Do we need another work about the struggles of writers? Sure, we do—if it has the warmth and charm and sexy vibe of Carpenter’s (From a Distant Place, 1988, etc.) novel.
This recently discovered, not-quite-final draft has been lovingly shaped for publication by author Jonathan Lethem. Carpenter (1932–1995), author of 10 novels, was a veteran of the West Coast literary scene. He offers us four young writers—four separate struggles. Take Jaime Froward, a 19-year-old native of San Francisco. In 1959, she’s studying at the state university, where she meets Charlie Monel, 10 years her senior. Charlie is a Korean War vet and former POW working on a big war novel. At Jaime’s urging, they jump into bed. After she gets pregnant, bighearted Charlie insists they marry. Perfect timing, since Jaime’s father has just died in his mistress's bed, and her mother, drunk and disoriented, is selling their home. Meanwhile, up in Portland, Ore., young Dick Dubonet is the toast of the town. He has sold a story to Playboy and scores again when he hooks up with Linda McNeill, a voluptuous free spirit who has hung out with the Beats. Charlie, along with Jaime and their baby daughter, moves to Portland to teach at a community college (his novel is proving intractable). One of his students is Stan Winger, a jewel thief. Stan writes really good drugstore pulps and will soon start selling them. As for Jaime, she throws herself into a novel based on her family. It devastates Charlie; his wife is the far better writer. However, as Carpenter makes clear, Stan and Jaime are equals in the republic of letters, though working in very different genres. Doing time at San Quentin, Stan shows heroic discipline, memorizing whole chapters of his new project. Both Stan and Charlie gravitate to Hollywood, which Carpenter treats with surprising generosity as he takes his story up to 1975, when the future still beckons invitingly.
This publication is an important event: Welcome back, Don Carpenter.