Sunday, June 6, 2010

*Hard Rain Falling, by Don Carpenter

NYRB Classics, 2009
308 pp.
originally published 1966

A tough novel to categorize, Hard Rain Falling isn’t going to do it for you if you need a book that offers warm fuzzies and a happy, feel-good ending. It is dark, gritty and real, a no-holds barred kind of novel that goes well beyond the much overdone “angry young man” trope to become a story that is intrepidly honest.  Considering its initial publication date of 1966, it’s also a novel much ahead of its time in the way that the author deals with racism, homosexuality and the harshness of unreasoned authority.

The main character is Jack Levitt, whose parents were young and stupid when he was born, leaving him in a hellhole of an orphanage. Jack runs away from there when he is older, lands in Portland, Oregon. 

There he meets Billy Lancing, a young black man from Seattle who gets by as a pool hustler, and with whom Jack finds friendship. But Jack can't stay out of trouble, and eventually lands in a reform school, where he spent much of his time in a dark cell in solitary confinement after nearly killing one of the guards. There 

"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 alone 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. It was not uncomfortable, not comfortable. These things this did not exist. It was colorless, senseless, mindless, and he sometimes just disappeared into it." (81)

This feeling of utter isolation pervades Jack Levitt's character throughout the novel. Eventually Jack finds himself in San Quentin on a trumped-up charge. It is there he meets up again with Billy Lancing, who maneuvers things so that he and Levitt become cell mates, and what starts out as just prison sex turns into something else, a human and feeling connection between the two, although Jack can't bring himself to admit it until it's too late and Jack is once more in the depths of loneliness.  And even though Jack is eventually somewhat transformed after his release, when he marries and has a kid, the freedom he envisioned in the past continues to escape him.

Hard Rain Falling is a book that is raw in emotion. Every character is real and feels.  This in itself is an incredible achievement - I can't think of another book in which the characters are so powerfully alive, especially Jack. And while so many novelists are into the game of blaming society for an individual's lifelong ills, that's really not the case here. As George Pelecanos notes in the introduction to this story, "the damage done to Jack at his very core can never truly be healed (xi)," and Jack notes that underneath it all, it wasn't really society that had abandoned him, but his parents.

Truly an amazing novel that I can recommend wholeheartedly.


  1. Wow, that sounds seriously full on. I will definitely keep my eye out for it. I work in criminal law, so I think that I can understand where the main character is coming from. Some people have very hard lives.

  2. You would definitely appreciate this book if you work in criminal law. It's a rough story.


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