Twenty-five years ago today [August 2], the literary world lost a star in his prime. I came to Raymond Carver relatively late in life. Given that much of his work is barely thirty years old, little of it is taught in classrooms. Yet given today’s society with Americans marrying later and having kids later, perhaps discovering Carver before one’s 30th birthday is premature. Picking up a Carver story, with its myriad references to drinking and the America of the time, takes me back to my childhood in the ‘80s, the smell of a lime wedge floating on my father’s gin and tonic, the sound of ice rattling in that half full glass.
By his mid twenties, Carver himself was a father of two and an abusive alcoholic who had nearly killed his wife Maryann (accidentally, if that matters) in a jealous rage. Frequent moves and odd jobs littered his resume during that time. “What Do You Do in San Francisco” capped that decade of his life and told the story of a postman whose curiosity is piqued by the new, young Bohemian couple on his route. They’ve just moved in. But as the story progresses, the postman notices that one has moved out.
In the mid-1970s, Carver published two haunting stories: “So Much Water So Close to Home” and “Are These Actual Miles?” The first, published in 1974, is told from the perspective of a submissive wife. Carver begins:
My husband eats with a good appetite, but he seems tired, edgy. He chews slowly, arms on table, and stares at something across the room. He looks at me and looks away again. He wipes his mouth on the napkin. He shrugs and goes on eating. Something has come between us though he would like me to believe otherwise.
“Something” is one way to put it. As the story unfolds, we discover the wife is trying to make sense of and come to terms with the rape and murder of a young woman that her brutish husband and his fishing buddies may have been involved in. She later remarks: “So much water so close to home, why did he have to go miles away to fish?” Her strength grows throughout the story, though the reader knows this woman will never leave her husband, regardless of what he has or hasn’t done. “For God sakes, Stuart,” she cries out at the end, unable to contain her revulsion and revealing a horror that Conrad’s Marlowe could not at the end of Heart of Darkness, “she was only a child.”
“Are These Actual Miles?” focuses on a down-and-out couple trying to put together a few dollars to stay financially afloat. The man pimps–er, sends out his wife to sell their car only to spend the evening wondering if she may be selling a little more than just a couple of tons of metal and four tires.
The track of genius is personal and varied. There are those, for example, who believe Ernest Hemingway–another master of the short form–was best when he was young, and his work deteriorated precipitously in the waning years of his life. There’s an argument there, and the possible reasons for such a decline in his case are multiple. Carver’s path, however, was much the opposite. His stories grew stronger as he entered what should have been his mid-career in the 1980s. He had sobered up and remarried.
“Where I’m Calling From” (1983), which may go down as his best in a bucket full of shiny apples, could only have been written with the maturity and poise of a man entering this new phase of his life, recently divorced and fully committed to sobriety. It begins:
J.P. and I are on the front porch of Frank Martin’s drying-out facility. Like the rest of us at Frank Martin’s, J.P. is first and foremost a drunk. But he’s also a chimney sweep. It’s his first time here, and he’s scared. I’ve been here once before. What’s to say? I’m back.
We learn about J.P., how he became a chimney sweep, how he found himself in his mid-twenties with a wife and two kids. “I was happy with the way things were going,” J.P. tells us. Then the narrator (who remains nameless) jumps in: “But for some reason–who knows why we do what we do?–[J.P.’s] drinking picks up.” J.P. and his wife Roxy begin a physically abusive relationship that spirals out of control. J.P. ends up telling his story at Frank Martin’s “facility.” Knowing Carver’s life, it’s hard to distinguish J.P., the narrator, and Carver himself. Their stories are one in the same.
Carver’s genius may not only have been a product of his own mind but also those with whom he collaborated. In the early 1970s, his friendship with Esquire’s Gordon Lish led to the magazine running several of his stories. However, between a 2007 piece in The New Yorker and Carol Sklenicka’s 2009 biography of the writer, it’s apparent that at least some of Carver’s published work was a product of heavy, perhaps overbearing, editing.
The New Yorker piece showed exactly what Lish added and removed from just one of Carver’s stories. Judging from word count, much more was removed (thank God) than added. So at least the majority of the words are actually Carver’s. However, the draft Carver turned over to Lish ran at more than 9,000 words. It was called “Beginners.”
With ax in hand, Lish set to work. Within hours his face must have been flush, sweat beads pooling on the floor. He might even have had to stop and resharpen that blade with the copious cutting that was taking place. When he was finished Carver’s story weighed in at fewer than 5,000 words. Whole pages were calved off; sentences were minutely altered down to a word or comma; and the title was changed to the now-famous “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Whether the resulting story was more Carver or Lish, is a matter of philosophy. The story’s perfect regardless.
Our Aristotelean fetish with categorization tends to make us pigeonhole artists. Carver’s work, for example, was labeled “dirty realist” and “minimalist.” As labels are wont to do, both are misleading. Yes, Carver’s protagonists generally had little formal education beyond high school and spent their days toiling under the yoke of the blue collar. (Although a notable exception is Mel the cardiologist in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”) However, at least half of America fit that profile during the 1960s and 1970s. And the alcohol abuse that was pervasive throughout his work was merely in step with the America of the time. Alcohol consumption in the U.S. grew during his early career and peaked in the late ‘70s/early ‘80s.
If Carver’s scaled-down stories are to be pegged as minimalist, they are more akin to minimally invasive surgery. It’s still surgery after all. And like a surgeon, Carver focused not on the entire body but only that part that he was concerned with at the time. He peeled back the character and drama inherent in a polaroid not a photo album, keeping in step with Hemingway’s admonition that “all bad writers are in love with the epic.”
Carver never published a novel. He devoted his literary life to short fiction and poetry before succumbing to lung cancer in 1988 at age 50. I was seven and would not hear about the man for another twenty years.
A great introduction to Raymond Carver can be found in a collection of his stories titled Where I’m Calling From. Inside, you’ll find a few of the best:
“What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”–two couples talk about different ideas of love.
“Where I’m Calling From”–an alcoholic recounts his experience at a rehab.
“What Do You Do In San Francisco?”–a postman meets the new neighbors who don’t quite fit in.
“Are These Actual Miles?”–a couple needs money but the woman needs more.
“Neighbors”–watching their neighbors’ place for a few days, a couple find out more about themselves.
“Put Yourself in My Shoes”–a writer gets a condescending lecture from a non-writer on what makes a good story.