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The Two Raymond Carvers

Like his protagonist, Carver doesn’t quite seem to know how to make an exit: his prose flails and stammers in its effort to wring as much excitement from the scene as possible (“It came to him with a shock,” “He was terrified to think”), before petrifying into the mawkish tableau of the final sentence. It all seems rather un-Carveresque.

Here is the Lish version:

L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm and picked up the suitcase.

He said, “I just want to say one more thing.”

But then he could not think what it could possibly be.

Compared to this, the original climax has the weightless intensity of a soap opera (“Is this what love is, L.D.?”), in which people broadcast their emotions to one another in stentorian italics. Carver had deployed an entire arsenal where in fact, as Lish shows, a well-placed sniper is all that is needed. It is not only both funny and poignant that L.D. should find himself at a loss for words at such an instant. It also feels inevitable. Once we read it for the first time, it’s difficult to imagine the story ending any other way (the same can surely not be said of the earlier draft). Of course, we think, a man who is not above stealing the toothpaste from his wife and daughter—Lish, by the way, has him take the dental floss as well—would forget what he had to say. A lifetime of bungling, failure, humiliation, and deceit seems to be disclosed in a single moment.

Carver is most often thought of as the master of such moments, as a writer who, like his hero Chekhov, excelled at representing people not quite finding the right words for things. Casting one’s eye back and forth between Beginners and What We Talk About, however, it becomes increasingly clear that to a large degree it was Lish who created this reticence, this emphasis on the unsaid. Like the original version of “One More Thing,” many of the stories in Beginners—“So Much Water So Close to Home,” “A Small, Good Thing,” “Want to See Something?” “Beginners” itself—end with outbursts, with passionate speeches and pronouncements in which characters finally manage to give voice to their emotions. Almost none of this survived Lish’s scrutiny; it was either excised or radically condensed.

Henry James once said that in art, economy is beauty. This is something Lish understood far better than Carver. The brilliance of his editorial husbandry is apparent on almost every page. In “The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off” we find Lish reining in the rhetorical excesses of the original, so that this mannered sub-Faulknerian description of a drowned neighbor’s hand being exhumed from a lake—

For myself, I knew I wouldn’t forget the sight of that arm emerging out of the water. Like some kind of mysterious and terrible signal, it seemed to herald the misfortune that dogged our family in the coming years.

—is transformed into the wry, demotic stoicism of:

That arm coming up and going back down in the water, it was like so long to good times and hello to bad. Because it was nothing but that all the years after Dummy drowned himself in that dark water.

3.

Carver, then, was not speaking idly when he said that Lish held an “irredeemable note.” As we learn from Carol Sklenicka’s new biography, however, Lish was by no means the only person to whom Carver was in the hole. Debt—emotional, artistic, financial—was one of the central themes of his life. Carver was born in Clatskanie, Oregon, in 1938, the son of a sawmill worker, from whom he would inherit a taste for both alcohol and restless wandering. He was only nineteen when he married his high school sweetheart, Maryann Burk, who had herself graduated from high school less than a week earlier. Children soon followed, and with them came, as Carver put it, nineteen years of “unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction.” He held a series of “crap jobs”—janitor, drugstore clerk—that he would later pass on to his characters, but it was Maryann who took on most of the work, hoping to give her husband as much time as possible to devote to his writing.

Drunkenness frequently came between Carver and his craft, and Sklenicka’s book is, among other things, a catalog of increasingly depraved drinking stories. Carver gets drunk at a restaurant and steals a pepper grinder. Carver gets drunk at home and ruins Christmas. Carver gets drunk at a party and throws a glass at his wife’s head. Drunkenness also had a way of coming between Carver and his family’s money. During this period they filed twice for bankruptcy protection.

The couple separated in 1976. Carver quit drinking the following year. “I’m prouder of that,” he once said, “than I am of anything in my life.” He spent his last eleven years with the poet Tess Gallagher, whom he married in 1988, the year he died of lung cancer at the age of fifty. Gallagher became an important reader of his early drafts and was also essential to his ongoing sobriety.
Sklenicka has done exhaustive research (she began interviewing people in 1994) and, as you would expect, Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life is bursting with valuable information. It is not, however, a distinguished book. It contains little in the way of sensitive textual analysis. Sklenicka mines the stories for biographical data but does so with little delicacy or discrimination. “Collectors,” for example, written in the mid-1970s during the nadir of his alcoholism, is cited as

evidence that Carver understood himself to be finished. No longer was he the writer and man named Raymond Carver: he was a nameless bankrupt and drunk whose wife had little use for him, ready for the dustbin of history.

This is a curious surmise. Why would someone who no longer thinks of himself as a writer decide to write a story about the fact?

Sklenica is no better at describing the historical and cultural background of Carver’s life. She sees late-1960s America, for example, as a time when

Nihilism and carpe diem alternated to create a sense that nothing mattered and you could get away with anything. Women went without bras, and men and women alike uttered angry profanities to display minds as unfettered as their bodies.

Elsewhere we get useless juxtapositions, such as: “In 1960, as John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon ran for president, Lish, now twenty-six, began teaching English at Mills High School in the suburb of Millbrae.” And: “In January 1980, as Jimmy Carter’s presidency limped through its final year and Ronald Reagan’s first presidential campaign gathered momentum, Ray moved to Syracuse.” It is unfortunate that Sklenicka did not have someone like Gordon Lish to shape this book into something more thoughtful and illuminating.

4.

After the success of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Carver’s relationship with Lish began to sour. “Being around Ray and Gordon in the early 1980s,” said one mutual friend, “was like watching a marriage go bad.” During preparations for his next book, Cathedral (1983), Carver made it clear he would not “undergo the kind of surgical amputation and transplant that might make [the new stories] someway fit into the carton so the lid will close.” Reluctantly, Lish complied. Sending him an edited version of one of the stories that would appear in Cathedral, Lish said the work he’d done on it represented the “minimum” he felt was possible: “to do less than this would be, in my judgment, to expose you too greatly.” Like a host who keeps the lights low so as to conceal the stains on the carpet and the dents in the walls, Lish suggests, the constraints imposed on Carver’s first two collections were necessary to mask the limitations of his writing.

This is a harsh judgment, harshly phrased, but there is some truth to it. As Lish’s influence receded, Carver’s fiction became more conventional. Silences dwindle; there is more loose talk; the emotional volume is turned up. In “Fever,” a high school teacher, Carlyle, befriends an elderly woman, Mrs. Webster, whom he has hired to babysit his young children after his wife leaves him for another man. When, toward the end of the story, Mrs. Webster tells him that she and her husband have decided to leave the area, she inadvertently uncaps a geyser of schmaltz:

Mrs. Webster, there’s something I want you to know. For a long time, my wife and I loved each other more than anything or anybody in the world. And that includes those children. We thought, well, we knew that we’d grow old together. And we knew we’d do all the things in the world that we wanted to do, and do them together.

When Carlyle pauses, Mrs. Webster presses him to continue, as it dawns on us that she is little more than the emissary of Carver’s sentimentalism:

I know what you’re saying. You just keep talking, Mr. Carlyle. Sometimes it’s good to talk about it. Sometimes it has to be talked about. Besides, I want to hear it. And you’re going to feel better afterwards. Something just like it happened to me once, something like what you’re describing. Love. That’s what it is.

There is nothing at all poignant about writing with such naked designs on our emotions. One can’t help reading this passage through the eyes of Lish, who understood that fiction has to stalk its prey with less noise and greater cunning.

Still, there are several post-Lish masterpieces, stories like “Feathers,” “Where I’m Calling From,” and “Whoever Was Using This Bed,” that one can be glad Lish did not edit. The title story from Cathedral is one of the best Carver ever wrote. Free from the garrulous sentimentality that sinks “Fever” (and most of Beginners), it nevertheless achieves an emotional range that Carver felt to be lacking from his earlier work. Without understanding why, the narrator is agitated by the visit of one of his wife’s old friends, a blind man for whom she used to work. After dinner the two men smoke marijuana together while watching a television documentary about European cathedrals. It occurs to the narrator that the blind man must have only a vague notion of what cathedrals are. He tries to describe them:

To begin with, they’re very tall…. They reach way up. Up and up. Toward the sky. They’re so big, some of them, they have to have these supports. To help hold them up, so to speak. These supports are called buttresses. They remind me of viaducts, for some reason. But maybe you don’t know viaducts, either?

He soon realizes, however, that he isn’t “getting through to him.” One can imagine Lish ending the story here, at a moment of stalled speech. It is also possible to conceive of a younger, less-assured Carver launching the narrator or the blind man into a lachrymose personal confession. The story does something different. At the blind man’s suggestion they draw a cathedral together, the blind man holding the narrator’s hand. It is an oddly moving scene that builds to a note rarely struck in the Lish stories—one of cautious affirmation. When they are finished the blind man asks the narrator how it looks:

But I had my eyes closed. I thought I’d keep them that way for a little longer. I thought it was something I ought to do.

Well?” he said. “Are you looking?”

My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.

It’s really something,” I said.

The publication of Beginners has not done Carver any favors. Rather, it has inadvertently pointed up the editorial genius of Gordon Lish. There are certainly some fine stories among Carver’s later work and they should make us grateful that he ultimately broke with his editor; and yet it is unlikely that we would be reading the later stories at all were it not for Lish’s transformation of What We Talk About.

Still, it is the stories themselves, and not their genesis, that will continue to seize and hold attention. Like Maxwell Perkins’s editing of Look Homeward Angel (which cut 90,000 words from Thomas Wolfe’s manuscript) or Ezra Pound’s liberation of “The Waste Land” from inside the welter of T.S. Eliot’s inauspiciously titled first draft, “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” we are likely to end up viewing Lish’s involvement with Carver as a footnote, incidental to our appreciation of the finished work. Readers of the Collected Stories would do well to remember a remark of Pound’s, which Carver himself once quoted in an interview: “It’s immensely important that great poems be written, but it makes not a jot of difference who writes them.”

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