The Class of '49 by Donald Carpenter (North Point Press: $14.50)
Whether working the sad territory of beer and buddydom in the Pacific Northwest, the subterranean cool of a Deep South pool hall or the psychedelic parade on Sunset Boulevard in the '60s, Donald Carpenter combines a reporter's eye for external detail with a novelist's sense of inner depths. In "The Class of '49" he gives us a novel and two short stories that, while not adding up to much in a narrative sense, do portray a precise emotional landscape.
The opening novel is a series of vignettes concerning the graduating class of a Portland, Ore., high school. The boys are constantly looking for girls, and not always finding them. The girls concentrate on their beauty. Poor Tommy German gets stood up most of the time, drinks too much, has his jaw busted in a brawl and discovers, after flunking out, that his IQ is 164. When he goes down to Seaside to seduce women, he ends up sleeping in the "Buick Hotel"--the roomy back seat of a '40s-vintage car.
But despite his lack of success, we begin to suspect he is not the loser he's made out to be. As his character is interwoven with others in poignant, closely observed scenes--through scandals, deaths, unrequited loves, sexual initiations--a sharp picture emerges of men and women on the brink of adulthood and diminishing dreams. For some of them are not going on to greater things--or even to college--as the world begins to enforce limits on their lives.
Take a conventional type like Clyde Marriman, who gets his girlfriend pregnant and is forced to forsake the University of Oregon for a job in a restaurant. As the circle of experience widens, it also closes them off to a wider world.
There are the unconventional types, like Balze Cooney, communist and incipient author, who gives up after one sentence of the novel he is writing for Random House because "there would be no point in padding it out. It said what he had sat down to say." Or Toby Keeling, who crosses the continent on a proletarian Wanderjahr , only to be held in captive awe by that citadel of capitalism, Manhattan. One can easily imagine them today as well-rounded Rotarians in Portland suburbia.
Resurfacing on Cue
It's the eternal scapegrace Tommy German, nearest thing to a central character here, who tips the author's hand. For the prodigal underachiever resurfaces in the second piece, "One Pocket," as the billiard buff whose brightest, most transcendent moments come amid the emerald glow and clicking murmur of a Southern pool hall. Carpenter is at his best when describing this mythic world.
A Poet in Hollywood
Later, in "Glitter: A Memory," the final story, we see our grown-up poet as a Hollywood scriptwriter in the wake of the summer of love, 1968, watching the "colorful writhing serpentine mass" of still-hopeful hippies "and the wolves that roamed among them" pass under his balcony at the Chateau Marmont. He works on a pilot with an aging contract player at a studio not unlike MGM in a town not unlike Culver City.
The fading star's wife and brother were killed in an unsolved double murder, and ever since he signed a 7-year contract with the studio, he has been condemned to replaying his personal nightmare:
"The studio, having screwed him to the worktable, began to draw his blood with a series of cheap exploitation pictures, movies that made his personal tragedy an unspoken part of their appeal, ghoul movies where Felix perpetually in different personas chased the killers through back-lot reality, always catching them, always getting his revenge, and always having to do it again, and again, and again."
However, as much as Felix is enslaved by his 7-year contract, he is also a slave to the glamour and glitter of his celebrity. In portraying the actor's triumph over a studio system that is destroying him, Carpenter again takes us into territory he has traveled. In the end, we feel we have been there, too.