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I first encountered Raymond Carver’s writing as a poet many years ago and was singularly unimpressed. In truth the writing was merely bloated prose descriptions of banal things broken into lines. Having seen much of this in contemporary published poetry I consigned him to the nether regions as another writer whose contemporary reputation far exceeded his corpus’s worth.
Then Don Moss mentioned to me some time back that he held Carver’s short stories in high regard, far above his ‘poetry’. Not long after that my wife, Jessica, came across a marked down copy of his short story collection ‘Cathedral,’ a book nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award and a Pulitzer Prize in 1983. I recently read it and was quite pleased that it, indeed, was far superior to Carver’s verse. Having recently read a collection of Pete Hamill’s short stories called ‘Tokyo Sketches’ I was struck by how two very different writers came about crafting such good short stories. Hamill’s tales are taut, with no overwriting, tightly plotted, and generally end before the scenes that most would expect would end a particular tale. That said, his endings play hard against the reader’s preconceptions. Carver’s short stories, by contrast, are on the flaccid side, not nearly as lean and taut in his sentence nor paragraph construction. Yet, they are filled with tiny details that hook in readers’ memories like Velcro balls.
Carver’s boosters site this very ‘naturalness’ as the reason his prose affects them, while his detractors say his writing is lazy, his characters banal, and his stories dour. While the last of the three charges is valid I don’t think the first two are. His characters are average folk, but their moments of realization are what make the stories readable, and while his prose is lax, and at times there are stories that could be cut 30-50% an argument could be made that Carver is the Walt Whitman of the short story- that his ‘expansiveness’, and verbal waste, are a part of what eases the reader into the milieu. In a sense he is the Oscar Madison of short story writing to Hamill’s Felix Unger.
Let me do a quick summary of the tales within:
‘Feathers’ - an odd tale about a quirky visit to a home where an ugly baby and a peacock rain. Overall, this is a tale where a scene is set and the reader is left to puzzle over it. It’s almost like a painter’s sketch before a real painting fills in the details.
‘Chef’s House- the tale of a couple that reconciles which is dependent upon a ‘moment’. Where ‘Feathers’ is lax this tale is taut.
’Preservation’ - an odd tale about a broken refrigerator that ends before any real moment of insight.
‘The Compartment’ - this is the first great story in the book. A tale of loneliness, regret, and delusion that occurs on a European train as a father heads to meet his long lost son. The ending is a pitch-perfect ting to the tale.
’A Small, Good Thing’ - the tale of a couple harangued by someone after their child is accidentally killed in a hit and run accident. Another great tale, although it could be severely trimmed. The revelation of the ‘stalker’ is no surprise, but the resolution is, as well as touching.
‘Vitamins’ - an odd tale of love and loss. It doesn’t really go anywhere but is a typical RC tale.
‘Careful’ - a tale of how ear wax can impinge on life. The tale goes nowhere, but has some moments that amuse.
‘Where I’m Calling From’ - the least interesting tale, about the connections that tenuously bind.
‘The Train’ - the tale opens with a scene of great violence. Then the gradual drift into the everyday occurs. An odd, but effective tale.
‘Fever’ - a tale of a divorcee’s struggles and the old woman who helps him out with his children. There are some great moments of clarity and insight and the ending is perhaps the book’s strongest - very reminiscent of the philosophical writings of a Loren Eiseley. A great short story.
‘The Bridle’ - nothing much really occurs in this tale - perhaps the most banal in the book.
‘Cathedral’ - the tale opens with a bitter narrator who resents a blind man’s penpalsmanship with his wife. When the blind man visits the narrator they hit it off and bond in a very unusual, but touching way. An excellent tale.
In a sense the book can be divided into thirds- four great tales, four solid-good tales, and four tales that needed work. In short, this is very reflective of Carver as a writer. He is not the total snooze his worst detractors describe nor is he an unrivaled Modern Master as his boosters claim. He is, however, a good writer overall. What he might have achieved had he not pickled his brain with alcohol, nor died young, is unknown. He could have wasted his talents, or pushed them to greater heights.
In a sense nothing much happens to Carver’s characters, but how they react to such inaction is where the tales get their heft and weight. Failure in their realm is not necessarily failure to Carver. But, it’s no guarantee that it’s a triumph, either. Sometimes a reader will not know whether an Carver tale will succeed or fail until the tale is over because he can rescue a seemingly off-course story in a paragraph or two, and a character by a single detail.
His characters can be notable not for what they do but how they do it - by striking familiar chords with readers who are attracted and repulsed by aspects of their worst selves. In the four best tales – ‘The Compartment,’ ‘A Small, Good Thing,’ ‘Fever,’ and ‘Cathedral’ - Carver’s ability to navigate a reader through potential narrative dry spots is rewarded by the way each story ends, set up by the sometimes spare, sometimes detailed characterizations.
At his worst Carver can bore a reader, and leave them wondering what the hell the story was all about? But, at his best Carver’s tales are like those old family photos you flip through, years after the familiar faces have lost their name, but none of their ability to move. It’s in the lacuna between name and motion Carver touches greatness. Would that such absences were more abundant in his and others’ works.
Reproduced with permission
by Raymond Carver
Reviewed by Dan Schneider
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