You can probably imagine everything about Don Carpenter and his writing if I told you that he kept a gun in the drawer of his desk -- just an inch below where he writes -- and that he did this not for dramatic but for practical reasons. Carpenter's writing is bleak, his irony delicious, and his stories are imbued with a kind of admirable cynicism.
At the time when the San Francisco native was working on what would become his last novel, Friday at Enrico’s, Carpenter was plagued by complications from tuberculosis and diabetes. It was 1995, he was 64, and he was losing his sight completely. In the summer of that year, he took his own life inside his "tiny, cluttered apartment in Mill Valley," according to the NY Times, and it had been six years since his last novel was published.
Around the time Carpenter took his own life, there were rumors of a last, unfinished manuscript, but slowly days became years and the rumors subsumed.
Flash forward to the current day and we find a resurgence of interest in Carpenter. The New York Times Review of Books re-released Carpenter’s first novel, Hard Rain Falling, as part of their Classics series. And then Jack Shoemaker, editor at Counterpoint Press, begins wondering "whatever happened to Carpenter's last manuscript?" What he remembered was that it was almost ready, but was missing some crucial transitions.
The man to finish the job? Jonathan Lethem, best-selling author of Motherless Brooklyn.
Lethem wrote in the afterword of Friday at Enrico’s about what it was like to enter the world of a writer he had long professed his admiration for, stating “The chance to flatter myself by coming in like Mariano Rivero in the ninth was irresistible."
In the same afterword, Lethem notes that the tidying up he did adds up to about five or eight pages, which is to say Friday at Enrico’s is 1.5 percent Lethem.
Friday at Enrico’s is a book about California’s literary scene in the '50s and '60s, the high times of the Beat Generation. It’s a book that expounds on the dire conditions of being a perpetually-emerging artist, the boiling schadenfreude, the petty intrigues, failed marriages, and the pulling ahead of the few. We can speculate on whom the characters of Friday at Enrico's are based on, but it feels unnecessary. It's enough to say that this is a group portrait of the writers who frequented the North Beach café Enrico’s (now Naked Lunch), and that among them was Richard Brautigan, author of the cult novel Trout Fishing in America.
Friday at Enrico's is a compulsive read; the writing is sure of itself, and it reminds me of Roberto Bolaño’s masterpiece, Savage Detectives, except instead of exploring the youth of an emerging literary scene, Friday at Enrico's graduates into the adult realities of choosing a bohemian life. There is Dick Dubonet, a writer plagued by the too-early success of selling a story to Playboy who never writes again; there is Charlie Monel, who has oodles of potential but lets it squander in time; and then there is Jaime (Charlie's wife), who quietly and unexpectedly turns out a bestseller. There is the feeling of being inside a small pond, filled with growing Siamese fighting fish.
I like Stan Winger the most, a jewel thief who arrives at writing by chance, seeking something to do while wiling his time away at prison. Someone tries to introduce him to Dick Dubonet when he is still the toast of the literary scene in Portland.
Stan stood up to shake hands with the writer. He was a good-looking little guy, about an inch shorter than Stan, who was only five seven himself. He had a good handshake, though. Stan was ashamed of his own, his palm wet most of the time, so that he was unwilling to really squeeze a guy's hand.
"Sorry, my hand's wet," he said, and wished he hadn't.
"All of Oregon is wet tonight," Dick Dubonet said rather loudly... Obviously, the local kingpin.
"We were just talking about love," Marty said, loudly himself. "Stan's a writer too."
Dick's eyebrow went up. “Really? What’s your name again?”
“I haven’t published anything.” Stan grinned down at the tablecloth.
“Ah,” Dick said, “Would-be writer.”
There is a pleasure in reading about the role reversals in the literary community that Carpenter so painstakingly depicts in Friday's at Enrico's, but the real joy of this book is in the depiction of real aspects of such an important time for Californian literature that doesn't get too glassy-eyed and nostalgic. As Lethem writes in the afterword, “Carpenter writes as someone who knows the West as a real geography, with a culture of its own, a place to live the usual quandaries of existence, rather than a petri dish for American Destiny.”