One bright morning 20 years ago, I was invited to a somber little bar at the Hotel Durant in Berkeley to meet Raymond Carver and his wife Maryann. The occasion was not complicated on my part by any sense of future greatness, but it did strike me that Ray was unusually watchful for such a large man.
I saw something like that watchfulness in the early stories. They were minatory in manner, bleakly comic, instinct with Carver’s abiding sense of the fearfulness of ordinary life. Reading them, I thought of Auden’s lines: “And the crack in the tea-cup opens / A lane to the land of the dead.” In Carver country, you must substitute for the tea-cup a jam jar filled with drugstore gin.
Not long before he died, Carver wrote: “I’ve had two lives. My first ended in 1977, when I stopped drinking.” His new life was spent with the poet Tess Gallagher (whom he later married), first in Syracuse and then in Port Angeles, Wash., after a large grant freed him from teaching.
Fame came in a rush in the last five years, after the publication of “Cathedral.” Now the stories appeared in the New Yorker instead of in little magazines. His writing desk was photographed for Saturday Review. In “Bech Is Back,” John Updike savaged him: “Like a fuzzy sock being ejected by a tumble-dryer there was flung toward Bech the shapeless face of Vernon Klegg, the American Kafka, whose austere minimalist renderings of kitchen spats and disheveled mobile homes were the rage of writers’ conferences and federal and state arts councils.”
“Where I’m Calling From,” Carver’s 1988 collection of new and selected stories, was received as the work of an acknowledged master. When he died of lung cancer at 50 in 1989, the London obituaries noted the passing of the “American Chekhov.”
Was he the American Chekhov? I myself do not recognize the Europeanized writer-saint who emerges so radiantly in Sam Halpert’s fine book of interviews, ". . . When We Talk About Raymond Carver,” and in tributes published elsewhere (Tobias Wolff writes of his “Chekhovian alertness”). Like Flannery O’Connor, Carver had a streak of cruelty in his literary makeup, and often in the stories cruelty and self-pity play through black comedy in combinations that could not be less like Chekhov’s all-comprehending compassion.
“That morning she pours Teacher’s over my belly and licks it off. That afternoon she tries to jump out the window.” This is, probably, a kind of Carver joke. It is not Chekhovian in spirit. The bleak and terrible beauty of Carver’s best work, as in “Gazebo,” “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” “So Much Water So Close to Home” and “Feathers” (that peacock scrabbling on the roof!) is as distinctively American as film noir or Edward Hopper’s night world.
“No Heroics, Please” brings together Raymond Carver’s previously uncollected fiction, including a fragment of a novel, poetry, introductions, book reviews and occasional prose. They make a brave pendant to his too-brief career.
On the evidence of this book, it appears that Carver started out with a troubled, off-angle view of the world, never to be altered. “Furious Seasons,” his first published story (written when he was a student at Chico State College and studying with novelist John Gardner), is merely a skillful pastiche of Faulkner; but in “Hair,” a sketch about a distraught young clerk convinced he has a hair caught between his front teeth, he is already on an errand into his personal wilderness.
On the whole, the poems that he wrote at every stage of his career are more revealing and less distinguished than the stories: plain as the prose, but more various in mood and reflective of a riper sense of things. His last collection of poetry, “A New Path to the Waterfall” in particular, is a luminous and moving book.
In poems like “Adultery,” where the lovers loll in bed beside copies of Tacitus and Gorky, Carver could make use of his vast and miscellaneous reading. Beside Olds Cutlasses and soda crackers, one discovers Caulaincourt’s “Memoirs” and the cemetery at Montparnasse, Seifert and Milosz, Akhmatova and all manner of things austerely omitted from the stories: “The Khyber Pass. Alexander the Great. History, and lapis lazuli.”
Of course Carver did not transcribe “directly” from life (who does? who can?), but he did write close to the bone of events, and in the fiction, only toward the end, in “The Errand,” about the death of Chekhov, can he be found making a story of literary history rather than his own.
The essay “On Longer Stories” (1988) describes his growing curiosity about stories “rangier” than those he produced in the days when temperament (a short attention span) and circumstance (overburdened) inclined him to swift, lean effects: “Get in, get out. Don’t linger.” Already, in “Cathedral,” the stories had begun to register a conscious complexity, amplitude, generosity, humanity--in short, a straining after significance. Their effect is sometimes less impressive than those achieved in the less overtly ambitious earlier work. (My minority opinion then and now is that the famous revised ending of “A Small, Good Thing"--in which the grieving parents of a child killed on his birthday are first harassed and then comforted by a sententious baker--is both absurd and unintentionally more chilling, in its calculated humanism, than the original Manichaean little tale published as “The Bath.”)
The introduction to “American Short Story Masterpieces,” which Carver wrote with his co-editor, Tom Jenks, is a sinewy piece of critical writing, argumentatively titled “Fiction of Occurrence and Consequence.” Anyone expecting to find “postmodern” or “innovative” fiction is bluntly told to look elsewhere; the editors have no room for anything “self-reflective, fabulist, magical realist, as well as mutations, offshoots and fringe movements thereof.”
Carver himself was usually taxonomized in this country as a “minimalist”; English critics preferred the more robust description “Dirty Realist.” Since practical criticism cannot do without such terms of art, I have never understood the disdain certain of Carver’s colleagues in the creative-writing racket have expressed for these. The furnishings of his fictional world were spare; love and squalor were ruling “obsessions” (the word he preferred to themes ); and he was proud to account himself a realist. He liked to quote Ezra Pound: “Fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing.”
The “death of the author” was a distant rumor that never reached Ray. He simply wanted to write stories that would last forever. At whatever cost. Or, as Maryann Carver told Sam Halpert, “We did pay for those stories with our lives.” Did he ever consider that a messy life might not be redeemable in art? Plainly, it never occurred to him that art and sullen craft could fail to alchemize the hard times of a middle-class alcoholic white male into monuments of unaging intellect.
I wonder if he recognized himself in Richard Brautigan’s “1/3, 1/3,” which is included in “American Short Story Masterpieces.” Brautigan’s small masterpiece is about three lost souls at work on a novel, in a squalid house trailer on a rainy day in Oregon, hopefully “pounding at the gates of American literature.” Carver came into fashion just as Brautigan was passing out, and their writing lives were very different. Brautigan was a bohemian, while Ray was temperamentally a bourgeois and always longed to pay his bills on time. Despite endless complaints about blue-collar “crap jobs,” he spent most of his career in the dispersed but provincial world of the writer’s workshop and the creative-writing class. He never handed out broadsides on Haight Street or seriously aspired to make a million dollars in a year. Still, the two of them, near-contemporaries, were alike in coming from miserably poor families in the Pacific Northwest, “that dark, rainy land”; in prizing simplicity and drinking too much; in their unexpected (but not looked for) worldwide celebrity.
Raymond Carver, who was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in his last year, was the son of a saw filer from Yakima, Wash. According to Maryann Carver, his first formal instruction in writing was a correspondence course from something called the Palmer Institute of Writing, “which his father working at the mill paid for and was proud his son was taking.” It took Ray most of a lifetime--40 years--to make the transit from disorder and early sorrow in Yakima to fame and a modest amount of fortune in Port Angeles, a distance of 160 miles.
How wonderful that he attained at the end serenity and success, not the usual combination. When I knew him, he had been pounding at the gates of American literature for 12 years, and with very little to show in a material way in relation to the expense of spirit. How could he know that the gates would open, and, as the old hymn says, all the trumpets would sound for him on the other side?