When literary laureates list their picks for great American novels, rarely are crime novels brought up in the same breath. Sure, there were plenty of bestsellers in the genre that led to more acclaimed film adaptations (Mario Puzo’s The Godfather being perhaps the most obvious), and certain authors like Jim Thompson were even lauded for how transgressive they were able to be with the genre, but, as a whole, the genre was collectively seen by reviewers as pulp, shallow, and ultimately disposable. A shame, too, as at its strongest, crime fiction can eclipse preposterous ideas and represent something undeniably human. Perhaps the most indispensable example of this is Don Carpenter’s first novel: Hard Rain Falling.
A generation-spanning story set in America’s West Coast (primarily in Oregon and Northern California) in the mid-20th century, the book recounts the lives of two street-raised kids and their tribulations into adulthood. We’re first introduced to Jack Levitt, an orphaned teenager in Portland who spends his rebellious days seeking sex and booze and partaking in crimes with his local gang. His life takes a real turn-around, however, when he meets Billy Lancing, a light-skinned Negro from Seattle who has run away from home to try and make it as a billiard champ. Levitt forms a strong bond with Lancing that takes them from the dingy pool halls of Portland to a tumultuous prison sentence—and an unexpected happiness that follows.
First published in 1966, Hard Rain Falling was about as ahead-of-the-curve as a genre book could be at its time. It was a crime novel that took ample time to flesh out the characters and elaborate on its world, which was a rather unexplored one. Portland, Carpenter’s hometown, wasn’t exactly a cultural hotspot in the years of Hard Rain Falling (which covers the 1940s to the early 1960s), but it was an ideal setting for a gritty crime story. A city oversaturated with bars, billiard halls, envious working-class brutes, and unruly youths, the city of Hard Rain Falling is just as much a film noir locale as New York or Los Angeles, and Carpenter had the cinematic eye to pull it off.
Carpenter was very visibly an appreciator of cinema. In fact, Hard Rain Falling very much resembles Robert Rossem’s 1961 masterpiece, The Hustler, in both tone and content. After experiencing disappointing returns as a novelist, Carpenter had a sort of career turn-around in the ‘70s when he tried to make it as a screenplay writer in Hollywood. Unfortunately, he had limited success here too (despite writing the screenplay for the 1972 film Payday, which was critically acclaimed), but would use his frustrations of working in the film industry to write three excellent novels—The True Story of Jody McKeegan, A Couple of Comedians, and Turnaround—that would become collectively known as The Hollywood Trilogy.
Still, his later novels just didn’t have the sweeping quality of Hard Rain Falling. It was in this first novel that Carpenter’s prose was at its most accessible, yet it was also highly intelligent and had an underlying philosophical context to it that grew exponentially in the second half.
As we see Levitt grow through the years, we see him turn from an uneducated thug to a world-weary man who is ready to put away the horrors of his past upon reaching fatherhood. Unfortunately, his past has had just too many transgressions for him to escape, and his fate is nothing short of devastating. It’s rare that I say a book ends on a note that made me cry, but Hard Rain Falling is one of two books that hold that distinction for me (The Brief Wondorous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz being the second).
The final chapters of Hard Rain Falling are simply heart-shattering, and it’s because Carpenter had given his tortured protagonist an irreplaceable form of happiness, only to snatch it away from him in the conclusion. Still, Carpenter ends the book on a hopeful note and an image that’s among the most memorable I’ve ever come across in post-war literature.
It’s a grand novel, for sure, but what’s shockingly commendable about it is how it doesn’t contain a sliver of pretention to it. Carpenter’s characters feel all too real, and the passion put into it comes from a place that’s fully palpable. It’s a character study and a gritty crime story, but, first-and-formost, it’s a portrait of humanity at its most ugly yet also most serene.
While the 1960s birthed many groundbreaking novels that broke down the hard-edged male psyche—such as John Updike’s Rabbit, Run and Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint—Carpenter’s novel (which is arguably just as masterful) was inexplicably relegated to being a lost classic. Out of print for decades, Hard Rain Falling was recently re-published through New York Review Books for their classic series.
Fortunately, the novel seems to be going through a period of rediscovery, which makes perfect sense as it’s arguably more accessible with the sensibilities of today’s readers. It’s a shame that Carpenter didn’t get to see his novel achieve such well-deserved renown (he committed suicide in 1995 after being struck with a severe disease). But if he was anything like his main character, then he must have had an utmost feeling of joy for bringing something so perfect into the world.
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Peter Foy is an avid reader and movie buff, constantly in need to engage his already massive pop-culture lexicon.