Book World: Review of 'Hard Rain Falling' by Don Carpenter

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By Richard Lipez
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, September 14, 2009


By Don Carpenter

New York Review. 308 pp. Paperback, $16.95

It's been a while since I've read an American story that's so raw and unsentimental but still manages to brim with heart and soul. Originally published in 1966 and long out of print, Don Carpenter's first novel, about crime and punishment, feels European in the way it grapples with big ideas: Why are we here? Who cares? -- but it is thoroughly American in its flat, wiseacre, chip-on-the-shoulder prose and in its willingness to discover the humanity in people to whom most of us, if we met them, would give a very wide berth. In his keen and admiring introduction, George Pelecanos says he thinks "Hard Rain Falling" "is not just a good novel. It might just be the most unheralded important American novel of the 1960s."

Carpenter's protagonist, Jack Levitt, is a marvelous creation. Dumped in a Pacific Northwest orphanage as an infant in 1929, Levitt grows up loathing the American institutions that lock people up -- orphanages, reform schools, county jails, state prisons -- but he can't stay out of them. It's not so much that Levitt is a sociopath. As Pelecanos points out, "He's a young man who's never been socialized or loved." So as Levitt gradually becomes socialized and loved, over the decades, he grows a conscience.

But it's slow going, and the justice system is no help. In reform school, Levitt punches out a sadistic guard and ends up spending months in a dark box where the food shoved into his cell contains soap powder to make him sick. Just once, he does find himself in a "model" California prison. But it's so dull that he hates it, and when he gets out, he almost decides to become a Republican. Social Darwinism is what he knows and thrives on.

Carpenter's picture of the scabrous milieu in which Levitt and others commit their crimes -- theft, housebreaking, assault -- is terrifically well drawn, especially the pool halls and the hustlers who inhabit them. It's in a Portland pool hall that Levitt meets Billy Lancing, the young black runaway who becomes his truest and best friend and later, in San Quentin, his cellmate and lover. Both are straight, and they astonish themselves when biological convenience turns to love. Lancing is also beautifully realized, a smart kid made cunning by navigating a world of racist jerks. It's a pleasure to watch him playing in Carpenter's excitingly wrought scenes of low- and high-stakes pool-table warfare. Billy is his elegant best at conventional pool but is also willing to lower himself and add to his burgeoning bankroll by playing the rowdier form of pool known as keno.

While most of Carpenter's characters are high-spirited (and drunk) a lot of the time, his story has an undercurrent of grim Dreiserian inevitability. One chapter, about a break-in at a rich kid's house while his parents are away, starts out, "The party got out of hand almost immediately." When Levitt and his pal Denny spend a boozy San Francisco weekend with two brash young women -- one is a sexually alluring girl with an expression of "rapacious stupidity" -- you can figure out that a statutory rape charge is just around the corner. Much later, Levitt and a gorgeous, loopy rich girl marry on a lark. She introduces him to "culture" -- he is fascinated by Dostoevski -- but the suspense grows awful as we wonder if he can survive her drive toward self-destruction.

"Hard Rain Falling" is that rarity, a novel of ideas that is also gripping and sexy and dazzlingly atmospheric. It's a bit longer than it needs to be; some of the sections on the minutiae of prison routine are as slow-going as the whale-processing sections in "Moby-Dick." But the asking and re-asking of the big questions about personal freedom and what an intelligent person must do to keep it give most of the novel a ferocious drive.

Levitt is a pessimist. He insists that "society is an animal, just like the rest of us." But he is a pessimist who, in the end, is redeemed by the decency he is surprised to find in the world, and, unlike many of the people in his life, he is no lost soul.

A longtime presence on the San Francisco literary scene, Don Carpenter wrote several more well-received novels after "Hard Rain Falling." Then, sick and nearly blind, he took his own life in 1995 at the age of 64. New York Review Books has done a fine thing in helping preserve his estimable legacy.

Lipez writes the Don Strachey private-eye novels under the name Richard Stevenson. The latest, "38 Million Dollar Smile," has just been published.

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