04/28/2014 12:25 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Fridays at Enrico's , Don Carpenter's No-Longer-Lost Last Book

Twenty years ago Don Carpenter and I were talking on the phone at least a couple times a week, detailing for the other the outsized proportions of all our resplendent miseries. This was the early '90s. I'd just published my first book to good response and I was miserable.

My life's a wreck, I told Don.

"You?" he asked. "You're only starting out. You know nothing about the torture yet. Look at me? My teeth are half gone, my toes are falling off."

Perversely, the two of us found these conversations mordantly uplifting.

I'd met Don through our shared publisher and we'd watched together as -- as unintended consequence of publication -- my marriage blew apart as dramatically as a bulls-eyed skeet plate. I'd moved decidedly downmarket and was still driving my kids to their expensive private school in my expensive car by day while at night I lay in bed listening to the rats running the walls.

But because Don Carpenter was the kind of friend to whom you'd tell your secrets, he knew I was only as unhappy as I was simultaneously elated: that I was no longer the rule-bound and dutiful daughter, mother, professor's wife? that I was now a novelist who'd miraculously seized upon her own liberty? it was messy, sure, but as Don kept reminding me, I was pulling the jailbreak off.

I've got rats running my walls! I thought. I'm talking to Don Carpenter on the phone! exactly the literary life I'd sought.

Because Don was magic on the phone, the most incisive gossip, brilliant conversationalist, magpie sharer of news, mischief maker, he'd call to interrupt first thing in the morning as I'd have just got home from dropping my kids and my A.N.V.A. meeting -- that's Alcoholics Not Very Anonymous -- and was only just sitting down to work.

And he did seem to spend the better part of every day talking on the phone. Most of us were writers, I knew. All of us were women.

With no job, no prospects and nothing in my bank account but what was put there by my increasingly infuriated husband, I was struggling to write a second novel rushing to get it into the hands of my readers before my own tiny filament of literary celebrity blinked out. Don was infinitely encouraging and I was encouraged because he believed in me.

Don and I discussed ambition, fame, wealth, artistic poverty, all the vagaries of luck, how the stars either will or will not align for you and what if you were once hot shit and now your calls to your agent or publicist aren't being returned? Or worse, what if you once published good books all now being forgotten?

Worse? I countered, what if you never find an agent in the first place? What if that great book of yours ends up shoved forever in a drawer?

What Don himself was working on remained vague, mysterious, his intimating that his writing life was all but over.

Don had published huge books during the 1960s and 70s, books held in high critical esteem that included at least one bestseller. Shy by nature, Don had done little, really, to foster his own celebrity, and it may be fair to call him the satellite male to the outsized figure of his best friend Richard Brautigan -- but then Richard did tend to tower over everyone. Don was lured away from Marin to Hollywood to write screenplays, there to enjoy the full catastrophe of drugs, alcohol, sex with starlets, that special ruination born of vast sums of money.

Lying in blurry hangover in burnt sunlight beside the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel Don watched his own marriage and family life distantly atomizing, also witnessed the film projects for which he was being so handsomely paid nearly always going nowhere.

He aged.

He came home to Mill Valley to live alone in a small apartment, increasingly lonely as his closest friends died or moved away. It was there, in the summer of 1995, he shot himself, ending his life in the manner that exactly echoed the violent death of Brautigan.

So when I began Fridays at Enrico's it was half-expecting either a sad account of chronic habitual suicide by the kind of wildly unrealistic "lifestyle choice" we once deemed cool or maybe a cheerful if inexactly remembered tale of North Beach in the 1960s and '70s. Those were his Salad Days, when green in judgment, he sat drinking with friends and Don did know everyone all up and down the West Coast.

I have no idea why I ever imagined a book of Don's might be either thin or sentimental. After reading only a couple of pages of Fridays at Enrico's -- no, more exactly, from its first paragraph onward -- I understood myself to be standing in the full radiant presence of Don Carpenter working at his best again, as he had in Hard Rain Falling and A Couple of Comedians.


I also knew to a moral certainty what he'd been up to during all that time he spent talking to novelists on the phone. He wasn't wasting time, at least not his time. What Don Carpenter was doing was writing a book and all this was, at least in part, R&D for which he was coolly visiting the workroom of all these struggling woman writers and listening carefully.

To a moral certainty is a phrase Don has his character Stan Winger use. A type of the true artist, Stan is first and most fundamentally a thief, also the smaller, more quietly observant man continually overshadowed by the larger, more charismatic one. Stan's great gift? no one is more adept at vanishing.

What Don has written is the best, most clear-sighted book about what it must have been part of that kind of high-flying duo or an ambitious woman working in an era entirely dominated by men, as this is most certainly what the San Francisco Beat scene that evolved into the literary counterculture was. That a man has so incisively written this woman's story is something one of his three main characters, Jaime Froward, a 19-year-old girl when we meet her, might mark in the margin with the plain-faced comment irony.

The draft of the book left unpublished at the time of Don's death and eventually forgotten, has here been "finished" by Jonathan Lethem, a process described in Lethem's "Afterword." See too Lincoln Michel's interview with Jonathan Lethem just published in BuzzFeed.

Lethem's made judicious cuts, also added what amounts to a few pages of text as bridge material, he says, that's been dispersed throughout the story. To my ear and eye these small additions are completely indistinguishable from what Don himself might have written had he had the opportunity to see Friday at Enrico's through editing.

And so we are given, as lucky surprise, something no one thought to even wish for, as this is the great book of what it might have been when the West Coast's writing scene coalesced as something unto its own self in all its driving, original, dynamic and -- yes! -- even belligerent childishness, without either undue inferiority or deference toward the more grown-up and proper Literary East, about which many of these writers were frankly ignorant.

We see the entire scene, not only the rock stars whose names we still remember, but those stunted or silenced by too much early praise, those who sold books or even a single story for huge money then oddly vanished, those willing to sell-out back when that term was still pejorative.

Here too we meet those whose books still matter.

And I am deeply touched and heartened -- as it's a hopeful lesson to us all -- that out of what was the terminal misery of Don Carpenter's last days he thought to leave us this masterpiece.