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Jonathan Lethem Writes a San Francisco Novelist's Last Chapter

Adam L Brinklow | May 8, 2014 | Lifestyle Story Culture

When San Francisco novelist Don Carpenter died in 1995 he left his last manuscript, Fridays at Enrico's, unfinished on a shelf in his daughter's Mill Valley home. Years later, one of the cult writer's biggest fans, bestselling Berkeley-to-New York City transplant Jonathan Lethem (The Fortress of Solitude, Motherless Brooklyn) set about finishing it. The resulting book was published in April, and recently members of San Francisco's literati gathered at a party hosted by City Lights to celebrate it—and to commemorate the long shadow that Carpenter still casts over Bay Area wordsmiths.

"We went everywhere together because were both losers," said Anne Lamott, the author of Hard Laughter and Bird by Bird, said of Carpenter, her onetime neighbor. "He was living in an apartment the size of this table and getting the worst reviews in history and about a third of the people he knew were mad at him constantly. But whoever you were, he really understood you."

Carpenter, a novelist and screenwriter who wrote about misfits, eccentrics, and San Francisco in books like the noir thriller Hard Rain Falling and the Hollywood farce A Couple of Comedians, was a Bay Area fixture in the '50s and '60s scene. Noted for his sympathy for the down-and-out, his deadpan frankness, and his mentorship of seemingly every young writer in town, Carpenter bounced between San Francisco, Mill Valley, and Hollywood for decades.

His habitual honesty made him a respected writer, but didn't suit the schmoozing over salads in Southern California. Said poet Tony Dingman, who worked on Apocalypse Now, "I wrote a screenplay and gave it to Don to look at. He told me it would make a fine short story. Don was a straight shooter."

He produced eight novels and multiple screenplays for films like Payday, but in 1995, facing a slew of life-threatening health problems, he committed suicide. Bay Area literary circles have still not fully recovered from the loss, and speculation about the fate of the unfinished Enrico's (named for his favorite North Beach bar) swirled for years until Lethem stepped in.

California's Over author Louis B. Jones, looking windswept and slightly stunned, recounted a conversation he had with Carpenter toward the end. "He kept the gun he used in the desk of the drawer he always wrote at. It was a nickel-plated automatic. 'You want an automatic so you can get off another shot, in case the first one doesn't take you out,' he told me. He was just giving me a pointer, like he always had."

The new novel is the story of young, ambitious writers navigating the choppy waters of the '60s Bohemia, when the Beat poets garnered respect but fiction writers like Carpenter were considered sellouts in the making. Watering holes like Enrico's were hubs for creative types mostly because they were living out of motel rooms and cars and had no living rooms to gather in.

"San Francisco was a mini-Paris. These guys would sit in my bar and fire each other up and keep each other going, and whoever had any money would pick up the tab," says longtime Enrico's bartender Ward Dunham. It was, in Lamott's words, "A motley renaissance."

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