Looking for Raymond Carver

Cathedral

by Raymond Carver
Vintage, 228 pp., $12.00 (paper)

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.”

Plenty of writers are admired, celebrated, imitated, and hyped. Very few writers can, as Raymond Carver does in his poem “Late Fragment,” call themselves beloved. In the years since his death in 1988, at fifty, from lung cancer, Carver’s reputation has blossomed. He has gone from being an influential—and controversial—member of a briefly fashionable school of experimental fiction to being an international icon of traditional American literary values. His genius—but more his honesty, his decency, his commitment to the exigencies of craft—is praised by an extraordinarily diverse cross section of his peers.

Richard Ford, whose work, like Carver’s, carries the Hemingway tradition of masculine virtue into the perilous world of discount stores, suburban sprawl, and no-fault divorce, published a tribute to his old friend in The New Yorker last year. Jay McInerney, a student of Carver’s at Syracuse in the early 1980s whose cheeky, cosmopolitan sensibility seems, at first glance, antithetical to Carver’s plain-spoken provinciality, has written memorably, and movingly, about his teacher. And Carver’s stripped-down vignettes of ordinary life in the United States have been championed by such heroes of international postmodern super-fiction as Salman Rushdie, Amos Oz, and Haruki Murakami, who is also Carver’s principal Japanese translator.

Carver’s influence has proven remarkably durable and protean: the chronicles of family dysfunction, addiction, and recovery that dominate American writing in the late 1990s may owe as much to his example as did the flood of laconic, present-tense short fiction that nearly drowned it in the mid-1980s.

Through the ministrations of his friends and the tireless efforts of his widow, the poet and short-story writer Tess Gallagher, to keep his memory alive, Carver has begun to approach something like literary sainthood. Certain facts about his life and death—his stoicism in the face of terminal illness, his generosity as a friend and teacher, his successful battle with alcoholism, the happy and productive life he made in Port Angeles, Washington, with Gallagher after the collapse of his first marriage—have added luster to his image. The best of Carver’s writing now seems, in retrospect, to be suffused with the best of his personality—affable, humble, battered, wise. But to say this may also be to note that the adversities and triumphs of Carver’s life have obscured his work, that we now read that work through the screen of biography, and that his identity as a writer is, in consequence, blurred. What kind of a writer was he, and how are we to assess his achievement? Was he a hard-boiled cynic or an open-hearted sentimentalist? A regionalist rooted in his native Pacific Northwest or the chronicler of an America whose trailer parks and subdivisions had become indistinguishable? Did he help to revive American fiction or contribute to its ruin? Is …

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