Fridays at Enrico’s has become something of an instant cult favorite this year. Add me to the cult. Jonathan Lethem has done a masterful job of completing this unfinished work of the beat-era writer Don Carpenter. Masterful because I can’t tell where one leaves off and the other begins. Writer Working last encountered Don Carpenter in his very fine Hard Rain Falling. Enrico’s inhabits some of the same geography, but it’s in a pretty much different world unless you count writer-burglar Stan Winger, whom I don’t consider in the same category as Jack Leavitt. Nowhere near as hardened and lost.
No, this is primarily a world of the wannabe literati. Men and women who feel they have a talent or a gift, who think that if they only work hard enough at their craft and get a few breaks, they’ll be able to call themselves writers. They are nearly all flawed in one or more significant way, even the one of them that hits it big. They generally make lousy partners and parents. They stay up late and waste time. Alternately dreaming and self-flagellating the while. The thing is, though, they’re all intelligent, sensitive, interesting, and talented. And their lives are as full of hope and striving as they are of pain and failure. Not a one of them you wouldn’t take home either to mother or down in the basement to get loud with your no-count buddies.
Enrico’s is the famous restaurant/night club on broadway in the North Beach area of San Francisco. For those of us who have been around a while, it’s fun to return to this milieu of 50-plus years ago and find that a large part of the infrastructure is still intact. Enrico’s neighbor Finnochio’s female impersonator night club is gone (Carpenter doesn’t mention it, but it was pretty much next door to Enrico’s so thought I’d give it a plug), but City Lights bookstore is still there. So is Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Carpenter has his characters doing a lot of name-dropping of beats like Jack Kerouac, but we never meet any of them, even though Carpenter was right there in the middle of things. Undoubtedly some of these characters are modeled after real folks. I’m not interested in exploring who’s who. You may be.
Since the book is about selling your stuff, there are the obligatory brushes with Hollywood and New York. However, Carpenter manages to low-ball the usual stereotypical studio-publisher dynamic and stick close to the bone of his people.
Carpenter’s (and Lethem’s) lean style keeps his sentences on-target and brings both people and events into sharp focus. Too bad about the illness that led to the suicide and made Lethem’s job necessary. I’m very glad, though, he was around to take on the job. he was the right man for it.