In Carver country


When does an act of reclamation cease to be about restoration and become about something else? That’s the question raised by “Collected Stories,” the Library of America’s new collection of the complete short fiction of Raymond Carver, who died at 50 in August 1988.

Complete, of course, is a relative concept in regard to Carver, an inveterate rewriter who published many stories in different versions at various points in his career. Not only that, but in 1995, it was revealed that his 1981 breakthrough, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” was extensively reworked by Gordon Lish, who as fiction editor of Esquire helped bring Carver’s work to a national audience. Lish moved from Esquire to Alfred A. Knopf in the late 1970s and cut some of the stories in “What We Talk About” by more than three-quarters, paring down the language, even changing endings to highlight what he called “a peculiar bleakness.”

He was right; “What We Talk About” is stunningly desolate, a group of stories so laconic they almost perfectly reflect the resignation of characters struggling with alcoholism, infidelity and the desperation of diminished dreams. “Things change,” one protagonist notes. “I don’t know how they do. But they do without your realizing it or wanting them to.” Despite the book’s success, Carver was unhappy at how he was labeled; “There’s something about ‘minimalist,’ ” he grumbled in 1983, “that smacks of smallness of vision and execution that I don’t like.” Two years ago, his widow Tess Gallagher announced plans to release the stories as her husband had conceived them, in a collection called “Beginners”: the uncut “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”


“Beginners” is published for the first time in “Collected Stories,” and although it comes at the end, it can’t help but function as a centerpiece. That’s either as it should be or a significant problem, depending on your perspective, but regardless, it skews the way the collection showcases Carver’s career. The purpose of a retrospective is not so much to highlight individual stories as to trace how a writer’s aesthetic has grown. Here, the prominence of “Beginners” adds a subtext that threatens to subvert the larger arc. That’s because, in the main, the pared-down versions of the stories are better, which opens the question of where authenticity resides. Are the unedited drafts more essential because they represent the truer Carver? Or is the point the continuum of his writing, developed through the intersection of internal and external influences?

These are key questions when it comes to Carver, for he was not a solitary artist but one who thrived in community. From his days at Chico State in the late 1950s, he sought mentors; first, John Gardner, who “made me see that absolutely everything was important in a story,” and later peers Chuck Kinder, Dick Day, Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff. In “On Becoming a Novelist” (for which Carver wrote the foreword), Gardner lays out the template: “Once when I was driving through Colorado with a friend, traveling down a mountain pass, we came upon an accident. A pickup truck and a car had collided, and from fifty feet away we could see the blood. We pulled over and ran to help. All the time I was running, all the time I was trying, with my friend’s help, to pry open the door of the car in which a nine-months pregnant woman had been impaled through the abdomen, I was thinking: I must remember this! I must remember my feelings! How would I describe this?”

That’s a rigorous -- some might say brutal -- standard, but it applies to Carver’s work as well. In his late story “Intimacy,” he admits as much, describing a writer’s visit to his ex-wife, presumably to make amends, when in fact he is after material. “She says, I’m beginning to understand something. . . . ,” Carver writes, after they go back and forth. “I think I know why you’re here, even if you don’t. But you’re a slyboots. You know why you’re here. You’re on a fishing expedition. . . .

“Tell me about the knife, I say.”

Here, Carver reveals the ruthlessness of the author appropriating his life. That’s not to suggest that his stories are mere autobiography -- although “Intimacy” may be as close as he gets. Like any fiction writer, he draws on his experience for narrative and emotional effect. There’s no way to read Carver’s early work, collected in “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” (1976) and “Furious Seasons” (1977), without seeing his existence: the teenage marriage, the two kids in quick succession, the crummy jobs and part-time education, the drinking and the bankruptcies. This is what gives the writing such power, the fact that it is so specific, so sharp.

Take “They’re Not Your Husband,” in which an unemployed salesman, obsessed with his wife’s appearance, drops by the coffee shop where she works and comments on her to the other men. Or “Nobody Said Anything,” where a boy plays hooky to go fishing, only to come home and confront his parents’ crumbling marriage from which hooky offers no escape. Gardner didn’t teach him about that; Carver had to live it, had to know the anxiety of that kid, the despair of that husband, the way that, as he writes in “Jerry and Molly and Sam,” “life had become a maze, one lie overlaid upon another until he was not sure he could untangle them if he had to.” What Gardner did was emphasize the need to pay attention, to know that stories are everywhere and that any life, no matter how seemingly undramatic, might be the substance of literature, if only we look at it with enough depth.

This is the revolutionary thing about Carver’s writing, although over the years it’s also been the most misunderstood. In 1983, Granta famously labeled him, along with contemporaries such as Ford and Wolff, “dirty realists”; six years later, Tom Wolfe derided them as “K-Mart realists” in Harper’s. The idea is that there’s something less than artful about their fiction, that their stories are unformed, anecdotal slices-of-life. But that’s not true, any more than it’s true that in editing “What We Talk About,” Lish eclipsed its authenticity, effacing Carver’s voice while recasting the book, somehow, as his own.


Indeed, “Collected Stories” makes a compelling case for the opposite, for Carver’s interaction with Lish, like his interaction with Gardner, as a stop upon a longer path. “What We Talk About” came at a particularly vulnerable moment: Carver was newly sober, divorcing his first wife, Maryann, and exploring the beginnings of his relationship with Gallagher. It makes sense, then, that his work on the book would be marked by a give-and-take, a feeling out of what he had to do. Some of the most unexpectedly moving writing in “Collected Stories” comes in letters Carver sent Lish arguing against the edits; “I’m mortally afraid of taking out too much from the stories,” he wrote on July 10, 1980, “of making them too thin, not enough connecting tissue to them.”

For detractors of “What We Talk About,” that’s a central criticism, but if Lish went too far in certain instances -- he eviscerated “A Small, Good Thing,” cutting it by nearly 80% and renaming it “The Bath” -- it’s impossible to imagine Carver arriving at the expansiveness of his 1983 masterpiece “Cathedral” without going through the edits Lish imposed. If nothing else, he had to learn to stand up for his work, to recognize his authority. In February 1983, he wrote Lish, “I don’t need to tell you that it’s critical for me that there not be any messing around with titles or text.” It’s no coincidence that among the 12 pieces in “Cathedral” is a restored version of “A Small, Good Thing,” one of Carver’s greatest stories in its final form.

“Beginners” also features a fuller take of “A Small, Good Thing,” but its inclusion here seems unnecessary. It’s not that these drafts aren’t worth attention, but they are not essential in the manner “Collected Stories” requires. That becomes especially glaring when you consider what’s missing: Carver’s poems, which are a corollary to his narrative work. In them, he covers much of the same material (hunting, fishing, domestic drama) with a similarly unsentimental eye. His poetry and fiction speak to each other stylistically, the staccato “She says” of “Intimacy” echoed in the structure (“He said it doesn’t look good / he said it looks bad in fact real bad / he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before / I quit counting them”) of “What the Doctor Said.”

Carver left some evidence that, at the end of his life, he was looking to blur the genres; his late poem “Lemonade” is actually a little story about a man who’s lost his son. There are any number of ways to read this, not least as a lament by a man who was himself dying of lung cancer as he wrote. But most of all, it suggests a larger process, an integration that “Collected Stories” does not entirely reflect.


Ulin is books editor of The Times.