What He Writes About When He Writes About Us: Rediscovering Ray Carver

I’m not sure when I first encountered the work of author Raymond Carver. Or how, for that matter. It was likely through a class assignment, in high school or college, to read one of his short stories. Or it may have been a recommendation by a friend to read some of his poems. (I suspect it was the through the poems, given my predilection for verse and the fact that I doubt my English teachers knew his stories.) I could have stumbled across him on my own, of course, nosing around from writer to writer, as I sometimes do. Who knows.

The bottom line is, I have been reading and rereading Ray Carver’s books for more than 25 years. And although he’s not someone I turn to frequently for inspiration or other things, his words and the ways he used them are often on my mind. Even if, as is usually the case, I haven’t cracked open a book of his in years.

Oddly enough, within the past year, I have had reason — on at least three separate occasions, actually — to mention Carver and his writing to others. And that, in turn, inspired me to go back and reread him again. This is a pretty typical turn of events for me (and others, I suspect, who read and like to discuss and recommend books): I encounter an author, go read or reread certain books, talk to others who have read these books, swap stories about them, read more, etc. What was different this time, however, was that, while Carver is still highly regarded in literary circles, few people — in my circle of friends, at least — seem to know who he is.

And that disappointed me, more than a little. Not only because it pricked my inflated sense of literary knowledge and self-worth (ouch!) but also because I think people (readers or writers) who don’t know who Raymond Carver is, or haven’t read any of his books, have been “gipped,”  to use a word he would have liked. So I have decided that it’s time for me to make reparations, or at least attempt to.

My decision to write about Raymond Carver, here and now, does not come at a particularly auspicious or meaningful moment — in fact, last year marked the 20th anniversary of his death, on August 2, 1988, from cancer at age 50. And, as I mentioned, he is firmly established in the canon and in no risk of being forgotten. Yet, after rereading a handful of his stories, along with an entire book of poems, it occurred to me that what he wrote — and, in particular, how he wrote — is what we need the most right now.

Carver’s writing was plainspoken and truthful. There are no fantasy elements in his stories — no vampires or wizards, for instance. And he doesn’t feel the need to leap back in time or into outerspace to illuminate the human condition, either. No, what he writes about are ordinary people, in realistic settings, dealing with real situations. What he writes about, in other words, is us, you and me. And, in so many ways, he shows us what we need to see: that despite what’s going on in the world, in your world and ours, things are going to be OK. Or they’re not and, if not, he illuminates what you might need to do, or not do, to survive.

Several events occurred in my life recently to restart my interest in Raymond Carver. First was my attempt to reread in one year all the books written by my friend Hayden Carruth, who passed away last September. And though it’s clear I will fail abysmally in my endeavor (doomed from the start, I think), I did come across the essay “Difficult and Ticklish: Life in the Stories of Raymond Carver,” Carruth’s elegy to his friend and mentor (which you can read in part here), and his touching poem, “Ray” (which you can watch him read here, shortly before he died, and I recommend you do). These encounters, in turn, caused me to nominate of one my favorite Carver stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” for inclusion in a reading list for a neighborhood book club. And that rereading is what lead me to hear Carver’s voice in, and his influence on, a short story written by a friend who, surprisingly, had never heard of this now top-of-mind author.

Which, dear readers, brings me to you and why I pulled Carver’s books off my shelves — in particular my worn copy of Where I’m Calling From, which is essentially his collected stories, representing the 36 that he wished to save and in the way he wanted them to appear, and A New Path to the Waterfall, his final book of new poems, which he completed only weeks before he died — in an effort to reread and recommend them to, and perhaps spark some interest in, you.

Carver’s craft as a writer, which he learned from his literary ancestors, influences, and teachers, such as Anton Chekhov and John Gardner, was to illustrate and chronicle the everyday existence of ordinary people. His gift, on the other hand, was an ability to peel back some of the layers covering these folks, deftly and precisely, to reveal the delicate emotions pulsing underneath. He was never obvious in this way, never pointed out anything directly. And his writing often lacked traditional literary trappings — there are few details or long passages of description, for instance. Rather, as Edward Hopper managed on canvas, Carver showed us only what he was seeing and, by cutting away some of the distractions, hinted that there may be more going on than meets the eye. If it’s there, he seemed to say, you’ll see it, and if you don’t, that’s OK, too.

This is what appeals to me most about Carver — the clarity, matter-of-factness, and touch of mystery that characterize his stories and poems. And that’s achieved in part by his expert use of common, everyday American speech — colloquialisms, slang, half-sentences, and other words and phrases that people actually say to each other, in the way they actually say them. Like, “chickenshit,” “sonofabitch,” “I’m doing fine,” “it’s really something,” “thanks, bub,” etc. As a result, his books feel fairly uncomplicated and unadorned, offer a quick read, and are pretty easy to “get.” That’s a real plus for readers who live busy, over-extended, work-all-day lives.

On the other hand, this style has caused Carver to be labeled a “minimalist,” a literary term that I think is trite, limiting, and, frankly, unhelpful. Does categorizing him in this way — which implies extreme simplification and reductivism — improve my or your enjoyment when reading his books? I doubt it. Personally, I think Carver was anything but minimal. Take, for instance, the three-dozen stories in Where I’m Calling From, which run the full gamut of human emotions, from horrifying (“Little Things”) to devastatingly sad ( “The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off”) to laugh-outloud funny ( “Feathers”); from cruel ( “Nobody Said Anything”) and brutal ( “Menudo”), to poignant ( “The Student’s Wife”) and touching ( “Where I’m Calling From”); from bewilderment ( “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”) to endearment ( “Errand”). It’s incredibly rich and complete.

As a writer, Carver was dedicated exclusively to poetry and stories — both short, by nature — and described his career as “inclined toward brevity and intensity,” because he wanted to create works that “can be written and read in one sitting.” There’s compression and power in what he wrote — he crammed a lot into a little place — that by no means feels simplified and bare, not to me. Quite the opposite, and he was perhaps most expansive and tightly compact in his poetry, which is (not surprising) my favorite side of his duplicitous nature.

Carver was (and likely always will be) best known for reinvigorating the short story in America, and was not all that well received among critics for his poems. But, as his wife and fellow poet Tess Gallagher wrote in the introduction to A New Path to the Waterfall, “poetry was a spiritual necessity” to Carver. In other words, through his poetry, Carver was able to work out the tangled emotions of his own life in the same way he did with the lives of his fictional characters. Many of the poems in the book reflect and refract images (dark and light) found in his stories. And this is especially true and moving in the final section of the book, which contains most of the poems he wrote in the last year of his life, chronicling the fullness of his own emotions — from the bafflement over discovering his illness (“What the Doctor Said”), through comic realization ( “After-glow”) and calm reconciliation ( “Quiet Nights”), to his final touching words to his wife ( “No Need”) and to himself ( “Late Fragment”):

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Through poetry, it seems, Carver was able to write an ending, and a happy one at that, for his own pretty miserable life (you can watch a good biographical video about him here), something he often denied many of even the most deserving of his characters. That’s pretty ticklish, for sure.

So, there you have it, bub — recommendations for at least two good beach books for this summer. Pick up a copy of Where I’m Calling From or A New Path to the Waterfall. Or both, they’re still in print. At a minimum, you will discover many, many pint-size yet expansive page turners between their covers. And I won’t be disappointed, not even a little.

As always, let us know what you think. Have you read anything by Raymond Carver? If so, which story or poem do you like the most? Are there other short story writers from this or other centuries that you prefer? Let us know by leaving a comment below.

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