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

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Bran­don Christo­pher

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.

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