Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number, . . ."
Bob Dylan, A Hard Rains A Gonna Fall.
Jack Levitt has had a hard rain fall on him his entire life. The unwanted, abandoned product of a furtive coupling between two feral teens in the Pacific Northwest; the result of what Jack describes as a compulsive itch between two strangers, his life is not the stuff that dreams are made of. But Jack Levitt's life is the stuff of a great and absorbing story in Don Carpenter's brutal and powerful "Hard Rain Falling". "Hard Rain Falling" is one of those books which, after I read it, made me wonder why I'd never heard of the book or the author before.
Written in 1964 (and recently repblished), Hard Rain Falling opens with the `itch' in 1929 that brought Jack Levitt into this world but quickly moves to the result. It is 1947 and Levitt is a hard-nosed teen on the run from the orphan asylum he was raised in. He gets by on his wits and with his fists, hangs out in bars and pool halls looking for a mark, and lives in flop houses. He in angry and unformed, he is grown up but devoid of an inner life. The story takes Jack and his some time `friends' through Portland, Seattle and finally to San Francisco in the early 1960s. There are also stops in county jails and a stretch in San Quentin.
The story of Jack's journey is compelling for any number of reasons. First, the story itself is told in a way that drew me in almost from the start. Carpenter's writing is terse and the words come at you like the sort of jab Jack learned during his stint as a boxer. Even when Carpenter reaches insides Jack's thoughts he avoid excess sentimentality and maudlin over-wrought sentences. Second, the book focuses on two critical, interrelated relationships Jack has. The first is with a fellow teen runaway, Billy. They first meet in a pool hall and they have an on again and off again friendship that doesn't blossom until they end up as cell mates in San Quentin. That is the external relationship that drives half of the book and an act of profound selflessness on Billy's part is the act that sets of a chain of self examination that may eventually transform Jack's life. The second is Jack's internal relationship with the anger that lives inside him. As the book progresses you see that anger grow until it seems ready to consume Jack in a fire of his own making. Those two relationships form the basis for Carpenter's examination as to whether Jack can escape the fate he seemed destined for from the moment he was born. As I read I saw the struggle Jack had with questions of life, death and the value (or not) of his own existence. To the extent that there is some hope for redemption or rebirth in this story, Jack's painful struggle to deal with his relationship with Billy and with his own anger makes the outcome seem realistic and satisfying. This is not a fairy tale. This is an examination of life in the belly of the beast as seen through the eyes of someone who has lived that life.
Dylan's song ends with this:
And I'll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
Then I'll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin',
But I'll know my song well before I start singin',
And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard,
It's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.
It is a perfect epitaph (Carpenter published this book in 1964 and Dylan's song came out in 1963) for Levitt and the life he has led. "Hard Rain Falling" was as good a book as I've read in a long time.