Fridays at Enrico’s with Don Carpenter
Two and a half years in the making, my essay on the complete works of Don Carpenter runs in the January 2010 issue of The Believer, which should be on newsstands very soon if it isn’t already. The piece is not online, but the magazine has excerpted the opening paragraphs, which I will now excerpt from:
Starting in the late 1960s, a group of writers got together every
Friday night at Enrico’s, a tiny café in San Francisco’s North Beach
neighborhood. Sometimes they talked about writing, but mostly they
drank, reminisced, and traded insults—the hallmarks of male bonding.
The group’s personnel came and went, depending on who showed up to
shoot the breeze and liquor up, but the core remained the same: Curt
Gentry, the lesser-known coauthor of Helter Skelter; Evan S. Connell, who had risen to literary acclaim with Mrs. Bridge; Richard Brautigan, author of the cult novel Trout Fishing in America; and Don Carpenter, who would eventually mine a decade’s worth of these get-togethers for his final novel, Fridays at Enrico’s.
Brautigan was the de facto leader of the quartet. With his
six-foot-four-inch frame, potent charisma, and celebrity, he attracted
legions of hangers-on and beautiful women who might not otherwise
darken Enrico’s door. Carpenter, on the other hand, was the wingman,
whom Brautigan’s conquests turned to for insights into their lover’s
mind. The supporting-player motif extended into Carpenter’s writing
career: after initial success with his debut novel, Hard Rain Falling
(1966), the seven novels, two short-story collections, and many
screenplays that followed met with critical acclaim and commercial
indifference, yet aspiring writers were eager to pick his brain on the
craft of writing, the vagaries of Hollywood, and how to persist at
putting words on the page when recognition continued to wait around the
When I say “two and a half years in the making”, I mean it. The first draft was done in the summer of 2007, when Carpenter was being touted online by the likes of Jonathan Lethem and George Pelecanos, but who, otherwise, was forgotten. But in truth, my interest in Carpenter is a little more than a decade old, spurred by the discovery of several connections he shared with Shel Silverstein. They were in the Army at the same time, working on the Pacific Stars & Stripes (Shel on daily cartoon strips, Carpenter on feature articles) then back in touch in the late 1960s/early 1970s thanks to the movie PAYDAY (1973), which Carpenter wrote and produced, and Silverstein scored. At one point, I learned, the two men even shared office space in Northern California. But eventually they would lose touch again, and to the best of my knowledge, were not in communication by the time Carpenter committed suicide in 1995.
With memory jogged, I set about to reading through Carpenter’s backlist, and was more than impressed. His first novel, HARD RAIN FALLING (1966), is the book I spend the most time on in the essay, not only because it’s a stone-cold masterpiece about manhood, imprisonment and emotional entrapment but because the New York Review of Books’ Classics imprint reissued it last fall (with an introduction by Pelecanos) – which allowed scores of others to discover its excellence. Edwin Frank explained how the reissue came to be in the Washington City Paper, and also illuminated why the book still resonates today:
[I]t 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.
In any essay for The Nation, Charles Taylor also made the case that Carpenter’s Hollywood novels merit rediscovery, and I agree. A COUPLE OF COMEDIANS, with its rollicking, sometimes unreliable account of a comic duo’s rise and fall, is a natural for reissue, though the Hollywood fiction – rooted in the cynicism Carpenter developed as a result of years in the belly of the real thing’s beast – that still stays with me are the linked novellas “Hollywood Heart” and “Hollywood Whore”, collected in his first short story collection THE MURDER OF THE FROGS (1969).
And then there is FRIDAYS AT ENRICO’S. Anne Lamott, who knew Carpenter so well she dedicated her writing memoir BIRD BY BIRD (1994) to him (and one of the most oft-quoted parts of the book, about Lamott’s publication day rituals, features Carpenter in a supporting role) claimed the book was a masterpiece. It made the rounds but never got published. Will the resurgence in Carpenter interest provoke additional desire for his supposedly last and “lost” novel? That remains to be seen.
But I must say, I’m glad there’s more attention being paid to Carpenter, even on the basis of his debut novel. He never deserved to be forgotten, and maybe, just maybe, the newfound interest will stick – and extend to the rest of his output. And special thanks to Ed Park for never losing patience (and always coming up with excellent edits), Andrew Leland for shepherding in the final hours, and Lisa Tauber for judicious and necessary fact-checking.