her name was Annemarie Levitt, and she had run away from her family in Portland, and she was only sixteen years old. She was gone all told for about six weeks, and then came to town again on the bus, took a room at the hotel, and got her job back in the restaurant. By this time everybody could see that she was pregnant. Before she went back to Portland, Harmon used to come in to town on Saturday nights and visit her for a while before he went over to the Wagon Wheel, but afterward he wouldn’t even talk to her on the street.
By the time the first snow fell in late October, everybody in town knew her parents were not going to send the police after her again, and that she was not going to go back to Portland of her own free will. By this time of year the cowboys could come to town every night if they had any money; Harmon was lucky at cards, and so was in town quite a lot. He had not changed; he was still wild, still drank too much, but every once in a while he would stop by the hotel to see Annemarie, and at least once she hitched a ride out to the ranch to see him.
Annemarie Levitt didn’t come to live with the Indians until late in the following spring, 1930, after she had gone up to Bend and had her baby at one of those homes for unwed mothers. She came back to Iona without the baby. No one knew which drove Harmon crazier, not knowing where or what his child was, or seeing the mother of his child living with the Indians. Maybe it wasn’t either of those things; maybe it was what she did to his face.
She did not love Harmon any more; she proved that one afternoon not many weeks after she got back to town without the baby, and Harmon stopped her on the street. He was carrying a bottle of whiskey and was half drunk already, even though it was only the middle of a gray winter day; stopped her, said something to her nobody else could hear, and then laughed and tried to give her the whiskey bottle to have a drink, and she took it and swung it in a wide arc, upward, hard, and smashed it against the side of his face and sent him flying. The snow that had been plowed off the street and scraped off the boardwalk was lying in hard dirty heaps, and Harmon tumbled over the snow and left a bright smear of blood on the crust and ended up face down on the hard ice of the street; and Annemarie stood there with the neck of the bottle in her hand, laughing at him, and then threw the neck down on top of him and walked off, leaving him there in the street with his jaw broken, his cheek cut open, the blood pouring out hot and then freezing to the street. There were a few people who saw the whole thing from across the street, but nobody stopped to help Harmon; his reputation in town was already too bad for him to expect any help, and finally he got up himself and staggered down the street to the Wagon Wheel. Some hands finally took him to the doctor and then drove him to the hospital. No, she did not love him any more. Maybe she hated him. Maybe that was strong enough to bring her back. Then, when she hit him with that whiskey bottle and laughed to see him helpless and his blood freezing to the street, she stopped hating him and started hating herself.
Portland had driven her crazy. Even at sixteen she hated it; she was the despair of her family, the only child; wild, already in trouble with the police once or twice before she met Harmon and on impulse ran off with him; she would sit in her room upstairs after her parents had sent her to bed and wait for them to go to sleep and then get dressed again and go out the window and catch a streetcar downtown; but when she came back she would come right in the front door, and if they were waiting up for her she would lose her temper and tell them to mind their own business, and if her father tried to slap her or spank her she would hit him and scream at him until he just stopped trying, and then she would go back upstairs and into her room and lock the door. She must have met Harmon on one of these expeditions downtown because one night she just didn’t come home.
Harmon’s face was ruined; he lost all the teeth on the left side, and there was a scar running from just under his left eye through his lip and down his chin; his face now had a caved-in look to it, and his blue eyes lost all their brightness, and he was just plain mean from then forward until he died; living the life of a good hardworking cowboy, maybe not the kind of life he might have dreamed about in Oakland, California, but, for him, good anyway: eighteen hours a day when the cattle were on the range, half the anger cooked out of him by the sun, the dust, the hot acid smell of his horse under him; the work, even in winter, the thousand irritating must-be-done tasks attendant to cattle, drawing his surplus energy out through his arms and legs until there was barely enough for one yelling Saturday night a month left in him, one night to drink and smash windows and batter any face that presented itself.
He used to write letters, and come to the post office every chance he got to see if there were any answers. It was not long before everyone knew what he wanted. He wrote the letters to orphanages and State homes all over Oregon, trying to find out if there were any children in them named Wilder or Levitt; but he would come out of the post office and sit down on the bench and open his mail and crumple the letters up after he read them, his face black with rage, and so everybody knew he hadn’t found the child yet. Maybe the urge to find the child got cooked or burned out of him too; after a while he gave up, and people stopped thinking about him because he did not come to town any more at all, but stayed out on the ranch. Cowboys move around a lot, changing jobs, but not Harmon. He stayed with Mel Weatherwax until he died. Mel said he was a good cowboy and did not talk much, and if you left him alone he caused no trouble. Whatever made him run away from Oakland to the Wild West seemed to have been taken care of, one way or another. Maybe what he wanted was freedom. Maybe he looked around and saw that everybody was imprisoned by Oakland, by their own small neighborhoods; everybody was breathing the same air, inheriting the same seats in school, taking the same stale jobs as their fathers and living in the same shabby stucco homes. Maybe it all looked to him like a prison or a trap, the way everybody expected him to do certain things because they had always been done a certain way, and they expected him to be good at doing these strange, meaningless, lonely things, and maybe he was afraid—of the buildings, the smoke, the stink of the bay, the gray look everybody had. Maybe he was afraid that he too would become one of these grown people whose faces were blank and lonely, and he too would have to satisfy himself with a house in the neighborhood and one of the girls from high school and a job at one or another factory and just sit there and die of it. So he ran for the only frontier he ever heard about and became a cowboy. But of course he brought it all with him when he ran, and it kept at him, jabbing, destroying, murdering, until he himself was all gone and nothing was left but a man’s body doing work. And finally that died too. It was an accident. A horse kicked him and he died the next day of a brain hemorrhage; he had been trying to knock loose the balled ice under the horse’s hooves, and he slipped and wrenched the horse’s leg and the horse kicked out and got him right on the temple, and that was the end of him. The accident happened in 1936, and he was twenty-six years old, almost twenty-seven. He never did get to see his son.
Neither did Annemarie. She had been living with the Indians for a long time now, and seemed all right, but when she heard about Harmon’s death, something went out of her—something the massed hatred of the white people of the town had failed to diminish in all that time—and a few weeks later she killed herself with a 10-gauge shotgun. She was twenty-four at the time. The Indians buried her.