What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
Ellis Island and Other Stories
“Another tragedy in a long line of low-rent tragedies”—thus the mother of a fifteen-year-old girl describes the situation that arises when the daughter, reacting to her drunken and abusive father, stays out of school for weeks and says that no one can make her go. And thus might most of the stories that make up Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love be described: low-rent tragedies involving people who read Popular Mechanics and Field and Stream, people who play bingo, hunt deer, fish, and drink. They work at shopping centers, sell books, have milk routes, or try, drunkenly, to manage a motel. Mostly they live in the Pacific Northwest, but they could just as easily live in Pensacola, Florida, or Manchester, New Hampshire; in any case they drift a lot. “We lived in Albuquerque then,” says the narrator of the title story. “But we were all from somewhere else.”
In this remarkable collection as well as in his first, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (nominated for a National Book Award in 1977), Raymond Carver has displayed before us a series of delicately mounted specimens taken from a population—a vast population—that most often eludes or falls through the net of our fiction. Carver’s people are not grotesque or notably eccentric, nor rascally or amusingly loquacious. They have no regional or ethnic characteristics that might catch the eye (or ear) of a Eudora Welty or Bernard Malamud, and, despite their mostly Anglo-Saxon derivation, they have nothing in common with the upper-middle-class WASPs of Peter Taylor and John Cheever. Their ordinariness is unredeemed, their failures and fatalities of a sort that goes unnoticed except, perhaps, for an occasional paragraph in some small-town newspaper.
What are the tragedies that these stories relate? Drunkenness and/or abandonment figure in a large number of them. Since Carver works laconically, skillfully omitting what other writers might regard as essential information, it is often hard to know just what has precipitated a given situation. In “Why Don’t You Dance?” a middle-aged man, apparently deserted by his wife, arranges his bedroom furniture on the front lawn and pours himself another drink.
The mattress was stripped and the candy-striped sheets lay beside two pillows on the chiffonier. Except for that, things looked much the way they had in the bedroom—nightstand and reading lamp on his side of the bed, nightstand and reading lamp on her side.
His side, her side.
He considered this as he sipped the whiskey.
The rest of the household furnishings are distributed elsewhere about the property. The man has run out an extension cord, so that the lamps, television set, and record player are connected: “Things worked, no different from how it was when they were inside.” At night, a girl and a boy who are furnishing a little apartment drive up in order to take advantage of what they assume to be a yard sale. The man plies them with whiskey and sells cheaply—or gives away—the bed, the TV, and as many other items as they want. When all are fairly drunk, he plays a record and urges the kids to dance. The boy hesitates, and the man says, “Go ahead…. It’s my yard. You can dance if you want to.” They do so, and later the girl dances with the man.
“Those people over there, they’re watching,” she said.
“It’s okay,” the man said. “It’s my place,” he said.
“Let them watch,” the girl said.
“That’s right,” the man said. “They thought they’d seen everything over here. But they haven’t seen this, have they?” he said.
He felt her breath on his neck.
“I hope you like your bed,” he said.
The girl closed and then opened her eyes. She pushed her face into the man’s shoulder. She pulled the man closer.
“You must be desperate or something,” she said.
In other stories the occasions for dismay are stark enough. In “After the Denim,” the wife of a retired accountant goes to the bathroom during a bingo game at the community center and discovers with apprehension that she is “spotting” again, that “there really is something happening down there.” Her husband, who has observed a young hippie couple insouciantly cheating at another table, reflects bitterly upon the unfairness of life.
He would go with her to see [Dr.] Crawford. If only they had to sit with him in the waiting room! He’d tell them what to expect! He’d set those floozies straight! He’d tell them what was waiting for you after the denim and the earrings, after touching each other and cheating at games.
This story is particularly subtle in its delineation, at once sympathetic and unsparing, of the aging man and wife, whose routinized existence masks a more turbulent past (the husband, a reformed drinker, has taken up needlework as therapy) and is now threatened by the intrusion of the amoral young as well as by a fearsome medical possibility. The old couple are crabbed, their lives contracted and dull; but their devotion to each other is fierce and their values are intact.
Again and again the values—or merely the dignity—of a doomed older generation are contrasted with the drifting lives of their successors, whether middle-aged or young. In “The Calm” an old man threatens to start a barbershop fight with a bank guard (also waiting for a haircut) who has told how he gut-wounded a buck and then failed to follow the bleeding animal long enough to put it out of its misery. When the old man goes out, the barber says to his customer in the chair:
“Albert’s about dead from emphysema…. We used to fish together. He taught me salmon inside out. The women. They used to crawl all over that old boy. He’s picked up a temper, though. But in all honesty, there was provocation.”
The impact—often stunning—of these brief tales comes partly from our sense that Carver does not cheat, that the situations are ones into which he has fully imagined and felt his way, that his characters have not been merely set up to be knocked down again; in only two stories (“Tell the Women We’re Going” and “Popular Mechanics”) did I detect an element of gratuitous cruelty in the outcome. But the impact owes at least as much to the pared-down narrative technique that Carver has perfected. The stories thrive on omissions. One of them begins, “I’ll tell you what did my father in. The third thing was Dummy, that Dummy died. The first thing was Pearl Harbor. And the second thing was moving to my grandfather’s farm near Wenatchee.”
Only the “third thing” is explored; the other two are merely stated and left as unexplained entities to reverberate in the reader’s consciousness. The language, too, is pared down to the plainest of plain styles. Carver’s sentences, mostly simple and declarative, keep a tight grip on the simple objects and events that they present for inspection. His style is sternly denotative, allowing no scope for metaphor or linguistic exuberance. A certain price is paid, of course, for this asceticism: one misses the sudden bursts of vivid or lurid imagery that light up some of the greatest stories in our literature.
But within the limits he has set, Carver has shown himself to be a very fine artist. I hope this new collection will attract many readers and establish Carver’s reputation as one of the true contemporary masters of an exacting genre.
Even low-rent tragedies demand characters of some definition and grit. Those who populate Lifetime, a collection of three stories and two novellas by Scott Sommer, are, with one exception, too undone, too disintegrated or amorphous, to put up a fight. The narrator of “Waiting for Merna” (easily the best of the stories) lives in a garden-apartment complex in Atlanta, where he collects unemployment and food stamps, plays cards, drinks, and desultorily observes his neighbors while waiting for the return of an airline stewardess whom he suspects of being unfaithful to him. This suspicion, he realizes, is based partly on his own paranoia; on the other hand, given the casualness with which the affair began in the Executive Bar at Newark International Airport, his suspicion may be well founded.
The narrator’s aimlessness results from a fundamental lack of trust—in himself, in Merna, in others. Sitting shirtless in the sun, smelling the chlorine from the pool, he is fully aware that “the sun is not a solution. It is simply strong white light that warms and comforts me. It is enough.” But of course it is not enough. He would like to be able to trust—to respect “someone as much as you desire them”; to do so, he says to Merna, wouldn’t be “nearly so hard as walking on water.” Not much encouragement can be found in the lives he observes around him in “Arcadian Acres,” the noncommunity of transients that Sommer sets up as the ground-symbol of his story, the microcosm of a rootless America.
Similar longings for wholeness and love flit through the usually benumbed mind of Mahoney, the alcoholic humane officer (i.e., dogcatcher) who is the presiding victim in the novella called “Lifetime.” The piece begins with a reference to the accident at Three Mile Island, and indeed nuclear catastrophe hangs heavily over the recital of Mahoney’s relationships (to use an inflated term) with three women in the rural community where he lives. These include a barmaid named Olive (“the twenty-year-old sleaze queen who preferred flushing her children down the toilet to the nuisance of contraception”); Nikki, who becomes Olive’s lesbian lover; and Judith Chapters (“his last hope”), a waitress much concerned with Three Mile Island and the slaughter of baby seals. Mahoney, who has little enough to start with, is doomed to lose everything at the end. The conclusion is one that we can see from afar, and we accept its arrival with a shrug and a sigh. I would not claim, however, that I was bored; the documentation of despairing waywardness is interesting, even titillating enough to keep the reader going.
Sommer’s fiction is permeated with the sentimentality of failure. Mahoney equates himself with radiation as “just one more deadly product of the age.” In “Entrapped and Abandoned” the narrator—a teacher of retarded illiterate adults—lives in a house that is about to be bulldozed to make way for a superhighway. Having lost his fiancée, he no longer expects any transcendence of life’s wretchedness but will settle for “a hiding place, a little spicy surcease, a bandage for the growing leaks of the heart.”
If there is something beneath our undeveloped lives of ice [he writes to his ex-fiancée, Felice] it is too far away, too inaccessible and demanding for me. I’m afraid most of us still find sensation too seductive to worry about redeeming our selves’ histories of lost causes.
So persistent is this strain, and so heavy the symbolism that reinforces it, that one finally becomes suspicious of the author’s motives. Too often Sommer seems to be indulging in Schadenfreude at the expense of his characters; the laying on of woe becomes too easy, like the rhyming of Hertz and Schmertz in German Romantic poetry.
The only protagonist not totally defeated by life is the ten-year-old narrator of “Crisscross.” Eerily precocious, Coke tells us about the goings-on among the drug-obsessed inhabitants of a sordid Key West hotel and his own involvement—at first innocent and then “street-wise”—in the cocaine traffic. Though he too is a victim—fatherless, and to all effects abandoned by his promiscuous, drug-besotted mother—the fact that Coke at least is still able to stand up and fight lends a certain hectic vitality to this curious novella. He has some language, too, that rises above the low-keyed monotone of heartbreak that prevails elsewhere.
Halloween night I got it on with Termina, Buggs’s sister, for the first time. It was cool because she’s an older woman. I was dressed like a motorcycle hard ass and wore my dad’s captain hat and a pair of shades and Mom drew skeletons on my arms with stuff she puts around her eyes to look like a cat and I cut the sleeves off a shirt so my pits showed like a degenerate.
Sommer is not yet a master of his art. He has not found a voice of his own that he can use with real confidence. He is given to certain jarring mannerisms and a tendency to undermine his effects by cool, throwaway comments and self-consciously literary intrusions (“Mahoney wasn’t about to compose an ode to mutability…”). Above all, he is unable to persuade me that his vision of universal bleakness is fully earned. But in each of the pieces with the exception of “Sickness,” which I found vapid and unconvincing, there are passages of real power and incisiveness, phrases that one would like to have written; and two of the stories—“Waiting for Merna” and “Crisscross”—succeed well enough to make Scott Sommer’s work worth following.
Writing for the most part realistically about less than exalted characters (to put it gently), both Carver and Sommer work within the mode that Northrup Frye has labeled “low mimetic.” Mark Helprin, on the other hand, has associated himself with an older, more spacious tradition of storytelling. While the characters of his widely publicized new collection, Ellis Island, are hardly of heroic or mythic stature, neither are they likely to be your ordinary bank guard or waitress. They include a bereaved Bavarian photographer, the British captain of an iron-hulled sailing ship in 1909, Israeli soldiers before battle, a lively Jewish immigrant at the turn of the century. Obviously Helprin is unafraid to move about in time and space and nationality. Nor is his style limited to the precise rendering of the mundane. It is often ornate, lavishly rhetorical, “beautiful”…. Theoretically, such boldness, such freedom, such eclecticism should be welcome in an epoch of earthbound realism or exhausted experimentation.
Now let us look at the product. The most ambitious of the short stories, “The Schreuderspitze,” describes the journey, both physical and spiritual, of an undistinguished burger of Munich named Wallich who has lost both wife and son in an automobile accident. Seeking an ordeal “through which he would balance what had befallen him,” he goes into the Bavarian Alps in winter to train himself to be a mountain climber, a most dangerous sport for which he has no aptitude whatever. His goal is the ascent of the seldom-climbed Westgebirgsausläufer of the Schreuderspitze, the most formidable peak of the region. In a series of dream-visions, decked out with all the terminology and technology of mountaineering and accompanied by the music of Beethoven’s symphonies, Wallich not only achieves a tantalizing glimpse of his dead son but attains at the summit an ecstatic insight into the heart of pure light, into the ultimate mysteries of life and death, time and eternity.
He had come above time, above the world. The city of Munich existed before him with all its time compressed. As he watched, its history played out in repeating cycles. Nothing, not one movement, was lost from the crystal. The light of things danced and multiplied, again and again, and yet again. It was alive, and ever would be.
Kneeling, he begins “to concentrate, to fashion according to will with the force of stilled time a vision of those he loved.” Reconciled to his loss, knowing that ultimately there has been no loss, Wallich returns to Munich to resume his life.
I have little taste for this sort of writing. Wallich and his vision fail to convince me on any level. In this story and in most of the others, the situations seem contrived and the emotions forced. When, in “A Vermont Tale” the narrator says, “…the stars were so ferociously bright that I had to squint,”
I blink a little and then go on to read. “I have never fallen asleep without thinking of them. They made me imagine white lions, perhaps because the phosphorescent burning was like a roar of light.” And I say to myself. Has he never gone to sleep without thinking of them? Never?
If Helprin could commit himself to writing fairy tales or gothic tales in the manner of Poe or Hoffmann or Isak Dinesen, such extravagances might be more easily accommodated. (A weird tale—“Letters from the Samantha“—involving a Conradian sea captain and a strangely human ape succeeds quite well in such a fusion.) But again and again Helprin’s fiction raises questions of belief. It is not so much that he shuttles from one plane of reality to another—many writers have done that successfully—but that he fails to engage our imaginations masterfully enough, whether in a realistic or fabulous vein. The problem seems to me most acute in the novella called “Ellis Island,” in which he makes use of the kind of fantasticated history that Doctorow employed so engagingly in Ragtime. Jewish and Italian immigrants, Yankee commissioners, wonder-working rabbis, Irish con men crowd the scene. Manhattan is invisible for weeks, concealed by fog. The narrator is detained as an Italian anarchist. The women are all beautiful. Some of the scenes are amusingly realized. But the novella too often degenerates into mere cuteness when Helprin attempts Chagallesque effects such as these:
The roadways were entirely taken up by Hassidim. We were nearly floating on a sea of black coats and fur hats streaming across the bridge, and as far as one could see tens of thousands of the strictly orthodox were inching into Manhattan.
“Is it like this every morning?” I asked the conductor.
“I’ll say not,” he replied…. “They’re tired now, so they walk slowly and pray…. You should see what it’s like when they’ve got a good night’s sleep. They link arms—tens of thousands of them—and they dance across the goddam bridge, hopping from one foot to the other. They block traffic completely, and sometimes they lose themselves in the dancing and stay up here until noon. The cables stretch and zing, the towers start to bend, and the roadway gets like a rubber whip.”
I can imagine that this passage will strike some readers as charming in its whimsy. To me it seems worked up, false. When the narrator protests against “sanctimonious literalists” and tells us that truth “can float and take to the air,” I resist his defense. Why? My answer is that the fantasy seems derivative and the apologia glib. It is difficult to demonstrate glibness; I can only register my strong impression that “Ellis Island” as a whole is lightweight, lacking the ballast of a fully imagined and coherent vision.