The main character, Jack Leavitt, deserves no sympathy. True, he was born into a terrible situation, orphaned by his mother who abandoned him to the state in secret just to keep his father from ever finding him. He grows up under very bad circumstances; faces young adulthood without anyone to help him steer a path through the mean streets of Portland and Seattle where the early sections of the novel take place. That he ends up in prison, even in a high security prison like San Quentin, is not a surprise. He never had a chance.
But he still deserves no sympathy. Racist, sexist, able to take the bad hand life has dealt him and turn it into something much worse again and again knowing full well that the choices he makes are the wrong ones, Jack is unlikely to be the sort of character many readers willingly identify with.
Yet, his story moved me. Jack’s failed attempts at redemption and his final acknowledgement of his own failings in life, and in love, didn’t bring tears to my eyes, but they’ve left a strong impression all the same. I wish Jack could have come to a better end, even as I understand exactly why this was never possible.
Don Carpenter paints a picture of the American under-class that we ought to see more often. At present, close to 2% of Americans are either in prison, on parole or on probation, yet we rarely see them as characters in serious fiction. Crime fiction, yes, but not in literature. Except in the case of cross-over works like Hard Rain Falling, a mix of crime and literary fiction, Great Expectations if Magwitch had stolen Pip away and raised him himself. That Hard Rain Falling was published in 1966 puts it squarely in the Ken Kesey school of literature, social outcasts trying to make their way in the word. The world of Hard Rain Falling is one of pool halls, wild parties, reform school and prison. But even in this hard edged world, Mr. Carpenter’s hero manages to find love, though he cannot call it by its name until far too late.
But he never really does find redemption. The closest he comes is a sort of acceptance, a willingness to face his life on its terms. That this small bit of cold comfort in his hard-scrabble life make Jack Leavitt’s story a moving one is a testament to Mr. Carpenter’s skill as a novelist. I never heard of him before NYRB Books sent Hard Rain Falling my way, but I’ll be on the look out for more.
I first ran this review on my old blog, Ready When You Are, C.B., back in late 2011. Since then I have come to rank it as one of my favorite reads of all time, all of my lifetime at least. I continue to purchase NYRB Classics, too, in the hopes that I’ll find another random book as wonderful as Hard Rain Falling. Every once in a while, I do.