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 …