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
Solomon Northrup’s Twelve Years a Slave was a bestseller when it appeared in 1853. In the same year another former slave and abolitionist campaigner by the name of William Wells Brown published his own narrative exposing the realities of the practice he abhorred. Like Northrup, Wells Brown showed the degradation and suffering caused and questioned the morality of the slave-master relationship. But in Clothel: or The Presidents Daughter, he went much further in showing the hypocrisy of a nation that exalted freedom yet legitimised slavery; a hypocrisy he indicated went right to the door of the White House itself.
Clothel is predicated on a rumour in wide circulation at the time that former President Thomas Jefferson had an intimate relationship with a slave called Sally Hemings and fathered several children with her. Wells Brown follows the story of two of his alleged daughters, Althesa and Clotel, and their mother Currer, who, as the book opens, are sold into slavery and separated upon Jefferson’s death.
It’s rather an episodic book which weaves fiction in the form of episodes from the lives of these women (including an attempted escape north) with fact in the form of newspaper stories and advertisements. Wells Brown is at great pains to emphasise however that his narrative is founded in truth:
I have personally participated in many of these scenes. Some of the narratives I have derived from other sources; many from the lips of those who, like myself, have run away from the land of bondage…. who made me the depository of their sufferings and wrongs.
Equally clear is his purpose for writing the novel: to evidence the immorality at the heart of the practice of slavery. The narrator thus opens with a commentary on the moral consequences of forceful separation of slave husbands and wives and the lack of control on inter-racial relations because mixed race slaves commandeered higher prices at auction. By the end there is an exhortation to the British people and especially to British Christians to take action and remove the stain of slavery from America.
It makes for a highly polemic style and a highly moral message, the most interesting aspect of which for me was the consciousness of racial differences and feelings of superiority based on colour even among the slaves themselves.
“…I don’t like the see dis malgemation of blacks and mulattoes. If I had my rights I would be a mulatto too, for my mother was light coloured.” says a black house slave at one point. Later another slave comments:
” Dees white niggers always tink dey sef good as white folks. I don’t like dees mularter niggers, no how: dey always want to set day sef p for something big.”
Wells Brown can’t restrain himself from commenting on these types of interactions however, so instead of simply showing the problem, we have to be told about it and have the message underlined by his own interpretation. Ultimately the polemic engulfs the narrative of the three women’s lives and they’re seldom allowed the space in which to develop as individuals with whom we can engage.
As a novel this didn’t work well for me. As a plea for humanity it’s a piece of work that deserves to be read.