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Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter
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Hard Rain Falling (1966)

by Don Carpenter

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Hard Rain Falling - A clear, honest story of Jack Levitt, a young man abused and brutalized in his years growing up in an orphanage and, after running away to Portland, Oregon at age sixteen, living his hardscrabble life among his buddies and cheap whores, in and out of sleazy pool halls, cheap boarding houses, reform school and prison, lots of prison, all the while drinking whiskey and fist fighting his way through seething anger and rage.

Author Don Carpenter’s prose is so sharp and vibrant, I had the feeling of standing next to Jack every step of the way. I also got to know, up close and personal, a few other men and women in Jack’s life, like Billy, a teenage pool shark with yellow skin and kinky reddish-brown hair, young tough Denny who loves any kind of dangerous, illegal action and, last but hardly least, wild woman Sally. This is such a powerful novel, other than my own brief comments, I’ll stand aside and let the author’s words speak for themselves.

Although he had clear blue eyes and curly blonde hair, even at age seven Jack looked like a seasoned boxer. Here’s Jack on his experience at the orphanage – and no wonder he ran away as soon as he could:

“Because the children of the orphanage were taught, all week long every week of their lives, that the difference between good and evil, right and wrong, was purely a question of feeling: if it felt good, it was bad, if it felt bad, it was good. . . . And work, they were taught that work was good, especially hard work, and the harder the work the better it was, their bodies screaming to them that this was a lie, it was all a terrible, God-originated, filthy lie, a monstrous attempt to keep them from screaming out their rage and anguish and murdering the authorities.”

One night a reform school guard lines the boys up and accuses them of unnatural sex practices, then grabs one of the frightened kids around the neck. Jack lashes out at this injustice, fists first, nearly killing the guard, an action that lands him in a dark, isolated cell for over four months. And that’s dark as in completely black; no light for 126 days:

“The punishment cell was about seven feet long, four feet wide, and six feet high. The floor and walls were concrete, and there were no windows. In the iron door near the bottom was a slot through which he passed his slop can, and through which his food and water were delivered to him. They did not feed him every day, and because of that he had no way of knowing how much time had passed. . . . At times, all his senses deserted him, and he could not feel the coldness of the concrete or smell his excrement, and the small sounds he made and the sounds that filtered in through the door gradually dimmed, and he was left along inside his mind, without a past to envision, since his inner vision was gone, too, and without a future to dream, because there was nothing but this emptiness and himself.”

When Jack is in his early 20s, after stealing a car and breaking into a house of rich people away on vacation and being caught drunk in bed, he is sent to a county jail:

“The boredom of it all, the sameness, the constant noise and smell of the tank, were driving him crazy. The fact that he was in was driving him crazy. . . . They had no right to do this to me, or to anybody else. He hated them all. But was crazy to hate them. So he decided he was going crazy. It was a relief for him to go berserk at last: it was an act of pure rationality that had nothing to do with McHenry or the poor fool Mac was taking over the bumps. It was an expression of sanity, a howl of rage at a world that put men in county jails. Everything finally got to be too much and he let go of his passion.”

Jack in San Quentin prison, on his bunk, looking up at the stark white ceiling, reflecting on our constant itch for sexual pleasure and the reason he was born in the first place:

“It struck him with horrible force. His parents, whoever they were, had probably made love out of just such an itch. For fun, for this momentary satisfaction, they had conceived him, and because he was obviously inconvenient, dumped him in the orphanage, because he, the life they had created while they were being careless and thoughtless, was not part of the fun of it all; he was just a harmful side effect of the scratching of the itch; he was the snot in the handkerchief after the nose had been blown, just something disgusting to be gotten rid of in secret and forgotten. Cold rage filled him, rage at his unknown parents, rage at the life he had been given, and for such trivial, stupid reasons!"

There's a lot of scenes where Jack Levitt talks, drinks, smokes and takes action with Billy, Denny, Sally and others, even reaching a point in his life where he reads Joyce and Faulkner, but day and night, and that's ever day and every night, Jack has to deal with his rage. Again, as honest and as clear a novel as you will ever read. ( )
1 vote GlennRussell | Mar 12, 2017 |
Guy literature. A coming of age story. The style reminds me of Hemingway. Drinking, chasing girls, breaking the law. I enjoyed the first two thirds better than the last third, which was more meditative. I found the protagonist's intellectual development a bit stretched. The book addressed a number of social issues in an interesting fashion. ( )
  nngrey | Jan 13, 2017 |
A spare, thoughtful book about people struggling to find a reason to live, learning about themselves and trying to fashion a life. The two main characters (Billy and Jack) are beautifully drawn - Billy in particular will haunt me. The way Carpenter captures the drives of the characters to fill gaps in themselves they can't even quite understand is so compelling - Billy's story of how he wound up in prison is breathtaking, as is the gradual unwinding of Jack's marriage. It's a very male book - the female characters are ciphers - but it's a stunning achievement nonetheless. ( )
1 vote mjlivi | Feb 2, 2016 |
Hard crisp writing. A good look into how dead end people have to live their lives. ( )
  EctopicBrain | Jul 31, 2012 |
The main character, Jack Leavitt, deserves no sympathy. True, he was born into a terrible situation, orphaned by his mother who abandoned him to the state in secret just to keep his father from ever finding him. He grows up under very bad circumstances; faces young adulthood without anyone to help him steer a path through the mean streets of Portland and Seattle where the early sections of the novel take place. That he ends up in prison, even in a high security prison like San Quentin, is not a surprise. He never had a chance.

But he still deserves no sympathy. Racist, sexist, able to take the bad hand life has dealt him and turn it into something much worse again and again knowing full well that the choices he makes the wrong ones, Jack is unlikely to be the sort of character many readers willingly identify with.

Yet, his story moved me. Jack's failed attempts at redemption and his final acknowledgement of his own failings in life, and in love, didn't bring tears to my eyes, but they've left a strong impression all the same. I wish Jack could have come to a better end, even as I understand exactly why this was never possible.

Don Carpenter paints a picture of the American under-class that we ought to see more often. At present, close to 2% of Americans are either in prison, on parole or on probation, yet we rarely see them as characters in serious fiction. Crime fiction, yes, but not in literature. Except in the case of cross-over works like Hard Rain Falling, a mix of crime and literary fiction, Great Expectations if Magwitch had stolen Pip away and raised him himself. That Hard Rain Falling was published in 1966 puts it squarely in the Ken Kesey school of literature, social outcasts trying to make their way in the word. The world of Hard Rain Falling is one of pool halls, wild parties, reform school and prison. But even in this hard edged world, Mr. Carpenter's hero manages to find love, though he cannot call it by its name until far too late.

But he never really does find redemption. The closest he comes is a sort of acceptance, a willingness to face his life on its terms. That this small bit of cold comfort in his hard-scrabble life make Jack Leavitt's story a moving one is a testament to Mr. Carpenter's skill as a novelist. I never heard of him before NYRB Books sent Hard Rain Falling my way, but I'll be on the look out for more. ( )
1 vote CBJames | Jul 5, 2012 |
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"They can kill you, but they can't eat you" -- Folk Belief
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This book is dedicated to my wife and to Bob Miller
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Three Indians were standing out in front of the post office that hot summer morning when the motorcycle blazed down Walnut Street and caused Mel Weatherwax to back his pickup truck over the cowboy who was loading sacks of lime.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0345339037, Mass Market Paperback)

Don Carpenter’s Hard Rain Falling is a tough-as-nails account of being down and out, but never down for good—a Dostoyevskian tale of crime, punishment, and the pursuit of an ever-elusive redemption. The novel follows the adventures of Jack Levitt, an orphaned teenager living off his wits in the fleabag hotels and seedy pool halls of Portland, Oregon. Jack befriends Billy Lancing, a young black runaway and pool hustler extraordinaire. A heist gone wrong gets Jack sent to reform school, from which he emerges embittered by abuse and solitary confinement. In the meantime Billy has joined the middle class—married, fathered a son, acquired a business and a mistress. But neither Jack nor Billy can escape their troubled pasts, and they will meet again in San Quentin before their strange double drama comes to a violent and revelatory end.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:23 -0400)

Don Carpenter's Hard Rain Falling is a tough-as-nails account of being down and out, but never down for good - a Dostoyevskian tale of crime, punishment, and the pursuit of an ever-elusive redemption. The novel follows the adventures of Jack Levitt, an orphaned teenager living off his wits in the fleabag hotels and seedy pool halls of Portland, Oregon. Jack befriends Billy Lancing, a young black runaway and pool hustler extraordinaire. A heist gone wrong gets Jack sent to reform school, from which he emerges embittered by abuse and solitary confinement. In the meantime Billy has joined the middle class - married, fathered a son, acquired a business and a mistress. But neither Jack nor Billy can escape their troubled pasts, and they will meet again in San Quentin before their strange double drama comes to a violent and revelatory end.… (more)

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2 editions of this book were published by NYRB Classics.

Editions: 1590173244, 1590173902

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