Jonathan Lethem


Jonathan Lethem is something better than talented and brilliant – he’s interesting and surprising. This helps explain his latest project, editing and slightly recasting a novel by a talented yet largely unheralded author, Fridays at Enrico’s by Don Carpenter.

Born in 1931, Don Carpenter was an integral part of the Bay Area literary scene until his death, by suicide, in 1995. He left behind a manuscript that offers a fictional group portrait of the literary lions who met at Enrico’s restaurant in San Francisco. “The gang included Evan S. Connell Jr., Curt Gentry (who wrote Helter Skelter with Vincent Bugliosi) and [Richard] Brautigan,” Douglas Brinkley observes in the New York Times Book Review. “Although there is enough kidney-killing craziness in Fridays at Enrico’s to impress Charles Bukowski, this sober-minded novel is ultimately more concerned with the existential struggle of writers desperate to get published, earn some cash and seize fame. As Lethem explains in his afterword, Carpenter’s characters, mostly composites of his friends, ‘mediate their estrangement through drinking.’ “

Brinkley continues: “The story starts in 1959 at San Francisco State and ends on an Enrico’s bar stool well after the Summer of Love. Carpenter, a humanist with an exacting yet forgiving eye, roots for this ambitious rat pack to succeed. Despite their supreme dysfunction — adultery, lousy parenting, inebriated logic, back-stabbing — they all have a bent appeal.

Brinkley concludes: “Not since F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack-Up” has a posthumous work acted as the death knell for a generation with such assuredness.”

In a Paris Review essay, Finishing Carpenter, Lethem recalls discovering Carpenter’s work while working at Moe’s, a legendary (aren’t they all) used bookstore in Berkeley, during the 1990s. A Couple of Comedians(1979), with its great title and Norman Mailer blurb, got me to flip it open. When right there in the stacks I was met with Don Carpenter’s punchy prose, and with his grabby, wry, and humane outlook, I took the book home. I read it. I loved it. I looked downstairs, in our pocket-size paperback stacks, and found a copy of Hard Rain Falling (1966), Carpenter’s first novel, repackaged with a Tom of Finland–style painting and corresponding jacket copy to sell as “gay lit” (“The hard-hitting novel of a young street tough and his inevitable journey toward prison—and self-knowledge …”). I read Hard Rain Fallingand thought it made two masterpieces in a row.”

Years later, he helped convince The New York Review of Books Classic series to reissue “Hard Rain Falling.” That led to his connection with Carpenter’s estate and the “unfinished” manuscript.

His essay goes on to describe the editing process – “I retyped the whole book, wanting to get Carpenter’s syntax into my body, to trust myself with anything I changed. More than anything, I took stuff out.”

Jonathan Lethem’s Top Ten List

1. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1860–61).
2. The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925).
3. The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead (1940).
4. The Red and the Black by Stendhal (1830).
5. A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell (1951–75).
6. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865).
7. The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch (1973).
8. New Grub Street by George Gissing (1891).
9. Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1759–67).
10. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866).