‘Prison-yard & Pool-hall Blues’ – Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter

carpenter“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. He wanted a car, in which he could drive a hundred miles an hour… He wanted some new clothes and thirty-dollar shoes. He wanted a .45 automatic. He wanted a record player in the big hotel room he wanted, so he could lie in bed with the whiskey and the piece of ass…” Those words are enough to get any John Fante, Henry Miller, Charles Bukowski or Denis Johnson fan gagging for more. This novel hits hard and quick, precise and cutting, a bare-knuckle boxer of a read. Open the pages and smell the blood of the ring, the cigarette smoke of the pool hall, and the faecal matter, sweat and jizz of the prison cell. Close them and you will be wanting more – addicted, lustful, a little punch drunk but coming back for the action.

New York Review of Books maintains its impressive list of Classics with Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling. First published in 1966, it tells the stories of orphan, boxer, and jailbird Jack Levitt and Billy Lancing, a black runaway pool hustler; detailing how the lives of the two young men interconnect and how from a tenuous friendship their relationship changes over the years until a fateful sharing of a cell in San Quentin prison. Jonathan Lethem blurbs that Hard Rain Falling is his “candidate for one of the best prison novels in American literature” but it is much more than a prison novel (think John Cheever’s Falconer and Edward Bunker’s The Animal Factory). It is also much more than a crime novel – whatever that is these days. The prose is sometimes plaintive, sometimes plangent, moving effortlessly from poetic description to the philosophy of prisoners and prisons, yet never losing sight of a grounded reality and a bare, stripped-down style where words jab you in the face to get your attention and narrative uppercuts send you reeling to the ropes:

“…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 alter he killed herself with a 10-gauge shotgun. She was twenty-four at the time. The Indians buried her.”

A matter-of-factness eschewing any sentimentality while remaining brutally honest, completely human, the novel is bitter and yet, in the end, uplifting. A world focused firmly in the present where the past is something that has happened and the future is something that might, while fate is a thousand-dollar roll, a straight left to the chin, a Willie Hoppe pool cue, or a quick fuck.

Hustlers, boxers, millionaires and prostitutes mix easily in the cities of Portland and San Francisco. Jack and Billy are more down to earth and more real than Jack Kerouac’s Sal and Dean in On the Road. And, although the cover – and an excellent one it is – shows a speeding car, Hard Rain Falling is no road novel. It is a gutter novel. More like Emile Zola pumped up on speed and coming back down with the help of a boilermaker. Or Jean Genet shot through with Nelson Algren. Jack and Billy are not looking for anything; they are dealing with what they have. Violence is the motif here – how to deal it out, how to take it, how to stop it happening. The fight scenes are low-key, deft, everyday, because that is what it is… Quotidian violence is not for glory or for pride, it is for survival and Jack and Billy survive any way they can.

In his introduction, (Note: save until last and read as afterword) George Pelecanos states that Don Carpenter “aimed to write cleanly” and he does, spic and span, but he does so while depicting the dirt of the streets, the disorder of lives, the mess of backstreet hotel rooms, the rottenness of daily existence. This is an existential novel – it tries to explain how we live our lives, not how we should live them. It does this not by preaching but by telling us how it is, what it’s like to be broken and broke, to be incarcerated and preyed upon, to be a man or a woman trying to get through the day with enough food, drink, and dignity to sustain us, it tells us what it is like to be human – “Do you know how lonely you are?”

The novel’s opening chapter – concerning Jack Levitt’s parents – is one of the finest I have ever read and some of the set pieces – particularly the pool games between Billy and the fat man and the prison scenes involving Billy and Jack – are hard to better. Hard Rain Falling is both tender in its emotions and raw in its execution. It had me looking through my book collection to find another novel comparable – and I struggled. Eleven years after his good friend Richard Brautigan shot himself through the head, Don Carpenter, because of failing health, took his own life with a single gunshot. At the time, none of his books were in print. In 2009, apart from Hard Rain Falling, one can only find his work in second-hand book collections and libraries. This seems strange when there is such a proliferation of novels about the marginalised, the underworld, and – Don Carpenter’s other main subject – Hollywood. He wrote novels, short stories, and screenplays – one of which was Charles Bukowski’s Post Office (1977) – let us hope that some of these see the cold light of day sometime soon.

Any Cop?: A knockout of a novel – brutal, sad, lean and mean.

Steve Finbow

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