In the late 1960s, a group of aspiring writers got together every Friday night at Enrico’s café in San Francisco’s North Beach district. Among them was Don Carpenter who went on to write a critically acclaimed debut novel, Hard Rain Falling, 10 novels, two short-story collections and many screenplays. Although esteemed by the literary fraternity, his work brought him little commercial success and in fact most has been out of print for several years.
Fridays at Enrico’s was his final novel, completed a year before his suicide in 1995. It’s a sprawling novel based loosely on characters who frequented the cafe and were part of the literary scene in Northern California and Oregan.
He gives us four writers all hoping to win recognition and publishing success in the early days of the Beat scene. Jaime Monel and her husband Charlie met at university in San Francisco where they were both studying creative writing. Charlie looks ripe for success when an outline of his novel based on his experiences in the Korean war wins an award. Jaime initially puts her own writerly ambitions aside when she becomes pregnant but her burning desire to write is never completely extinguished.
Fridays at Enrico’s is really a story of ambition and frustration, of the yearning for recognition and the despair and desolation when it doesn’t materialise. It’s told against a backdrop of the burgeoning bohemian counter-culture along the West Coast, with each of the stories fuelled by a fair amount of alcohol and experimentation with drugs. Carpenter evokes the atmosphere well, showing it as one of endless possibilities countered by the sense of a loss of innocence. To achieve their ambitions, these four people must make personal decisions about what they are prepared to relinquish in order to achieve success.In Portland, Dick Dubonet is revelling in the fact he’s sold some of his work to Playboy. His life seems complete when he meets up with a ravishing, free wheeling woman who’s hobnobbed with Kerouac and co. Dick really wants to write a novel but doesn’t seem able to do more than churn out formulaic short stories. The most interesting character is Stan Winger, a jewel thief and housebreaker with a particularly nasty habit of leaving excrement in his victims houses. After attending classes with Charlie Monel, Stan begins to write the kind of crime fiction that sells and sells. Hollywood beckons but the shadow of his criminal past is always hovering on his shoulder.
The novel wasn’t quite completed before Carpenter’s death and that shows in the less than convincing portrayal of the quartet and in some odd omissions and lapses in the narrative. Stan Winger was the character I most wanted to succeed simply because of his determination to be a writer. Here is a guy who while doing time at San Quentin creates a novel but because he is denied paper upon which to write, he commits the whole thing to memory. Whether Jamie or Charlie gained the recognition they wanted wasn’t anything I could get particularly excited about while just at the point where I thought Dick was becoming interested, he just faded from the story. Most odd. Even odder is that fact that while there are plenty of cafes and bars visited regularly by the charcters, Enrico’s doesn’t actually make an appearance until almost the end.
So while there were some high points, overall the book didn’t really grab me.
Fridays at Enrico’s, published by Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press will be released in the UK on April 15. It includes an introduction by the American author and short story writer Jonathan Lethem. Thanks to Counterpoint for providing my copy.
For more information on Don Carpenter visit this webpage