Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number, . . ."
Bob Dylan, A Hard Rains A Gonna Fall.
Jack Levitt has had a hard rain fall on him his entire life. The unwanted, abandoned product of a furtive coupling between two feral teens in the Pacific Northwest; the result of what Jack describes as a compulsive itch between two strangers, his life is not the stuff that dreams are made of. But Jack Levitt's life is the stuff of a great and absorbing story in Don Carpenter's brutal and powerful "Hard Rain Falling". "Hard Rain Falling" is one of those books which, after I read it, made me wonder why I'd never heard of the book or the author before.
In his Introduction, George Pelecanos writes that this book may be "the most unheralded important American novel of the 1960s." I read that with a grain of salt, thinking that this may just be a bit of overblown flattery not uncommon in Introductions written by other authors. But as far as I'm concerned this book is every bit as good as Pelecanos made it out to be. He was not exaggerating.
Written in 1964, Hard Rain Falling opens with the `itch' in 1929 that brought Jack Levitt into this world but quickly moves to the result. It is 1947 and Levitt is a hard-nosed teen on the run from the orphan asylum he was raised in. He gets by on his wits and with his fists, hangs out in bars and pool halls looking for a mark, and lives in flop houses. He in angry and unformed, he is grown up but devoid of an inner life. The story takes Jack and his some time `friends' through Portland, Seattle and finally to San Francisco in the early 1960s. There are also stops in county jails and a stretch in San Quentin.
The story of Jack's journey is compelling for any number of reasons. First, the story itself is told in a way that drew me in almost from the start. Carpenter's writing is terse and the words come at you like the sort of jab Jack learned during his stint as a boxer. Even when Carpenter reaches insides Jack's thoughts he avoid excess sentimentality and maudlin over-wrought sentences. Second, the book focuses on two critical, interrelated relationships Jack has. The first is with a fellow teen runaway, Billy. They first meet in a pool hall and they have an on again and off again friendship that doesn't blossom until they end up as cell mates in San Quentin. That is the external relationship that drives half of the book and an act of profound selflessness on Billy's part is the act that sets of a chain of self examination that may eventually transform Jack's life. The second is Jack's internal relationship with the anger that lives inside him. As the book progresses you see that anger grow until it seems ready to consume Jack in a fire of his own making. Those two relationships form the basis for Carpenter's examination as to whether Jack can escape the fate he seemed destined for from the moment he was born. As I read I saw the struggle Jack had with questions of life, death and the value (or not) of his own existence. To the extent that there is some hope for redemption or rebirth in this story, Jack's painful struggle to deal with his relationship with Billy and with his own anger makes the outcome seem realistic and satisfying. This is not a fairy tale. This is an examination of life in the belly of the beast as seen through the eyes of someone who has lived that life.
Dylan's song ends with this:
And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin',
But I'll know my song well before I start singin',
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.
It is a perfect epitaph (Carpenter published this book in 1964 and Dylan's song came out in 1963) for Levitt and the life he has led. "Hard Rain Falling" was as good a book as I've read in a long time. Highly recommended. L. Fleisig
on September 25, 2009
For many people reading "Hard Rain Falling" will offer the thrill of discovering a brilliant unheard of author. It was for me. The novel grabs you with the force of its authenticity and maintains its hold through the power of both Don Carpenter's beautiful writing as well as the depth of his insight. The characters grow and evolve, sometimes in surprising directions, but they always come across as being fully realized and emotionally complex. They are constantly brutalized by the world they live in, and the passages describing some of their experiences are harrowing. It is at times oppressive in its intensity but there isn't a false note.
The novel's introduction is written by George Pelecanos, who was one of the writers for HBO's amazing series, "The Wire." This is fitting. Both the novel and the series share a focus on the violent struggle and tortured inner lives of characters living in an unforgiving world. Both also ask questions about who we really are and what meaning we are to make of all we endure.
"Hard Rain Falling" is the best novel I've read in a long time. It's excellence makes me want to read it again and seek out the author's other work.
on February 8, 2010
This novel was published in 1966 and was a commercial flop.That is understandible.It's quite good and never fails to hold your interest.However it might have stood a better chance if it had come out 10 years later.Carpenters calm, matter of fact take on homosexuality was without a doubt a deal breaker for many readers, even in the mid '60s.A larger problem can be summed up with a question ,who was this books audience in 1966?It has many of the elements of a genre novel.There is crime ,violence,straight sex, gay sex,prisons,reformatories ,orphanages,lots of drinking and a little drugging.The characters are by and large urban low lives who drift through the Pacific North West and Northern California.In 1966 the distinction between high and low was still strong and a novel with this much of a whiff of genre to it wasn't going to appeal to high brow readers, let alone those looking for uplift.On the other hand I suspect genre readers would have tended to be irritated by the brooding intellectualism of the book.Carpenters' literary antecedents are Nelson Algren and Dreiser.Carpenter lacks Driesers' touch of genius but is vastly superior to the atrocious Algren.So the book undoubtedly wound up being a fish out of water.It's too bad someone didn't try to revive it while Carpenter was still alive to benefit.That said NYRB Classics once more deserves praise for reissuing a good book most of us have never heard of.
This 1966 book tells the story of Jack Levitt, a man who never really had a chance. Born in 1923 and raised in an orphanage, he grew up tough. A stint in reform school was brutal and I was moved by the horror of his solitary confinement and the sheer cruelty around him. And then there is Billy, a young black pool hall hustler who, years later winds up sharing Jack's prison cell in San Quentin after Jack is arrested for robbery as well as his relationship with a coup0le of underage girls.
I couldn't help but feel empathy with Jack as he makes his way through this hardscrabble life. He's always getting into fights both in and out of prison and I winced at the brutality and could almost feel the physical impact of the blows. There's something about his courage though and, his zeal for life which made me identify with him even though he we come from a very different worlds.
The book follows Jack through the years - his whirlwind courtship and marriage to a wild and troubled woman, his low-level jobs, his love for his son, his bouts of drinking and fighting and all his very human feelings. His life is sad and violent and but despite it all, he comes across as real and I don't think I will ever forget him or the impact of this book which is one of the finest I've ever read.
The above sentiment concisely summarizes the prevailing attitude of Don Carpenter's little known masterpiece, Hard Rain Falling. A brief prologue introduces Jack Levitt's parents who are around only to conceive and abandon the story's main character. From orphanage to pool halls, reform school and then prison, HRF shines a harsh light on the lives of people without resources or opportunity in post war and 1950s America. As his life unfolds I was reminded of Dante's admonishment inscribed above the entrance to Hell. This America is definitely not grandpa's suburban dream come true.
This is a hard, spare novel that is entirely masculine in its perspective and outlook, without even a pretense of understanding women. They exist on the periphery as sexual objects or as the mother's of sons--users or untrustworthy because of their unpredictability. Some may find this disturbing as I did initially but it is entirely in keeping with the emotional disconnect of Jack's existence. Others have remarked upon the homosexual relationship set in prison and it is remarkable for frankness, but most especially for its tenderness and impact on the core of the story. Carpenter is an astonishingly empathetic writer who does more then identify with the downtrodden and outcasts, he dignifies their lives with his storytelling making them as intriguing as an Edward Hopper painting.
Institutions are equally excoriated, and in the end it is the relentless grinding down by the social machine that defeats and overwhelms. From fantasies of murder to easy rage and brawls, Jack is slowly beaten down til the most precious thing in his life is taken away, and taken with barely a whimper. Perhaps the most brilliant accomplishment of the book though is its lack of sentimentality or self pity. Neither Jack nor the reader is allowed to feel sorry for him, pity being not merely useless but offensive. It is through struggle that one finds purpose, if only surviving what should, long ago have worn you out.
In the end there is an appreciation of the only thing in life worth pursuing.--love. To receive it and give it is what make an otherwise miserable existence even close to meaningful.
on November 5, 2015
I think that for most readers, you're going to come away from this novel not really liking any of the characters (you don't really hate them either). I think also, that this is a reflection of the honesty of the story being told. A story of damaged goods, and trying to fill the void. The writing is direct, and the story is nicely constructed.
on February 3, 2012
Hard Rain Falling tells the rough and tumble story of two marginalized men, Jack Levitt and Billy Lancing, two guys, who, from their birth onward, have been dealt a difficult hand in life, primarily because both men lacked the fundamentals of a good, healthy and disciplined upbringing. All they ever had was reform school or the streets, the former they ardently rebelled against. The two men, at different points, head off onto the road to see and experience what the wider world has to offer. It does not always accept them with open arms. Jack Levitt gets along by using his fists while Billy Lancing gets along by using his pool shark conning ability and street smarts. One lives by the brawn and the other by the brains. Yet, it is their own personal dysfunction that unifies them, makes them cohorts against a society that they have deemed as the corrupting influence that made them turn out the way they ultimately did. They are hardened and cynical, but they do thaw out, at least in a small way.
Jack Levitt parties, steals, pounces and is easily influenced by anyone who has a quick rich scheme in play. If muscle is needed, he is there to offer his services. On one such occasion-while at a party in a house they broke into-he and his buddies talk about their futures, the majority of them indicating that they will join the military. At this party, Billy Lancing is also there, invited after he trounces on all of them in a game of pool. He is invited because of the wad of cash that he has on his person, not because he is a likable individual. The majority of the guys don't like him because they felt fleeced by him, which they were, but all is fair in love and war, especially gambling. By the night's end, all depart, except of Jack, who passes out from a drunk delirium, and Billy Lancing crisscrosses around the country visiting various pool halls generating a tidy amount of cash for himself. The novel essentially progresses in that fashion whereby Billy and Jack just meander directionless through life, conning and fighting their way through, Jack sometimes as a professional boxer. It is only when Jack gets charged for statutory rape and is sent to San Quentin that he meets Billy Lancing again. The latter got thrown in the clinker because he was black and the racist cops just didn't like him. A story got concocted that put him behind bars and that was it.
While in lockup, the two men rekindle their old acquaintanceship and briefly live a life of stability and continuity. However, the friendship line gets crossed when the urgings, particularly on the behalf of Billy, becomes more intimate. In agreeing to those physical longings (with certain rules applied),-for prison life can deplete a human soul of the essentials: love, compassion, empathy, etc.-Billy and Jack rebel against the hardness that a cold and regimented cell block can inflict. Together, they find camaraderie, warmth and intimacy. They survive (mentally) the only way they know how to in that life. Billy makes the ultimate sacrifice in the maintenance of that bond to Jack. Upon release from prison, Jack begins life anew and tries to make it on the straight and narrow, which, to a certain extent, he does. But there are bumps in the road that hinder his growth, namely his stubborn headed defiance, among other negative attributes. Yet, he is on the margin of society and of surviving. He is always on the razor's edge to falling back on his criminal past; it is a constant battle for him. However, his struggles abate when he and his girlfriend Sally have a child. The true gift of parenthood, his parenthood, comes when he sacrifices his child (Billy) to the hands of another so he can have a better life than what he ever had. Growth is for all people, even the criminal and the marginalized. There is a hopefulness and admiration that a reader feels towards Jack, a longing that one has that he will succeed. Additionally, his profile features his humanity despite his abundance of flaws. Hard Rain Falling was an exceptional read, getting into and exploring the nitty gritty of the darkest corners of the human mind. Out of the gutter comes true gems of value: Billy and Jack. These characters are not always easy to relate to, but one can try to understand them. Indeed, an underrated and modern classic.
Sometimes books enter the out-of-print category because they aren't any good and no one wants to read them. Sometimes the book is good (or even superb) and nobody will bother to read it anyway. This book falls into the second category.
The plot of "Hard Rain Falling" is linear: in other words, "that" follows logically and immediately from "this". The book is written in the French style of "roman dur" (a "hard novel", a la Georges Simenon). It is terse, set in grim and gray surroundings and is stark in its descriptions. There are, for the most part, few words wasted.
Jack Levitt, the protagonist, is a "hard case" orphan born of hard case parents. As anticipated, Jack's life follows an Oedipal-like trajectory (i.e, a fate which he apparently cannot escape, not that he is especially motivated to do so). Only the most obtuse reader could fail to anticipate the bad end which Carpenter has pre-ordained from the patently bad beginning. Jack drinks too much, resents too much, fights too much, bucks society too much, is too individualistic and, later on, spends too much time engaged in introspection: a toxic combination of character traits, indeed. Aside from all that, he falls into a homosexual relationship with Billy Lancing (the other major character) while in prison. He later marries a red-hot "nympho" rich woman with whom (yes, you guessed it) he has a child who he seems to love (but later on evidently forgets). Sally, the woman in question, then leaves him, taking the child along for a "better life" with a rich, philosophically-inclined patron. She dumps him as well and takes up again with her first husband, a bit-part but quite successful actor. The child's fate can be surmised, namely a likely reprise of Jack's. This depressing scenario closes the circle of fate on Jack. While Carpenter doesn't spell it out in the end, its pretty clear Jack is doomed to a hard, mean and short life.
Billy Lancing is a Mischlinge (in Nazi terminology), that is, he is a mixed-race black man. Billy has a natural talent in billiards which he parlays into a career as a small-time pool shark. He crosses Jack's path early in his career. Paths cross again later on in San Quentin prison. Billy is cast in the role of a character foil: a genuine talent (Jack has none), but also doomed by circumstances of race, environment and character flaws. Though obviously endowed with considerable intelligence along with his billiards acumen, he chucks his better options in the garbage to continue the intermittently thrilling and ultimately unrewarding path he selected at a very young age. In short, like Jack, he understands much but has learned nothing. Billy also serves as the vehicle which allows the author entree into the demi-monde of mid-twentieth century pool halls, which is the general backdrop for the novel. Like Ian Fleming, too much ink is spilled in extravagant descriptions of various games of chance.
While some of the interior monologues and dialogue now appear offensive and dated, they are consonant with the received wisdom of the time and in the circumstances of the novel. For the modern reader, the only difficult paradoxes are Jack's unequivocal acceptance of Billy as a friend, cellmate and later as a lover and Billy's altruistic self-destruction, undertaken to save Jack from a prison "wolf". Jack even names his child after Billy. The extent and depth of racism of that era and in Jack's social strata seem a bit too ingrained for the degree of bonding that occurs in the story. Since everyone in this book loses as a result of self-destructive tendencies and as victims of circumstance, redemption is not within grasp and hell is other people.
Maybe it was Carpenter's apparent acceptance of homosexuality that deep-sixed this book. Rather, I suspect the reading public was not looking much for dour, unredemptive literature in the heyday of Robert Ruark and Jacqueline Suzanne, at least not from American authors. This style was popular in France (where Jim Thompson, Boris Vian, Celine and Henry Miller could sell books). The American "hip cats" were generally too involved with more uplifting Bohemians like Jack Keruoac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti to bother with this stuff. Even Bukowski was more palatable because the reader knows his work is autobiograhical and he's a best-selling author. Not so with Carpenter, who killed himself at age 64. So, into the out-of-print neverland with this book.
on October 22, 2014
The sad and very poignant story of Jack Levitt, who starts his life in an orphanage and struggles his whole life to rise above the hand that fate has dealt him.
It's not a pretty story contained within these pages. It deals with the down and out, the poolhalls the hustlers and seedier aspects of life. But it's also a book of mateship, love and redemption that are found found where Jack least expects it.
Jack's struggle against fate, his anger, his search for meaning and his relationship with Billy is told beautifully and honestly.
It's a sad and melancholy novel but one that will draw you into Jack's world and stay with you. Take a chance on this novel, you'll be surprised.
on February 25, 2015
Not everyone in the beat era became award winning poets or genre-bending novelists. Some were cooks, some were pool players, and some had no talent whatsoever. Some, like Jack Levitt, spent their lives drinking, thieving, fighting, and f-----g (if you have trouble figuring out what that word is, please ask the Amazon censor) their way in and out of prison. Jack finally leaves San Quentin and as he gains some small stability, begins to discover what life is all about. He begins to learn and to grow, only to find out that all of his new found dreams are false, but that just might be okay.
Don Carpenter’s writing is so descriptive and so fine that I can’t hope to do it justice here. Read this book. It will stay with you.