“And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
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 he, as the London Times once declared, “America’s Chekhov,” or merely the O. Henry of America’s graduate writing programs?
If anything, the current state of Carver’s published work makes these questions, which have lingered for some time, more difficult than ever to address. More than a decade after his death, Carver’s oeuvre is still taking shape. Last autumn Knopf brought out his collected poems, and the Atlantic Monthly Press issued a tenth-anniversary hardcover edition of Where I’m Calling From, which Carver viewed as the definitive collection of his stories. Around the same time, a New York Times Magazine article raised questions about the extent to which Carver was the sole, or even the primary, begetter of his own work, pointing to evidence that Gordon Lish, the editor of Carver’s first two books, had drastically cut, rearranged, and even rewritten many of the stories which established Carver’s fame.* And then there is the question of Gallagher’s role, which seems to have been that of soulmate, sounding board, first reader—and collaborator. The journal Philosophy and Literature recently printed some short plays Carver and Gallagher wrote together. The journal also ran a photograph of the manuscript of the final page of “Errand,” Carver’s last published story; the concluding paragraph is in Gallagher’s handwriting.
Esquire magazine is publishing three newly discovered early stories. One of these stories, “Kindling,” which appeared in the July issue, is, like “The Cabin” and “Where I’m Calling From,” a portrait of a man seeking both solitude and human connection in the wake of an unspecified personal catastrophe. Next year the University of Michigan Press will publish Soul Barnacles, which Gallagher has described as a collection of her “essays, introductions, interviews, and letters concerning Ray’s work and mine.” All of these developments promise to add new, complicating dimensions to our idea of Carver and his work. But even the books that first made his reputation and remain in print present a rather contradictory and unsettled picture. Reading Where I’m Calling From alongside the earlier collections Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love can be like reading the same stories written by different authors. The unsuspecting bookstore customer, choosing between the slender What We Talk About, with its vivid, sexy cover, and the heftier, more sober-looking Where I’m Calling From, is in effect choosing between authors strikingly different in voice, manner, and attitude. Why should a writer valued above all for his forthrightness (and sometimes criticized for his literal-mindedness) be such a mystery? Which Carver is the real Carver? Which Carver is the Carver worth reading? Or are they both the same?
One thing is certain: Raymond Carver, the most beloved short-story writer of our time, was first of all, in his own estimation, a poet. “I began as a poet,” he wrote, “my first publication was a poem. So I suppose on my tombstone I’d be very pleased if they put ‘Poet and short-story writer—and occasional essayist’ in that order.” All of Us, while not quite tombstone- sized, is nonetheless bulky with the trappings of literary importance. In addition to nearly three hundred pages of closely set, handsomely printed poems, the volume boasts no fewer than seven appendixes, including thirty-five pages of textual notes recording variant readings of words, phrases, and in some cases whole stanzas. The editor’s preface, by William Stull of the University of Hartford, explains that, in the preparation of this book, “every known printing of each of Raymond Carver’s poems was collated against the editor’s copy-text,” and that the bibliography (Appendix 5) records “all inclusions in other books by Raymond Carver,” as well as “subsequent appearances in the form of broadsides, greeting cards, or limited editions.” If nothing else, All of Us is a monument of textual scholarship.
The question is not whether Carver deserves this treatment—of a kind very few American poets have received (there is no such edition of Robert Lowell, for example, or of Marianne Moore)—but how well it serves him. “Remember Haydn’s 104 symphonies,” Carver writes. “Not all of them/were great. But there were 104 of them.” These lines are from a poem called “His Bathrobe Pockets Stuffed with Notes,” which seems to consist of the contents of those same pockets. And All of Us has a simi-lar feel, as if quantity rather than quality were the measure of the artist. Tess Gallagher anticipates this objection, with some defensiveness, in her introduction:
I am aware of those honed minds that find Ray’s transparency somehow an insult to intelligence. They would have applied an editor like a tourniquet. I might have served as such, had I thought it true to his gift. I didn’t. If Ray hadn’t given and published in the ample way he did, I believe we would not receive his guileless offering with the same credulity and gratitude. Certainly…any number of poems I love might have been omitted. Overreach was natural and necessary to him, and to fault him for it would be like spanking a cat for swallowing the goldfish.
Aside from her self-undermining sarcasm (are dull, credulous minds best suited to appreciating Carver’s poetry?) and her taste for outlandish similes, what is most striking about Gallagher’s introduction is the recurrence of words like “guileless,” “artless,” and “natural” to describe Carver’s approach to poetry. Indeed, the poems are without exception composed (if that’s the right word) in a vernacular, off-the-cuff, unadorned style:
This foot’s giving me nothing
but trouble. The ball,
the arch, the ankle—I’m saying
it hurts to walk. But mainly it’s these toes
I worry about. Those
“terminal digits” as they’re
otherwise called. How true!
But it’s also true that All of Us abounds with signs of wide reading and intense—intensely literary—ambition. The poems from A New Path to the Waterfall (1989), the last book of poems Carver saw through publication, are interspersed with lengthy selections from other writers—Chekhov, preeminently, but also Anna Akhmatova, Tomas Tranströmer, Robert Lowell, and Czeslaw Milosz, all of whom Gallagher credits herself with having “brought close” to Carver. And the book’s single prose selection, a brief essay Carver wrote for Poetry magazine in 1987, recounts his discovery, as a teenager, of the dominant tradition of twentieth-century literature, a discovery made virtually by accident, in circumstances that are, well, like something out of a Raymond Carver story. Working as a delivery boy for a pharmacist in Yakima, Washington, already, at eighteen or nineteen, a husband and a father, Carver, “obsessed with the need to ‘write something,”’ was given copies of Poetry and The Little Review Anthology by an elderly customer. Just as so many of his characters find their lives subtly but unmistakably altered by casual, contingent happenings, so did Carver find himself changed by his encounter with the old man, whose name he quickly forgot and whom he never saw again: “Nothing remotely approaching that moment has happened since.”
“In the anthology,” Carver recalls, “there was serious talk about ‘modernism’ in literature, and the role played in advancing modernism by a man bearing the strange name of Ezra Pound. Some of his poems, letters and lists of rules—the do’s and don’ts for writing—had been included in the anthology.” Among the most consequential of Pound’s rules was that poetry should be at least as well written as prose, a piece of wisdom Carver seems to have taken to heart, whether or not he encountered it in the pages of The Little Review Anthology. Most of Carver’s poetry is in fact indistinguishable from prose, and not always very well-written prose at that:
I waded, deepening, into the dark water.
Evening, and the push
and swirl of the river as it closed
around my legs and held on.
Young grilse broke water.
Parr darted one way, smolt another.
Gravel turned under my boots as I edged out.
Watched by the furious eyes of king salmon.
Their immense heads turned slowly,
eyes burning with fury, as they hung
in the deep current.
Lines like these are indeed “artless,” but not in an especially complimentary sense. They are recognizable as verse only in their habit of lingering on images (“There was discussion and analysis of poetry movements [in The Little Review Anthology]; imagism, I remember, was one of those movements”), and in the unevenness of the right-hand margin. Some lines are end-stopped by punctuation marks, others break against the flow of the syntax, but there seems to be no consistent logic, either semantic or metrical, behind the line breaks. Carver had virtually no interest in rhyme or meter, and not much more in the other musical or rhythmic aspects of poetry—or even in its visual aspects, beyond the cascade of broken lines arrayed in variable stanzas (or, more accurately, verse paragraphs) down the page. “I hate tricks,” he once wrote, and while he meant the formal experimentation fashionable among fiction writers in the 1970s, the evidence of his poetry suggests that for him “tricks” included figurative language, allusion, elevated diction, and anything else that might divert his words from the task of describing, with maximal fidelity and minimal fuss, the world as it is.
Carver’s approach to composition, and to literary form, was hardly casual, and it is unnerving to see a writer lionized for the meticulous craftsmanship of his prose celebrated for the loose abundance (“amplitude,” Gallagher calls it) of his poetry. Yet the unbuttoned, quotidian feel of the poems—one envisions the writer in his bathrobe, jotting down observations and recollections more or less as they occur—is a product of the same aesthetic principles that give the best stories their characteristic cleanness of expression and tightness of organization. “Fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing,” wrote Pound, and Carver thought enough of this dictum that he copied it onto an index card and taped it to the wall behind his desk. “It’s possible, in a poem or a short story,” Carver himself argued in a brief essay called “On Writing,” “to write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things—a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman’s earring—with immense, even startling power.”
This claim, of course, belongs to the history of modernism: its antecedents can be found not only in Pound’s cranky pronouncements, but in the mottoes of such disparate poets as William Carlos Williams (“No ideas but in things!”), Wallace Stevens (“Not Ideas of the Thing but the Thing Itself”), and Frank O’Hara (“I do this I do that”), and the sentences of Hemingway, who learned modernist aesthetics at the feet of Gertrude Stein. Since at least the middle of the nineteenth century, the values of precision and concreteness have been rediscovered again and again, as succeeding generations of writers have felt the need to break out of the confinements of literary convention and inherited style and reconnect with the object world. The epigraphs in All of Us could fill a small anthology of expressions of this impulse: from Flaubert—“If I call stones blue it is because blue is the precise word, believe me”—to Sherwood Anderson—“A man has to begin over and over—to try to think and feel only in a very limited field, the house on the street, the man at the corner drug store”—to Robert Lowell—“Why not say what happened?”
Lowell’s words, often quoted, rarely in context, are sometimes taken to endorse the flood of mawkish, anecdotal, undisciplined writing—prose as well as poetry—that has spilled from the creative writing workshops and into the literary quarterlies in the years since he wrote them. They appear to license a plain, direct, empirical approach to the narrative content at the core of poems. But for Lowell, “Why not say what happened?” is by no means a rhetorical question; it articulates a problem, rather than a solution. “Epilogue,” the poem organized around this question, begins, in a self-elegizing mood that recalls Yeats’s “The Circus Animals’ Desertion,” with an evocation of poetic resources that are, in present circumstances, no longer available:
Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme—
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
The abandonment of poetic form is treated not as a breakthrough, but as a necessary, inexplicable loss. What is lost when the “blessèd structures” fall apart is precisely the ability to make representations that preserve life by being true to it. The poem goes on to contrast the easy, momentary, and ultimately falsifying verisimilitude of the snapshot—“lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,/heightened from life,/yet paralyzed by fact”—with the “grace of accuracy” of a Vermeer painting. For Lowell, it is photography—the simple, unmediated, “threadbare art” of reproducing things just as they are—that has the status of a trick.
In the middle 1950s, Robert Lowell, a poet of fearsome, unmatched formal skill, began writing a memoir. He turned to prose in the wake of a series of personal catastrophes: the end of his first marriage, the death of his mother, a series of terrifying breakdowns, and his break with the Catholicism that had anchored and fed his poetic vocation. The fragments of the memoir that have been published—one as the second section of Life Studies, the other posthumously in Lowell’s Collected Prose—are moving and beautifully written, but it is clear from Lowell’s accounts of the memoir’s composition that he viewed it as a respite, a temporary break from the demands of poetry.
The kind of poetry Lowell had written up to then—elaborate, musical, highly charged with religious symbolism and historical judgment—seemed inadequate to the personal subjects—mental illness, childhood, family life—he felt compelled to address. He turned to prose as a way of engaging those subjects, and also as a way of regenerating his poetry. The poems that resulted—the fifth section of Life Studies, which includes “My Last Afternoon with Uncle Devereux Winslow,” “Waking in the Blue,” and “Skunk Hour”—dispense with complex symbolism, with metrical regularity, and, for the most part, with rhyme. Their diction is conversational, their syntax prosaic. But they are poems—poems that embed themselves, word for word, in the memory, in a way that virtually none of Carver’s poems do—because their very simplicity, their transparency, feels hard won, accomplished against the stubborn resistance of the materials at hand.
Poets often turn to prose because it seems easier, more immediate, less constrained by formal considerations than poetry. This is one of the things that makes them poets: they are acutely aware of the difficulty of what they do best. Carver, I suspect, turned to poetry for an analogous, yet opposite, reason: to record ideas that were too singular, too unformed, or too raw and painful for fiction. The results reveal that he was, first and last, a fiction writer. Carver’s account, in “On Writing,” of how he composed the story “Put Yourself in My Shoes,” is telling: “I made the story just as I’d make a poem; one line and then the next, and the next.” In other words, he made the story just as someone would make a poem whose customary and preferred activity was making stories, which after all depend on linear sequentiality in a way that poems, almost by definition, do not. Carver’s mistake was not that he valued accuracy, simplicity, and fidelity to the physical world: these are clearly values he shared with Lowell, as well as with Chekhov, Milosz, and the other writers he admired. His mistake was in assuming that the means of achieving these values in a short story are the same as the means of achieving them in a poem.
It is therefore not surprising that Carver’s most interesting poems are the ones that most resemble his stories. His occasional forays into whimsical, imagistic surrealism in the manner of Robert Bly or Galway Kinnell—a mode much in vogue on campuses in the 1960s and 1970s—are flat and forced:
At night the salmon move
out from the river and into town.
They avoid places with names
like Foster’s Freeze, A&W, Smiley’s
but swim close to the tract
homes on Wright Avenue where sometimes
in the early morning hours
you can hear them trying doorknobs
or bumping against Cable TV lines.
We wait up for them.
We leave our back windows open
and call out when we hear a splash.
Mornings are a disappointment.
(“At Night the Salmon Move”)
And his attempts to broaden the geographical scope and deepen the historical resonance of his lyrics—in poems with titles like “The Caucasus: A Romance,” “The News Carried To Macedonia,” and “Thermopylae”—are constrained by the stubborn modesty of his voice. His preferred mode, especially in his later poems, is a kind of post-Romantic meditative lyric, resembling most closely the work of poets like Charles Wright, which juxtaposes observations of the natural world with reflections on the poet’s own life and emotions:
I fished alone that languid autumn evening.
Fished as darkness kept coming on.
Experiencing exceptional loss and then
exceptional joy when I brought a silver salmon
to the boat, and dipped a net under the fish.
Secret heart! When I looked into the moving water
and up at the dark outline of the mountains
behind the town, nothing hinted then
I would suffer so this longing
to be back once more, before I die.
Far from everything, and far from myself.
In spite of its unimpeachable sincerity of feeling and its careful recording of experience, there is nothing in this poem to distinguish it from the hundreds like it that crowd the pages of literary journals and innumerable volumes issued each year by university press publishing series.
Whether or not you believe poetry should be committed to memory, one of its distinguishing features is that it can be. “Memorable speech” is one of the most concise and durable def-initions of poetry. And All of Us does, in fact, contain a number of memorable poems. But they are not quite memorable as poems. After reading through this collection, what you remember are not lines, or even images, but scenes: the wife assaulting her husband on an airplane (“Miracle”); the drowned boy fished out of a river by a helicopter (“Lemon-ade”); the child bringing his ailing, thirsty father a glass of soapy dish-water to drink (“Suspenders”). And any number of half-humorous, half-sad recollections of drunkenness, debauchery, and squalor:
Later, in the living room,
thinking everyone had gone out for hamburgers,
she blew him in front of the TV. Then said,
“Happy birthday, you son of a bitch!” And slapped his
glasses off. The glasses he’d been wearing
while she made love to him. I walked into the room
and said, “Friends, don’t do this to each other.”
She didn’t flinch a muscle or wonder aloud
which rock I’d come out from under. All she said was
“Who asked you, hobo-urine?”
(“Union Street: San Francisco, Summer 1975”)
At the beginning of the story “Why Don’t You Dance?” a nameless man drinks whiskey and stares through his kitchen window at the contents of his house, arranged in the front yard:
The chiffonier stood a few feet from the foot of the bed. He had emptied the drawers into cartons that morning, and the cartons were in the living room. A portable heater was next to the chiffonier. A rattan chair with a decorator pillow stood at the foot of the bed. The buffed aluminum kitchen set took up a part of the driveway. A yellow muslin cloth, much too large, a gift, covered the table and hung down over the sides. A potted fern was on the table, along with a box of silverware and a record player, also gifts.
In some ways, All of Us resembles this tableau—the interior furnishings of a life dragged out into the sunlight, where they seem incongruous and, at the same time, desperately sad. The pathos of “Why Don’t You Dance?”—surely a case of ordinary objects acquiring power by being rendered in ordinary language—intensifies when we learn, early on in the collected poems, that the man at the window is Carver himself. “Distress Sale” begins with a catalog of household goods:
Early one Sunday morning everything outside—
the child’s canopy bed and vanity table,
the sofa, end tables and lamps, boxes
of assorted books and records.
These things belong to someone else, a family reduced to selling off all their possessions. The speaker is a friend—“I’m staying with them, trying to dry out”—whose sympathy is both deepened and limited by the fact that he’s not much better off than they are: “I reach for my wallet and that is how I understand it:/I can’t help anyone.”
In fact, as Carver recorded in poems like “Bankruptcy” and “The Miracle,” he and his first wife, Maryann, were twice forced to declare bankruptcy. And the hardships of Carver’s early adulthood—the alcoholism, the financial insecurity, the cruelties and betrayals that finally wrecked his marriage—turn up again and again in his poetry. As Gallagher puts it, “Ray’s appetite for inventorying domestic havoc is often relentless.” “Inventory” is perhaps more apt than Gallagher would wish, given the formal slackness of so many of the poems, but the poems in All of Us will serve, for serious readers of Carver’s fiction, as a useful storehouse of biographical information, and as irrefutable cumulative evidence of how closely bound up Carver’s stories are with the events and circumstances of his life.
All of Us is hardly the first such evidence. “None of my stories really happened, of course,” Carver once wrote, “but most of them bear a resemblance, however faint, to certain life occurrences or situations.” This is from “Fires,” the title essay of a collection of poems, essays, and stories Carver published in 1983, following the success of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please in 1976 and the even greater triumph of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in 1981. “Fires” is about influence, which for Carver has little to do with lessons learned from other writers:
So I don’t know about literary influences. But I do have some notions about other kinds of influences. The influences I know something about have pressed on me in ways that were often mysterious at first glance, sometimes stopping just short of the miraculous. But these influences have become clear to me as my work has progressed. These influences were (and they still are) relentless. These were the influences that sent me in this direction, onto this spit of land instead of some other—that one over there on the far side of the lake, for example. But if the main influence on my life and writing has been a negative one, oppressive and often malevolent, as I believe is the case, what am I to make of this?
He is talking about his children: “Theirs is the main influence.” “There were good times back there, of course,” he allows, reflecting on his life as a husband, a father, and a drunk; “certain grown-up pleasures and satisfactions that only parents have access to. But I’d take poison before I’d go through that time again.”
Short of declaring a wish to kill his children (which Carver does in a poem called “On an Old Photograph of My Son”), this is perhaps the most horrifying thing a father can say, and Carver’s candor makes it all the more monstrous. He is not the kind of man who exaggerates; he means what he says. It may be a small relief (but then again, maybe not), to discover that, at least in “Fires,” Carver does not hold a specific grudge against his children as individuals. Rather, they seem to have exercised their malign influence simply by existing; they serve as a convenient synecdoche for the forces and obligations that formed and deformed Carver’s work—what he calls, quoting D.H. Lawrence, the “grip and slog” of daily life, “the unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction” of parenthood. Carver, it turns out, did not come to the short story and the short lyric out of any sense of vocation, but rather because, in the fleeting interstices between work (“in those days I always worked some crap job or another, and my wife did the same”) and domestic duty he needed to write “things I could sit down and, with any luck, write quickly and have done with.”
“Fires” is a disconcerting piece, at once utterly forthright and maddeningly evasive, painful in its details and yet, for a writer so adamantly committed to concreteness, oddly abstract, as if the full awfulness of Carver’s family life had to be wrapped in commonplaces and generalities:
For years my wife and I had held to a belief that if we worked hard and tried to do the right things, the right things would happen. It’s not such a bad thing to build a life on. Hard work, goals, good intentions, loyalty, we believed these were virtues and would someday be rewarded. We dreamt when we had the time for it. But, eventually, we realized that hard work and dreams were not enough. Somewhere, in Iowa City maybe, or shortly afterwards, in Sacramento, the dreams began to go bust.
This kind of reticence, the balked, clumsy attempt to express an experience paralyzing in its enormity and yet at the same time resolutely ordinary—the destruction of a family—resembles the way many of the characters in Carver’s stories express themselves. At the end of “Why Don’t You Dance?,” for example, the point of view shifts from the man at the window to a young woman who had stopped with her boyfriend to check out the junk on the man’s lawn:
Weeks later, she said: “The guy was about middle-aged. All his things right there in his yard. No lie. We got real pissed and danced. In the driveway. Oh, my God. Don’t laugh. He played us these records. Look at this record-player. The old guy gave it to us. And all these crappy records. Will you look at this shit?”
She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she gave up trying.
The girl knows she has witnessed something terrible, but lacks the resources—quite literally, the vocabulary—to explain to herself or anyone else what she has seen. She can only say what happened, and it isn’t enough—there is more to it. But in her inarticulate state she is not much different from the narrator of the story, or indeed, as the poems and essays suggest, from Carver himself. And yet, the girl’s inability to say more, when coupled with Carver’s refusal to say more—the words husband, wife, divorce, alcoholism, bankruptcy, and despair occur nowhere in the story—manages to say it all.
To his admirers, Carver’s taciturnity becomes its own kind of eloquence. But critics, especially those who are bothered by Carver’s disproportionate influence on other writers, have complained about how much he leaves out. For Sven Birkerts, writing in 1986, the fiction of Carver and his followers is marked by “a total refusal of any vision of larger social connection.” And it is true that the inhabitants of Carver’s world appear to exist not only in states of isolation and impermanence, but, to borrow a phrase from George W.S. Trow, in a context of no context, without geographical, social, or historical coordinates. We seldom learn the name of the town, or even the state, in which a given story takes place. The stories tend to be devoid of the cultural and commercial references—popular songs, brand names, movies—that so many contemporary writers use to fix their narratives in time and space. And though Carver began writing in the early 1960s, and came to prominence over the next two decades, his stories, at first glance, take no notice of the social and political tumult of the era. We never know who the president is, or whether men have walked on the moon; the characters never read newspapers; and nobody expresses any political interests or opinions. As far as I can tell, Vietnam is mentioned exactly once: in “Vitamins” the leering, predatory behavior of a black man named Nelson—one of the very few nonwhite characters who appear in Carver’s work—is ascribed to the fact that he is a veteran just returned from combat in Southeast Asia.
Carver’s people often exist not only outside history and politics, but beyond psychology, unless the psychology in question is Skinnerian behaviorism. Their thoughts are typically left unreported; they are creatures of simple speech and sudden action:
She unbuttoned her coat and put her purse down on the counter. She looked at L.D. and said, “L.D., I’ve had it. So has Rae. So has everyone who knows you. I’ve been thinking it over. I want you out of here. Tonight. This minute. Now. Get the hell out of here right now.”
L.D. had no intention of going anywhere. He looked from Maxine to the jar of pickles that had been on the table since lunch. He picked up the jar and pitched it through the kitchen window.
The jaggedness, the deadpan narration, the rigorous refusal of any inflection of language that would suggest interpretation, judgment, or inwardness—these are the aspects of Carver’s style that inspired people to think of him as a minimalist. The passage above is from “One More Thing,” which, like “Why Don’t You Dance?,” appears both in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and in Where I’m Calling From. The earlier book, which did a great deal to solidify Carver’s reputation as an important voice in American fiction in the 1980s, has also done him lasting damage. It was on this book that the editorial hand of Gordon Lish fell most heavily, as Lish cut, rearranged, and rewrote freely, without regard for Carver’s wishes or feelings. According to Tess Gallagher, “Ray felt the book, even at the time of its publication, did not represent the main thrust of his writing, nor his true pulse and instinct in the work. He had, in fact, even begged Gordon Lish, to no avail, not to publish the book in this misbegotten version.”
Carver, it seems to me, was well within his rights. He was also, as a matter of literary judgment, right. There has been much discussion of the changes Lish imposed on two stories in particular, “The Bath” (which Carver had originally and would subsequently title “A Small, Good Thing”) and “So Much Water So Close to Home.” The Lish versions are jarring and, briefly, horrifying: the stories, like the people who inhabit them, seem violently discombobulated. In “The Bath,” events happen almost at random, and crucial information—for instance, whether a child is alive or dead—is cruelly, capriciously, withheld. At the end of “So Much Water So Close to Home,” a woman who has felt increasingly estranged from her husband after learning that he and some friends had discovered a girl’s dead body on a fishing trip, and had continued to fish rather than alert the authorities, suddenly submits to his sexual advances.
Carver lost no time in correcting his erstwhile mentor’s violations. He put “A Small, Good Thing,” in which the child recovers from his coma, in Cathedral, and included a restored version of “So Much Water So Close to Home,” a study of a woman falling out of love and into depression, in Fires. But there are other comparisons available that reveal just how badly Carver’s editor—and, in consequence, many of his critics—misjudged him. Consider two passages. The first is from “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit,” which appeared in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the second from a longer, earlier version of the same story, called “Where is Everyone?,” as it appeared in Fires.
I left my mother with the man on her sofa and drove around for a while. When I got home, Myrna made me a coffee.
She went out to the kitchen to do it while I waited until I heard her running water. Then I reached under a cushion for the bottle.
I left my mother with the man on her sofa and drove around for a while, not wanting to go home and not wanting to sit in a bar that day either.
Sometimes Cynthia and I would talk about things—“reviewing the situation,” we’d call it. But now and then on rare occasions we’d talk a little about things that bore no relation to the situation. One afternoon we were in the living room and she said, “When I was pregnant with Mike you carried me to the bathroom when I was so sick and pregnant I couldn’t get out of bed. You carried me. No one else will ever do that, no one else could ever love me in that way, that much. We have that, no matter what. We’ve loved each other like nobody else could or ever will love the other again.”
We looked at each other. Maybe we touched hands, I don’t recall. Then I remembered the half-pint of whisky or vodka or gin or Scotch or tequila that I’d hidden under the very sofa cushion we were sitting on and I began to hope she might soon have to get up and move around—go to the kitchen, the bathroom, out to clean the garage.
“Maybe you could make us some coffee,” I said. “A pot of coffee might be nice.”
“Would you eat something? I can fix some soup.”
“Maybe I could eat something, but I’ll for sure drink a cup of coffee.”
She went out to the kitchen. I waited until I heard her begin to run water. Then I reached under the cushion for the bottle, unscrewed the lid, and drank.
I never told those things at AA. I never said much at the meetings. I’d “pass” as they called it when it came your turn to speak and you didn’t say anything except “I’ll pass tonight, thanks.” But I would listen and shake my head and laugh in recognition of the awful stories I heard. Usually I was drunk when I went to those meetings. You’re scared and you need something more than cookies and instant coffee.
These two selections can be taken to illustrate a great many things, not the least of which is why people still read Raymond Carver, while nobody bothers much with the other once-celebrated members of the “school of Lish” (like Barry Hannah, Janet Kauffman, Mary Robison, or Raymond Kennedy), or with the ever-prolific Gordon Lish himself. It is hard to give an adequate summary of what has been stripped away from “Where is Everyone?” to make “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit”—humanity, for starters—but it’s worth noting the idiomatic and stylistic blunders that have been added. Most Americans—certainly the kind of people Carver writes about—would never say “made me a coffee”; they would say “made me some coffee.” And to say “I reached under the couch cushion for the bottle” without establishing that a bottle was there in the first place may be an attempt at alcoholic humor (no drunk is ever far from the sauce), but it comes across as sloppy.
In any case, this kind of knowing joke at the expense of a character is entirely alien to Carver’s sensibility. The people in “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit” are jerked around like puppets, without intelligible motive or meaningful engagement with each other. Alcoholism and adultery, the données of this story as of so many of Carver’s early pieces, consist in the Lish version simply of repeated actions: drinking and cheating. The relationships in which they work their damage are already so blasted, so minimal, that episodes of drunkenness or infidelity elicit no real pathos, but only a grim chuckle or a grimace of disgust. There is certainly nothing in the way of recognition: these characters are not like any people we know, because they aren’t people.
Reaching under the couch cushion for the bottle is, in “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit,” a purely mechanical action, like a sitcom gag. (Wife exits. Husband reaches under cushion. Laughter.) But the same action, in “Where is Everyone?,” is at once funnier and more pathetic. Alcoholism is, in the longer story, a mental condition, in which the need for a drink will trump every other motive or feeling, and in which dishonesty is less a strategy than a reflex. (Or, as Carver says in a poem called “Luck,” “I…wanted to give up/friends, love, starry skies,/for a house where no one/was home, no one coming back,/and all I could drink.”) And the quoted passage manages, with exemplary verbal economy, to establish both the narrator’s sincerity and his deviousness. His misfortune is simultaneously nobody’s fault and nobody else’s.
For Lish, the paring of a story down to its verbal and narrative skeleton was a mode of formal experimentation—a trick, if you will. The kind of writing he championed in the 1980s was not an antidote to the antirealist, avant-garde impulse of the 1960s and 1970s, of writers like John Barth and Donald Barthelme, but rather its most extreme expression. The refusal of explanation, the resistance to psychology, and the deliberate impoverishment of language reflect, on Lish’s part, an aesthetic choice, and it is clear that he saw affinities between Carver’s plain manner and his own stark vision. But the aesthetic principles that Carver discovered in the course of his literary education—from his readings in the modernist tradition, from his first teacher, the novelist John Gardner, and from Lish himself—were ultimately less important than the ethical commitments that are the deepest source of his work.
Carver’s Poetry essay, while it records the beginning of a literary education, is equally the manifesto of an autodidact, a person dimly, acutely conscious of a vocation (“the need to ‘write something”’) yet without access to the learning that would enable him to make good on it. There is something unmistakably poignant in the mature Carver’s gentle evocation of his youthful innocence: “I’d never seen a personal library before”; “it was a mystery to me then just what ‘edited by’ meant”; “right there in my hand was visible proof that there were responsible people somewhere out in the great world who produced, sweet Jesus, a monthly magazine of poetry.” But there is also a note of almost defiant class consciousness, a reminder that literature is not part of everyone’s birthright. Carver’s parents, Clevie Raymond (C.R.) and Ella Casey Carver, had migrated during the Great Depression from Arkansas to Oregon, where Carver was born in 1938. C.R. worked as a laborer in sawmills and lumber camps around the Northwest until 1957, when he was disabled by illness, alcohol, and a nervous breakdown. The hard circumstances of Carver’s boyhood figure occasionally in his fiction (notably in “The Third Thing that Killed My Father Off”), and more frequently in his poems:
The people who were better than us were comfortable.
They lived in painted houses with flush toilets.
Drove cars whose year and make were recognizable.
The ones worse off were sorry and didn’t work.
Their strange cars sat on blocks in dusty yards.
“I’m much more interested in my characters,” Carver once told an interviewer, “in the people in my story, than I am in any potential reader.” This is a statement of artistic priorities, to be sure, but it also amounts to an expression of solidarity. Carver’s characters are a lot like him: they marry too young, divorce too late, and drink too much. Their midlife crises occur in their early thirties. They are menaced by debt and sporadically employed. Childhood in Carver’s world consists of the uncomprehending, often brutal imitation of adults; adulthood, which comes suddenly and irreversibly, is a state of mourning for lost possibilities punctuated by eruptions of childishness. The desire for permanence, for stability, for home and family and steady work, is perpetually at war with the impulse to flee, to strike it rich, or just to be left alone.
The spareness of Carver’s style represents not parsimoniousness, but tact. It represents, above all, an absolute loyalty to the people he writes about. It’s as if Carver, in deciding to become the kind of person who has his own library, and who will someday see his own name under the words “edited by,” at the same time swore to remain true not only to the delivery boy he had been, but to that boy’s original state of ignorance. In his recent introduction to The Best American Stories of the Twentieth Century, John Updike writes, somewhat ruefully, that the fiction of Carver and fellow minimalists like Barthelme and Ann Beattie involves “a withdrawal of authorial guidance, an existential determination to let things speak out of their own silence.” This is well put, but it would be more accurate in Carver’s case to say that he is motivated by a moral determination to let persons speak out of their own deep reticence. The exercise of authorial guidance would imply, for him, an unprincipled claim to omniscience, an assertion that he knows more than his characters and is, therefore, better than they are.
To read Where I’m Calling From from beginning to end, supplemented by some of the stories from earlier collections that Carver chose not to reprint, is to discover that a great deal of what is supposed to be missing—in particular, the changing social landscape of the United States—has been there all along, but that it has been witnessed from a perspective almost without precedent in American literature. Stories like “What Do You Do in San Francisco?” and “After the Denim” record the curious, suspicious, and disgusted reactions of the small-town working class to interlopers from the urban, well-to-do counterculture. “Jerry and Molly and Sam,” “Nobody Said Anything,” and “Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes,” among others, are ultimately about how the spread of the suburbs transformed family life, and about the crisis of masculinity that resulted. Carver’s work, read closely and in the aggregate, also carries a lot of news about feminism, working conditions, and substance abuse in late-twentieth-century provincial America.
To generalize in this way is, of course, to engage in a kind of analytical discourse Carver resolutely mistrusted. More often than not, the big talkers in Carver’s stories are in possession of a degree of class privilege. “My friend Mel McGinnis was talking,” goes the famous opening of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” “Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.” The imperious homeowner in “Put Yourself in My Shoes” and the jealous college teacher in “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” also come to mind. People who carry on as if they know what they’re talking about are regarded with suspicion. Carver’s greatest sympathy is reserved for those characters who struggle to use language to make sense of things, but who founder or fail in the attempt.
It is striking how many of his stories turn on the inability or refusal of people to say what happened. Think of the girl at the end of “Why Don’t You Dance?,” unable to convey the fullness of what she has seen on the strange man’s lawn, or the narrator of “Where is Everyone?,” clamming up at his AA meetings. And there are many more examples. “Why, Honey?” is a mother’s desperate, almost incoherent, and yet strangely formal effort (“Dear Sir,” it begins) to explain to a nameless, prying stranger how her darling son went wrong. In “Distance” (also published as “Everything Stuck to Him”), a father, asked by his grown daughter to tell her “what it was like when she was a kid,” produces a fairy tale of young parenthood (the main characters in which are referred to only as “the boy” and “the girl”) that leaves both teller and listener unsettled, unenlightened, and remote from each other.
And then there is “Cathedral,” one of Carver’s most beloved stories and the closest thing he produced to an allegory of his own method. The narrator is visited by a garrulous blind man, an old friend of his wife’s, whose arrival he anticipates with apprehension. The two men end up smoking marijuana together, while the television airs a documentary about the cathedrals of Europe. It starts to bother the narrator that his new acquaintance, while he knows something about the history of church-building, has no idea of what cathedrals really are, and he tries to tell him about them:
“They’re really big,” I said. “They’re massive. They’re built of stone. Marble, too, sometimes. In those olden days, when they built cathedrals, men wanted to be close to God. In those olden days, God was an important part of everyone’s life. You could tell this from their cathedral-building. I’m sorry,” I said, “but it looks like that’s the best I can do for you. I’m just no good at it.”
The blind man proposes that they draw a cathedral instead, and they do—the narrator’s eyes closed, the blind man’s hand guiding his. The narrator undergoes an epiphany: “It was like nothing else in my life up to now.”
The reader is left out: the men’s shared experience, visual and tactile, is beyond the reach of words. But the frustrating vicariousness of the story is also the source of its power. Art, according to Carver, is a matter of the blind leading the tongue-tied. Carver was an artist of a rare and valuable kind: he told simple stories, and made it look hard.
D.T. Max, "The Carver Chronicles," The New York Times Magazine, August 9, 1998.↩
D.T. Max, “The Carver Chronicles,” The New York Times Magazine, August 9, 1998.↩