Fridays at Enrico’s (Counterpoint)
Don’t write about writing. That gets said a lot. But like any absolute about what not to do, it’s only true until someone does it well. Such is the case with Don Carpenter’s Fridays at Enrico’s, his final novel, finished by Jonathan Lethem after Carpenter’s death. The novel follows a small group of novelists up and down the west coast as they pursue publication from the late 1950s to the 1970s. The story of Fridays at Enrico’s publication is compelling, itself; Carpenter’s work, especially Hard Rain Falling, garnered him praise and a devout following. His final novel–though a finished manuscript–went unpublished. Lethem, champion of Carpenter’s work, readied the manuscript for publication.
Fridays at Enrico’s has a finger on the pulse of California’s Beat movement. It focuses on writers’ lives and struggles along the path to publication. Fridays begins in San Francisco in 1959 with Charlie and Jamie, two young MFA candidates. There is tension between establishment and youth, money and the pure artistic experience. Jamie comes from privilege, a nice house where she lives with her parents. A life she finds “tame, middle class, stifling.” Charlie, on the other hand, eschews possessions for an artist’s life in North Beach among the bright minds of his day. Jamie and Charlie want a family, yet they share another desire — publication, and a writer’s life. From the beginning, Carpenter establishes that in their world, privilege is not a boon; in fact, Jamie sees her upper middle class heritage as a hindrance. The goal for characters is recognition — the validation that comes from having one’s work in print — perhaps more so than desires for a life of stability or family. There’s a sense that asceticism gives a greater truth to the writer’s experience, and Jamie and Charlie live apart from each other for a portion of the novel. Carpenter writes a marriage of writers fraught with unavoidable jealousy. They are each other’s greatest champions, but also each other’s harshest critics.
When Jamie and Charlie move to Oregon, Carpenter raises more questions: about truth in fiction, sensationalism, and writing in order to make a buck. Dick Dubonet is another writer who wants this validation, to “get some short stories written, to break through the publication barrier, to get paid for his work.” Dubonet is published in Playboy but struggles to repeat his success. Through Dick, the young married couple is introduced to Stan Winger. Stan is a thief and pens pulp crime stories. Charlie takes a teaching job at a small college in Oregon while Jamie cares for their child. Time is at a premium, as is inspiration. Nearly every kind of writer exists in Fridays. Their lives intersect and their successes ebb and flow. Carpenter illustrates the intangible hold on success that many writers feel.
The novel demonstrates the harsh limits on satisfaction in the life of a writer. Each character’s journey is depicted without sentimentality. They each endeavor to write and publish when they can, but the moments of joy publication brings them are brief. This world is one without lasting certitude. Peace and satisfaction sometimes obtained, but difficult to possess for too long.
Charlie struggles as he works on his war novel. He wants to write something that’s never been said before:
“Of course, nobody, not even e.e. cummings had said everything about anything. So Charlie wasn’t relieved of his obligation to finish his horribly long, terribly boring, totally unnecessary war novel. Which he was never going to show anybody again unless it was at least halfway decent. This was part of the reason for coming to Portland. To get away from the intense literary competition. To a place where he could write in peace and begin to accept the realities of married life.
“[Charlie’s] teaching job was absurd but wonderful, and he decided he was glad no respectable school would hire him. Multnomah College was a practical, no-nonsense place for people who wanted to get ahead. Most of the students were young adults who’d presumably already been out into real life and didn’t like it. They wanted to learn from Charlie how to write competently, and he was damned well going to teach them. […] They were here to make their own [breaks], and Charlie meant to help.”
Each of the writers in Fridays tells himself what he needs to hear in order to keep writing, and does what he needs to in order to sustain that life — or at least do what he can in the moment to keep moving toward his goal. Sometimes those moments are bleak, and the writing does not come easy. Jamie and Charlie each accept varying degrees of responsibility for their daughter and for the commitment they’ve made to each other, but their primary commitment is to the written word. Carpenter’s characters concern themselves with the path to publication that’s best, demonstrating a kind of fixation on value that’s still prevalent in the writing world. The questions they ask themselves are harsh. Success is never as good as the next writer’s; competition, in the case of Jamie and Charlie, adds another layer of struggle to an already difficult marriage.
“Charlie’s dream, if he looked at it closely, was to be king of the world. It wouldn’t be enough to write and be published…” In some ways, this is the dream of every character in Fridays at Enrico’s. Fame is a tough thing to grasp, and when one has it, it’s already disappearing. The second-guessing that comes from seeing another person publish a novel or get a deal in Hollywood drives each of these characters to extreme locations and actions. Carpenter captures the bleakness of a writing life, but also the wild highs of recognition.
Inside Madeleine (Soho)
Paula Bomer’s collection, Inside Madeleine, is raw. Sexual. Visceral. Unflinching. These women are exposed—and expose themselves—on every page of the book. In her collection, Bomer dares us to look on, to see the most bloody, open, gut-wrenching aspects of femininity.
Phrases like “brave writing” get thrown around often lately. Frequently enough that one might think bravery alone—that naming an uncomfortable thing on the page or an author’s overtly sexual prose—translates to merit or readability. Inside Madeleine goes beyond the bravery of words, though, to challenge the reader and ask important questions about femininity. Bomer’s collection isn’t disturbing only for the sake of shock; instead, it’s the nakedness of the characters and their openness before the reader that push us to examine our ideas about female perfection and sexuality.
Bomer writes characters that are hard on their bodies: those who are suffering from years of anorexia and those who use kinky sex as a means to earn affection. The consistent message in her stories is one of power. “That’s why people fight us,” one of her characters says in “Eye Socket Girls.” “No one likes to see a young girl win. We’re supposed to be nice, well behaved things. Pliable, fearful things that cry a lot, especially when we have our periods.” Control of the body dominates this character’s worldview. She tells us she fucks who she wants and she only eats what she wants; she (as others) ends up hospitalized. Bomer writes of the expectations placed on women, and how—sometimes—they exploit themselves because it’s the only means to an end. “Her eyes plead for more punishment, more discipline,” the narrator says of a woman in the same ward. “We’re all dying for the whip, each and every one of us. We crave it.” Each moment of existence, for Bomer’s characters, is about control. Having, wanting, taking.
And yet, these are characters desperate for affirmation. These women want attention from men and other women. In “Cleveland Circle House” and other stories, these desires lead to unhealthy relationships. The affection Mary gets from her father crosses a line she admits to only when she is drunk, yet she returns to his love when she’s in crisis because she feels it most acutely. “She’d try calling the hotel. Maybe he hadn’t left yet. He’d forgive her, he loved her. Yes, he did, and that was all that really mattered.” Mary, like other characters in Inside Madeleine, is so desperate for affection that she’shettion aving—a desperationll that really mattered.” Mary, like ot. Bomer writes of this impulse just as nakedly as she writes of sex. We see it again between two women in “Pussies,”
“I was her doormat friend. This was a good thing for me to be at the time, for various reasons. For one, it was the only way to be her friend at all. I treated her with adoration and she tolerated me and mocked me gently from time to time. As good as my adoration must have felt to her, it also felt good to adore her. It felt like love in my heart, like the unrequited love I once had for my older sister when I was seven and she was twelve. It felt a bit like my love for Ron, my boyfriend at the time, who wasn’t a very good boyfriend.”
Bomer’s women are willing to accept negative attention in lieu of being ignored. Inside Madeleine asks illuminates the inherent sacrifices in that exchange. Women in her stories seek affirmation and attention from other women with as much desperation as they pursue it with men.
Inside Madeleine is a reflection on the things we tell ourselves when we are young, and how the world cuts into us again and again until we change. In “Pussies,” Bomer’s narrator says:
“This was before I knew that we all live on this planet, driving in the cars of our own little minds, our own self-contained worlds. Yes, this was before I knew that, when I thought I mattered, when I thought that people saw me, deep into me, saw all my love and excitement at being alive, saw the very glistening, running-over of my aliveness. But we only matter when we do something awful. Then, someone sees us and only then.”
The same kind of transformation is evident in the novella, “Inside Madeleine,” which follows. The novella shows Madeleine’s growth from chunky preteen to disenchanted, anorexic wife. Her development dominates the page, and allows Bomer to bring us back, full circle, to the kind of diminished humanity we see in the hospital in “Eye Socket Girls.”
Inside Madeleine collects the stories of characters living close to death. Violence is a part of their being—most often, violence against themselves. Bomer’s book will be talked about because she writes with such honesty about sex, but it is in matters of the soul she is most honest. These are women laid bare. Bomer dares us to look.