Don Carpenter's Hard Rain Falling certainly can't be judged by it's cover, at least by the New York Review of Books edition I own. The cover shows a car speeding down a road implying, in my mind, freedom and open spaces. On the contrary, the novel is incredibly claustrophobic. Jack Levitt, the anti-hero, is always inside, whether this be a pub, a pool hall, an apartment, a prison cell, solitary confinement, or his own mind. The lack of freedom comes through on every page and makes for an intense reading experience.
Levitt is born unwanted and placed in an orphanage. While his parents stories are portrayed in the first chapter they only serve as an illustration: Jack's fortunes are not an aberration but illustrate the "like father, like son" adage. He never knows his father but becomes just like him. He is selfish, violent and permanently angry. As the narrative traces his thoughts we see that within the same moment he can express affinity for a person yet still plan to beat and rob them. It is only a natural act in his world. He and his ilk make the hoodlums of Rebel Without a Cause look like Good Samaritans.
His choices catch up with him and he finds himself in prison, a return to incarceration following a stint in a juvenile detention centre, where the essence of the story takes place. It is in prison that his rage grows even more, however, despite his recurring thoughts of random murder he never commits the act though he has several opportunities. It is also in prison that he meets Billy Lancing for the second time, and the two form a bond that eventually becomes sexual. While Jack speaks as though the act is merely the scratching of an itch, his thoughts betray that it is the first time he has felt a human bond. When Billy tells him he loves him and Jack refuses to verbalize his own feelings, Billy provides a demonstration of his love than gets him killed in the process.
Jack is released shortly after and Carpenter takes a turn with the story. I can't bring myself to say Jack is reformed, but he admits that things aren't the same after Billy's sacrifice. It is the first human contact that has left an impression on him. He gets a job, restrains his former urges for the most part, meets a woman, and has a child. Without giving away the ending, Jack's fundamental lack of hope and view of the world as a hostile place eventually causes him to forfeit his new opportunity.
Hard Rain Falling is melancholic, with the only moments of exuberance happening when the characters are undergoing intense moments, whether sexual or violent. It contains long descriptions of billiard games, and equally long ruminations of Jack's state of mind. This may turn off some readers who like more brisk pacing. The novel also hinges on the love between Jack and Billy, making the final section of the book an inconsistent departure if the change that it causes Jack to undergo is not accepted. It took me a few days before the novel was able to settle in to my mind, to appreciate the link between Jack's parents, his own course, and what the future may hold for his child.
It was released as Carpenter's debut novel in 1966 and has greater similarities with the European hard crime novels than much of what was being written in the United States at that time. I haven't read enough American prison novels to fairly judge if it is the "best prison novel in American literature," (Letham) and I have reservations as to whether it is a "masterpiece" (Pelecanos), though I found it a riveting experience. My sole criticism is that the novel has a limited focus, but I also realize that this seems to be intentional and it is what allows for the honed-in view of Jack through the work. What I can say is that it remains true to Carpenter's statement, quoted in the introduction to the NYRB edition of the novel: “I’m an atheist...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.”