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Would-be writers familiar fodder in Carpenter's posthumous novel

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It is sometimes distressing how quickly our culture moves on and forgets.

Take, for example, novelist and screenwriter Don Carpenter. Of the 10 books that Carpenter published between 1966 and his suicide in 1995, only one -- Hard Rain Falling, his first -- is still in print.

Fridays at Enrico's, which was unfinished at the time of Carpenter's death, has apparently been circulating unsuccessfully among publishers for years. Now, thanks to the efforts of novelist Jonathan Lethem, who finished Carpenter's book, it is finally being published.

Carpenter made a name for himself among writers in the 1960s and 1970s. He was known for his unromanticized portraits of the grim lives of his protagonists and for his disillusioned portrayals of Hollywood. Fridays at Enrico's flirts with both of these subjects without delving too deeply into either.

Instead, Carpenter gives us an engaging portrait of a group of aspiring writers, from their first encounters in the mid-to-late 1950s through to the 1970s.

Though his subject matter is somewhat tamer than his earlier work, Carpenter is a talented writer, equally capable of depicting the experiences of an uneducated, insecure petty thief and a college creative-writing student who finds herself suddenly pregnant, married and relocated to Portland from her native San Francisco.

When it shifts from San Francisco to Portland, the story draws together the four would-be writers who are its central characters: Stan Winger, the aforementioned thief who lacks technique but whose background entices virtually everyone around him; Jaime Froward, a newlywed ex-San Franciscan and a talented writer who lacks confidence in her material; her husband, Charlie Monel, a local community college teacher who slaves away at an unfinished novel about his experiences as a POW in Korea; and Dick Dubonet, who has sold one story to Playboy and who despairs, rightly, of ever selling another.

The characters take turns driving the narrative. Carpenter is happy to set some aside for large stretches while concentrating on another's particular story, only to have absent characters reappear when their stories happen to intertwine.

For three of the four central characters this is an effective technique, as Charlie, Jaime, and Stan are all -- for the most part -- appealing and interesting, and their reappearances create anticipation in the reader.

Stan's story reads like a cross between Horatio Alger and Elmore Leonard as he manages, through a prodigious personal discipline and dedication to his work, to write his first novel in his head while he serves a prison sentence for breaking and entering. Upon his release, Stan discovers that being an ex-convict in Hollywood is not the impediment that he expected it to be.

Charlie and Jaime's story is less optimistic, as each struggles in turn with the fact that Jaime's increasing success as a novelist is mirrored by Charlie's continued failure to complete his novel.

The book's only real weak point is Dick, whose story is underdeveloped and who is neither interesting nor appealing. In fact, Dick's reappearance after a long absence caused some flipping back through the book to for a reminder of who he was.

This is perhaps an effect of the novel being unfinished, and it certainly ends open-endedly enough to imagine it might have continued for another couple of hundred pages had Carpenter been alive to complete it. That said, for an unfinished novel it feels remarkably coherent; one wonders how extensively Lethem, whose distinctive writing style is admirably absent from the book, edited it.

It is unquestionably Carpenter's book, returning to his favourite themes and topics and offering a look back, simultaneously jaded and nostalgic, at the literary culture that both nurtured and frustrated him for the better part of his adult life.

 

Brandon Christopher teaches English literature at the University of Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 19, 2014 G6

History

Updated on Saturday, April 19, 2014 at 8:28 AM CDT: Adjusts formatting.

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