In his introduction to the reissue of Don Carpenter’s 1966 novel Hard Rain Falling, George Pelecanos calls it “the best unheralded novel of the 1960s.” I’m not at all sure what this means, or what else is on the list it tops, but I think that Hard Rain Falling is a powerful novel that deserves the rescue of reprinting in the discerning New York Review Books series. Surprisingly, it lacks the apt blurb Norman Mailer provided the initial edition: “Don Carpenter has written a remarkably cool knowledgeable sly subtle wry painful novel about some intelligent and violent men and their little trip through life, prison, and the pains of reformation.”
Pelecanos finds himself unable to classify the book. There are crimes, but the novel is not as nihilistic as many “crime novels” or tales that extend from juvenile delinquency and detention to greater violence and inevitable doom.
Plot spoiler alert
Hard Rain Falling begins with a rather nihilistic prologue about the hard life and early deaths of the parents whom the novel’s protagonist, Jack Levitt, never knew. It picks up with him having left an orphanage and sort of befriending a young African American poolhall hustler, Billy Lancing.
Intending to relieve Billy of some of his bankroll, Jack invites Billy to a party in a house the owners of which are away. Jack, who has washed out as a boxer because he bleeds easily, does not take the chance, classifying Billy as a friend rather than someone to rob. Later that (1947) night, Jack falls asleep and is easily arrested in the morning by Portland (, Oregon) police.
It seems that the novel is going to change protagonist for a third time, to Billy’s pool exploits (and a singular failure) and sexual relations with the mother of his son and (earlier) a Bad Girl (“girl” is apt in that she is a minor and sex with her is statutory rape).
The casual friends are reunited in San Quentin (the northern California state prison for adults. The course of love ne’re runs smooth, especially between heterosexually-identified men in maximum-security prisons. The climax of the novel is a tragic prison love story that can withstand comparison with Falconer (by John Cheever) and Yesterday Will Make You Cry(by Chester Himes), adding an interracial dimension (though Himes was black, the prisoners in his novel were white).
Jack tries to make a go of marriage with the ex-wife of a now-successful Hollywood actor. (I find it completely unbelievable that so materialist a woman as Sally would let go of alimony, even to shock her social circles by marrying an ex-con still on parole. But she does get what I consider the best line in the book: “I want everything sometimes, and I’m not going to get everything-ever.”)
The novel moves around northern California, Las Vegas, and Oregon, ending on the French Riviera. Jack is not ground into the dust as in naturalist novels in the tradition of Émile Zola. I’d guess that Carpenter believed that redemption was possible, though uncommon, but clearly did not credit hereditary doom or even that the very tough circumstances of Jack’s life guaranteed failure, escalatingly violent crime or in some other form. If a French analog (rather than Mailer or Nelson Algren, neither of whom showed much of a sense of humor) is needed, perhaps it should be Georges Simenon’s romans durs (not his Maigret mysteries), though Hard Rain Falling is twice as long as most of those.
I suspect that Carpenter was not sure how to end his first book, and that that it has a long anti-climax and an ironic coda. (In a 1975 interview, Carpenter (1931-95) himself likened what he did to “cooling the mark out,” at the end of a successful con, the reader being the “mark” to cool down after the emotional highest point.) The shifts in protagonist raise questions of ye old “problem of perspective,” but I took them easily in stride, along with the possibility of intelligence in the intermittently criminal underclass. (Billy also has a talent. Jack had boxing talent but once it became known that he bled easily, he had no chance to succeed in the ring.)
End ofplot spoiler alert
For me, there is way too much detail about pool halls and pool games, and a bit too much description of settings-though the account of lengthy solitary confinement is gripping. In the 1975 interview Carpenter said none of the book was autobiographical, that he had only spent one night incarcerated, and had never been inside San Quentin when he wrote the novel. (He also says he considers himself an optimist in that his characters are experiencing intense emotion, and confidence that Jack is going to survive and try some more.)
I have to recommend not reading Pelecanos’s introduction, which is almost all telling the novel’s story and provides no discussion of Carpenter’s life and later work (including seven more novels and a WGA-nominated screenplay for the 1972 movie “Pay Day” in which Rip Torn played an Alabama country-western singer).
(BTW, the song “A hard rain’s a’gonna fall” came out in 1962 on “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan.”)