Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter

Some novels hit so close to home as to make their reading so uncomfortable we avert our eyes from the page, hoping the characters won't make the same foolish mistakes we made once upon a time. We cringe, like we might upon looking at faded photos from our awkward adolescence. Don Carpenter's Hard Rain Falling, back in print since Sept. of '09, thanks to NYRB Classics (muchos gracias, NYRB Classics!!) is one such novel for me.

Jack Leavitt, an anti-hero extraordinaire as anti-heroic as Taxi Driver's Travis Bickle (sans the psychosis) has recently run away from an orphanage. He's seventeen. He's just been locked out of his dirt bag motel room he rents. It's already dusk when we meet him, brooding about this and yearning for that, and the events in his life, as he walks downtown through the seedier side of Portland, Oregon, are only going to get darker.

We know both his parents are deceased from the stark prologue to this -- Don Carpenter's first published book (he'd written two novels previously, but rather than publish them, he abandoned them to his attic, and only after his death did they see the light of day).  Jack's Dad got kicked in the head by a horse: bit the dust at twenty-six. His Mom died more violently a short time after ... by her own hand: shotgun blast to the head. Their violent deaths are poetically apropos of the violence and emotional chaos awaiting Jack's impending adult life (if it can ultimately be called a "life"), that Carpenter will heart wrenchingly and painstakingly unroll before us like some blueprints on how to build a good Life Gone Wrong, as we witness what's just around Jack's -- at all levels literal and metaphorical -- incarcerated corner. It's a mightily melancholic novel, in other words. It whacked me devastatingly, though divinely, I'd say, upside the head.

I used to know a lot of Jacks. Used to be like a lot of Jacks. Pool hall punk. Drunk. Broke.  A joke.  Forced to crash in acquaintance's pads. Unemployed by choice on top of it, even though I knew the rent was due lickety-split. The same's true for Jack, except it's 1947 for him (not those big-haired late '80s), in an era when folks were more prone to pay up front with cash instead of credit. On Jack's backstreets of Portland there's no Payday Loans to bail him out.  No Cash Calls.  No parents, as I mentioned. No real friends, except for his Minnesota Fats-like pool hustling buddy, Billy Lancing, and fellow whorehouse aficionado, Denny Mellon.  But they're both broke too.  He's got no extended family. No nothing. "He was legally a fugitive from the orphanage, and in that sense 'wanted'."  [Emphasis mine].  "He did not feel 'wanted' -- he felt very unwanted." So aptly put, Don Carpenter!

So what's an unwanted and restless and impetuous and disastrously undisciplined teen out on his own for the first time in his life without adult supervision, who (like a lot of male teens from every era, unwanted or not) ''just wanted some money...a piece of ass...a big dinner...a bottle of whiskey...a car...some new clothes and thirty-dollar shoes...a .45 automatic...a record player...so he could lie in bed with the whiskey and the piece of ass and listen to 'How High the Moon'...'' to do? Wash some dirty dishes in a cheap greasy dive and have no money leftover after rent for the finer things in life like that fine piece of ass? Actually work and slave away for nickels and dimes all his life? Hale no! More likely he and Denny Mellon will place bets on pool -- on Billy Lancing -- for fast funds (or faster debt), then maybe they'll steal a car together off a used-car lot for kicks (grand theft larceny!) -- a Cadillac, why not? -- and then perhaps, after opening that Caddy up something fierce out on that empty Oregon highway, windows down, wind in their long filthy hair, abandon the ride in uptown-Portland and break-and-enter into a house (a middle class home that seems "like a mansion" -- at least after the orphanage -- whose residents (or so they naively think) are allegedly away for a week? Now that sounds more like it, being that kind of loser, the latter.

Is it any surprise then when Jack lands in jail for getting involved with (how rather icky and embarrassing) underage girls, who at least, in Jack's defense, looked and acted a lot older? He was eighteen by then; they were fifteen or sixteen thereabouts (but built like real women), and one of their fathers, a very powerful and influential and vindictive man -- a DA -- unfortunately for Jack, intent on seeing justice served.  In other words, Bye bye, Jacky-poo. See you in that orange jumpsuit (or whatever they wore in the late '40s). What's surprising is that Jack trusted that DA who gave him his holy word that he had a good deal. Probation. Time served. Yeah, a good deal all right, sending him straight to San Quentin. How could Jack have been so duped into trusting the System when the System had screwed him royally his whole life? Perhaps because he wanted to believe that the System, the only mother and father he'd ever known, would finally be there for him. Would finally maybe love him and demonstrate to him that they cared. No such luck.

Don Carpenter (1931~1995)
In prison, Jack finally learns about self-discipline and self-control. Better late than never. Surprisingly, too, Jack learns about true love with a certain pool hustling buddy from his Portland past, who becomes his cell mate, and who demonstrates to Jack the greatest love imaginable out in the prison yard one afternoon. But will Jack recognize the deep true love by that selfless act in time?

Jack also learns (let's just say he learns a lot about life in prison, much more than he learned when he was free) that a man can have sex with another man while imprisoned, but once released, have no homosexual desires ever again. Carpenter sensitively and convincingly handles that difficult topic, the inevitable necessity of consensual inmate sex. How it helps keep the inmates sane. How it helps them survive the long bitter nights in their cells.

The love Jack learns about in prison, though, doesn't translate well on the outside (nor with a woman necessarily). He marries one in a rush nevertheless -- a party girl named Sally -- in Vegas, while he's still on parole. She's undisciplined herself, the product of a different kind of abuse altogether than what Jack's been through. And she's got more mysteriously dark secrets it seems than Houdini, including a secret suitor who's long been on her trail. No wonder Jack's parking attendant gig working nights doesn't quite cut it for her. But he's an ex-felon, he insists, so who'll hire him? and didn't she realize that going in? How tragic is it that Jack truly believes that having a baby with Sally will solve their problems and save their marriage. Sad.

By the time the 1960s arrive, Jack Leavitt is alone. The way we met him. The way we leave him. Loneliness, his most loyal friend.


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