If Hollywood has never quite inspired the Great American Novel, it's not for lack of trying. Since the birth of Tinseltown, more than 500 books have fictionalized our most famous industry. And why not? Hollywood is a more than serviceable stand-in for America herself.
Don Carpenter — long regarded by his peers as one of the best writers in the West, long forgotten by the rest of us — wrote some of the genre's most distinctive entries. A Berkeley native, Carpenter spent much of his adult life in Mill Valley and a dozen years in and out of the movie business, an autobiography scattered throughout his 12 books.
Naturally, Hollywood plays a recurring role, including a supporting part in Fridays at Enrico's, the manuscript Carpenter left unfinished at the time of his 1995 suicide. It was recently completed by Jonathan Lethem and published to rave reviews this past spring. Riding the wave of interest in Carpenter's career, Counterpoint Press this month rereleases a trio of his novels originally published between 1975 and 1981.
Called "The Hollywood Trilogy" and packaged as a single volume, the books play against type.
"When you say 'Hollywood novel,' broadly speaking, there is a set of thematic implications and a set of tonal implications," says Matthew Specktor, founding fiction editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books and author of his own Hollywood novel, American Dream Machine. "It's more or less a given you'll be writing about a world that's presumed to be somewhat trivial, and you're going to be treating it in a tone that is satirical, parodic and/or withering. None of those things are true of Carpenter."
Without sugarcoating its excesses, in Carpenter's hands, Hollywood — instead of shorthand for sleaze or a symbol for spiritual poverty — becomes a vivid backdrop for characters perennially on the verge of going off the rails, without any outside help.
In truth, Carpenter loved to tease Hollywood insiders about who among them had inspired his characters, and an aura of authenticity provides a rich sense of time and place.
But the novels' driving tension stems from the open question of whether Carpenter's characters can survive close encounters with themselves. A Couple of Comedians depicts a Jerry Lewis/Dean Martin–style duo who find stardom making disposable pictures. "I think I'm going crazy," one of them announces, and he just might be telling the truth this time. The True Life Story of Jody McKeegan focuses on an aging actress — 35 years old and counting — with one last chance to make it. In Turnaround, an aspiring screenwriter spends his days churning out copy for Pet Care Hotline and taking career advice from the clerk at his local dirty bookstore.
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Norman Mailer had published his own Hollywood novel (The Deer Park, in 1955), yet he still regarded Comedians as the one to beat. Carpenter reportedly thought that, in "The Hollywood Trilogy," he'd written a satire. In fact, what earned the admiration of Mailer and his ilk "was a kind of gritty, easy-to-imagine realism," according to Jack Shoemaker, Counterpoint's editor-in-chief and Carpenter's friend and longtime publisher. In general, "If you want a sense of the culture, you'd go to Don's novels."
It's impossible to pinpoint precisely why some writers are showered with recognition while others can only hope for history to judge them more kindly. Like Mailer, Carpenter started off on a high note: His debut novel, 1966's Hard Rain Falling, was both a best seller and a critical hit. Soon after, he published a collection of short stories and two more novels, but "he didn't follow up with that great second or third novel right away that often will help solidify someone in the public's mind," Shoemaker says. The literary winds were shifting, away from Carpenter's brand of laconic realism toward magical realism. At the same time, Carpenter lacked the flashy style of contemporaries such as Donald Barthelme, and the self-aggrandizing ego of Mailer, Updike or Roth, Specktor says. "But what he was, was infinitely humane."
The extraordinary empathy that colors Carpenter's work, however, did little to alter his personal trajectory. Booze and cocaine, casual sex and a rainbow assortment of pills featured as prominently in his life as they did in his fiction.
"He would sit in my living room and say, 'Hollywood ruined my health,' and I think that exactly was the case," Shoemaker says. "Cocaine, women and money ruined him." And yet, "I think he would probably have said, 'I was having a fucking good time.'?"