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On his most recent visit to Busboys and Poets, George Pelecanos wasn’t just selling his own books—he was also hawking a slim New York Review of Books reissue of a 1966 novel whose out-of-focus Ken Light cover photo (above right) exemplifies the undeserved obscurity of its author: Don Carpenter (below right). The novel in question is Carpenter’s debut, Hard Rain Falling. In his introduction, Pelecanos says the book “sent me back to my desk, jacked up on ambition.”
Readers of a less writerly bent will likely experience a similar “jacking up”: Carpenter’s terse, overtly masculine prose, precise vernacular, and above all the unsentimental yearners who populate his book constitute a plausible, troubling world—one from which it’s hard to emerge without a bit of a head rush. The novel follows Jack Levitt, an orphan who bounces around the Pacific Northwest—between an orphanage, pool halls, reform school, dank hotels, and prisons—before marrying and siring an heir in San Francisco. It’s a volume fairly dripping with testosterone—the women get a fair shake, sure, but exclusively through the eyes of the men who sympathize, or try to; not for nothing is the book’s most intense relationship between Jack and Billy Lancing, a light-skinned black pool prodigy from Seattle who rematerializes next to Jack in San Quentin.
Without relying on the “postwar” handle, it’s fair to say the book is structured as a noir cogitation on escaping the system—and it’s also a more sophisticated man vs. authority narrative than Cuckoo’s Nest. Carpenter’s stronger in the pool-hall/prison grit milieu than in the stumbling-towards-family passages, though in each case the narrative boils down to Jack’s earnest struggle and chronic inability to buy into an inherited schema—whether he’s down and out or marrying up. The author reserves his deftest portraiture for dissolute vagrants and the idle rich, both sets wrestling with the same period listlessness, the same incompatibility whereby their raw desire outstrips all potential targets: Money, sex, adventure, family—none of these are commensurate with the gaping, wordless need of each individual.
I spoke with Edwin Frank, editor of the NYRB classics series, to discuss his decision to reissue the novel.
How’d you settle on reissuing Hard Rain among this year’s selections?
EF: I’d been hearing about it for some years, and at a certain point it reached a kind of critical mass. I knew Jonathan Lethem was a big fan, and then Richard Price got in touch [about a year ago] saying he just thought it was a great book. Turns out he had heard about it from Pelecanos. It’s a remarkable book, and it seemed to make sense.
What sold you on it?
EF: It’s just remarkable on a sentence-by-scene level—you take the first sentence of the book about the motorcycles, you’re already pulled in. And there are so many stories going on in the book. The scenes are vivid, the prison reformatory scenes especially—extraordinarily vivid scenes. And there’s a kind of reach and ambition of trying to cover every base. One of the appealing things is it’s a book about the trials and tribulations of manhood. People don’t write about that any more. In its day it wasn’t an unusual subject—think Mailer—but I think another issue there…there’s a certain kind of macho writing that became unpopular. And this book is interesting partly because it deals with homosexuality, something that was ruled out in the old manhood stuff.
The Times‘ obit described Carpenter as “a novelist and sometime screenwriter whose unflinching examinations of disheveled lives won more critical acclaim than popular favor.” Which is, obviously, true. Why do people tend to gloss over Carpenter when discussing, say, writers like Nelson Algren?
EF: I don’t really know enough about his career to say. The fact is that a lot of good writers don’t—he was writing, living around San Francisco, which was not—you know, there’s a certain tyranny to New York.
How long had it been out of print?
EF: I think since the early ’80s. I think it was available from Playboy Press in a kind of mass-market paperback edition. I’m pretty sure that was the last time it was available.
How did Pelecanos get involved?
EF: Richard Price told us that Pelecanos had told him about the book—I think I knew already, Pelecanos had written about it as a book that he thought was unjustly neglected and he thought was great.
When making selections for the NYRB Classics series, how much emphasis do you put on profit and how much on posterity? ‘Cuz this is a book that ought to be read…but it’s not going to sell a million units.
EF: Right. We have the basic mission—which is not, I hope, incompatible with financial viability—to get books that are good books. They should be good books that also are news now. There are a lot of good books that people want back in print, and I know it’s a worthy book, one that posterity should know about, but there’s not any obvious way that, apart from the people who already value the book, it’ll get a new audience. So I tend to think that these books not only have proven themselves, but can also get a new audience.
“News now”—that’s interesting. What makes Hard Rain news now?
EF: Well, it speaks very interestingly of the pathologies of being a man, and an American man in particular. It’s a subject of interest to at least half of the population. And I think it does it in an unusual way. There’s also another thing going on, complementary to the first: I think people are interested in thinking about the different kinds of things novels can do. So there’s a little bit of looking back and just seeing the lay of the land and all these interesting exceptional things put out in the past as opposed to the latest greatest books.
Photograph of Don Carpenter courtesy of Wikimedia Commons