Power, authority and ‘the rules.’
I picked Hard Rain Falling off my shelf as part of my determination to read more titles from NYRB. I read a couple of their books last year, and Stephen Benatar’s Leave Her Safe At Home was so good, I decided to start specifically looking at this publisher in case I was missing other literary treasures. I’d read quite a few 19th century novels in a row, and now I was ready for something different. Something modern and hard-boiled. So I perused my shelf and Hard Rain Falling by Don Carpenter caught my eye. This novel is so good, that although it’s only April, I am sure this book will be one of my reads of the year, and I’m going to call it one of the great American novels of the 20th century.
Hard Rain Falling is the story of the life of Jack Levitt, the unwanted product of a brief, violent union. There’s a short prologue (1929-1936) which outlines Jack’s origins, and then the novel begins in 1947 with Jack as a tough 17-year-old runaway in Portland. He’s unemployed and has various ways of grifting a dollar or two from his circle of similarly placed friends–a loose knit group known as “the Broadway Gang.” Jack is known as “one of those who would stop at nothing.” But there’s a subtle difference between Jack and the other members of the gang:
“Most of them were like Jack Levitt in that they wanted a lot of money and wanted to do anything they pleased, at least for a while; but most of them saw it differently: they wanted to enjoy themselves now, because they knew in their hearts that soon they would get jobs and get married and start having families (like their own), and the fun would be over. “
Jack doesn’t envision his future in the same way. This sets him apart from the other rowdy, but normal teens, and Jack as a “cynical optimist” understands that he is different. The other gang members have family to fall back on and they can return to the nest if things get too tough. So far, Jack’s life has been spent in an orphanage–a bleak institution with meaningless or cruel rules and regulations. Now poised on the edge of adulthood, Jack imagines his future as “a wildness in itself, a succession of graduated pleasures and loves and joys.” When Jack’s story begins he’s hit rock-bottom and with a fair amount of optimism he outlines his desires and expectations:
“It was a gray Portland day, and this helped him to feel sorry for himself. He was down to his last few dollars and locked out of his hotel room. He had quit his job and did not know where he could get some more money. He was legally a fugitive from the orphanage, and in that sense “wanted.” He did not feel “wanted”–he felt very unwanted. He had desires, and nobody was going to drop out of the sky to satisfy them. He tried to milk a little self-pity out of this thought, but it did not work: he had to recognise that he preferred his singularity, his freedom. All right. He knew what he wanted. He wanted some money. He wanted a piece of ass. He wanted a big dinner, with all the trimmings. He wanted a bottle of whiskey. He wanted a car, in which he could drive a hundred miles an hour (he had only recently learned how to drive, and he loved the feelings of speed and control, the sharpness of the danger). He wanted some new clothes and thirty-dollar shoes. He wanted a .45 automatic. He wanted a record player in the big hotel room he wanted, so he could lie in bed with the whiskey and the piece of ass and listen to “How Hight the Moon” and “Artistry Jumps.” That was what he wanted . So it was up to him to get these things.”
How Jack sets out to get these things is of course exactly where things go wrong. Sent to reform school, Jack later briefly returns to society for a catastrophically short taste of freedom.
Hard Rain Falling is sometimes described as prison literature or crime fiction, and yet those descriptions fail to capture the sheer greatness of this novel. George Pelecanos in the introduction states: “I hesitate to classify the novel as either a literary or genre work” and I think he’s right on target.
Hard Rain Falling is written with a raw honesty that’s rare. Oddly enough the book reminds me of Oscar Moore’s A Matter of Life and Sex–but at the same time, these two books centre on entirely different worlds; Moore’s novel explores the world of gay sex while Carpenter’s novel concerns the life of a down-and-out young man whose life gravitates towards crime. The novels are similar only in the fact that they both feature a youthful protagonist whose inner life in revealed with painful intensity. Moore’s novel details the life of Hugo, a 14-year-old emotionally troubled boy who drifts into self-destruction as a way of avoiding emotion. While Jack may seem to be self-destructive, he isn’t. At crucial points throughout the novel , Jack tries to puzzle out what life means, and while he recognises the need to stop and think, he’s swept up by his poor choices. But the absolutely fascinating thing about Jack is that he pays for his mistakes, and he doesn’t begrudge the payment.
Jack isn’t a particularly likeable character. At one point, he longs to kill someone, yet at times he acts with an innate sense of fairness. He’s tough and violent but he’s also a survivor and while he walks into some very foolish situations, he also possesses an uncanny understanding of the institutional system. He can identify some people as con-lovers–those who get a cheap thrill from contact from the convicts. He becomes the product of the institutions that have kept him caged and this provides him with a unique perspective on the pathology of power. Here’s Jack in the orphanage talking about the troubling nature of power and authority:
“The trouble was it was intangible. It was not in the hands of anyone. While Jack had been there, most of the boys had blamed the man who was in charge of the orphanage as the center of power; they believed that all that happened to them and all that did not happen to them originated with this one tall, heavy, white-haired man. But then one day, during the middle of Jack’s wing’s play period, they saw the man walking across the yard, his hands behind his back, his head tilted forward–the way he always walked when he was angry and determined–saw him suddenly stop and look straight up in the sky and give a grunt and fall backward, saw him fall with a thump onto the frozen ground and saw him carted away, and learned the next day that what they had seen was the death of this man, taken by a heart attack and dead before they got him indoors and got his clothes off. And that night all the boys in Jack’s wing nourished a secret joy at the man’s death and many of them thought in their hearts that they would be set free now that the center of power was gone, or at the very least that their lives would change in some magnificent way and they would be free at last of the man’s mechanical tyranny; some of them even though that candy would be passed out to them. But they learned. Very quickly there was another administrative head to the orphanage and he was different in appearance only. So it was an intangible; not a man , a set of rules. It would not even do any good to steal the rules away from the office and burn them, because there wasn’t even a book in which the rules were kept. It was just that the authorities knew the rules. You could kill them all and the rules would remain. This was the great virtue of rules, they were told in somewhat different context.”
Later, as it turns out, Jack’s recognition of the power structures within society proves invaluable when he’s sentenced to prison. By this time, he’s an old hand at understanding how power and authority work. Power amongst the prison guards and also power amongst the other prisoners. Jack makes little distinction.
In spite of its subject matter, and make no mistake this is a hard-boiled dark tale, Hard Rain Falling is ultimately not a depressing novel. Part of the novel’s power is found in Jack’s maturation which occurs outside of regret, bitterness or even social redemption. The novel never stoops to clichés but instead Jack’s pursuit of freedom and his odyssey through various state institutions reveal his unique, sometimes poignant interpretations of life. Never an intricate or valued part of society, Jack possesses an introspection on freedom that many of us cannot attain. Perhaps an explanation about Jack’s optimism can be found in this quote from the introduction:
“I’m an atheist,” said Carpenter in a 1975 interview. “I don’t see any moral superstructure to the universe at all. I consider my work optimistic in that the people, during the period I’m writing about them, are experiencing intense emotion. It is my belief that this is all there is to it. There is nothing beyond this.”
Hard Rain Falling was first published in 1966