SARAH WEINMAN

FRIDAYS AT ENRICO’S

AN OLD MASTER OF HARD-BOILED PROSE HAS FINALLY COME BACK INTO PRINT. (HIS UNPUBLISHED MASTERPIECE REMAINS UNPUBLISHED.)

DISCUSSED: Male Bonding, Portland Pool Halls, A Young Shel Silverstein, Unpublished Masterpieces, Unfinished Thoughts That Resonate, Stories Similar to Sling Blade, Fictional Disc Jockey Marriages, Poker Games Where Nobody Wins, Conversations Ending in Good-Bye

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 corner.

Born in 1931 in Berkeley, Carpenter spent his teenage years in Portland, Oregon, frequenting its pool halls and racking up, at most, an overnight prison stay on minor charges. A stint in Kyoto during the Korean war working at the Army newspaper Stars and Stripes (alongside a young Shel Silverstein, the paper’s cartoonist and an intermittent friend of Carpenter’s over the next two decades) cemented his desire to write. Several unpublished manuscripts and teaching gigs followed, as did marriage and two children, before Hard Rain Falling’s publication.

A year before Carpenter’s 1995 suicide, Anne Lamott dedicated her writing memoir Bird by Bird to Carpenter, a neighbor of hers in Mill Valley, California. He appears only a handful of times in the book—usually by last name—but Lamott brings him to life with a few sentences that betray a wicked sense of humor. In one anecdote, Lamott describes calling Carpenter up and asking his advice on how to handle a writer in the throes of envy. He said, “I just listen. They all tell me these incredibly long, self-important, convoluted stories. And then I say one of three things: I say ‘Uh-huh,’ I say, ‘Hmmm,’ I say, ‘Too bad.’” Then, Lamott continues, she starts telling him about her own bout of literary envy. “He was silent for a moment. Then he said, ‘Uh-huh.’”

Lamott hails Fridays at Enrico’s, a sprawling work set among the San Francisco literary community, as “a masterpiece.” The book has never been published, and until this fall’s republication of Hard Rain Falling, Carpenter’s other books had been out of print for years. Lamott’s memoir, on the other hand, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies and is considered something of a bible for aspiring writers.

Norman Mailer, an occasional visitor to Enrico’s, declared a later work of Carpenter’s, A Couple of Comedians, the best Hollywood novel he’d ever read. More recently Carpenter has been championed by Jonathan Lethem and George Pelecanos, the latter remarking that Hard Rain Falling “is on par with Edward Bunker’s Little Boy Blue in its shocking depiction of juvenile delinquency and the human cost of incarceration.” (Pelecanos also wrote the introduction for the book’s reissued edition.) So why has it taken so long for Carpenter to come back into the spotlight?

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Sarah Weinman writes crime fiction columns for the Los Angeles Times and the Barnes & Noble Review, and contributes to publications including the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Maclean’s, and the Guardian. Visit her at sarahweinman.com.

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