Much to admire in minimalist’s work
By the time of his death in 1988, Raymond Carver had established himself as the dean of American minimalist writers and the preeminent chronicler of an America many would prefer to ignore: a land of rented rooms and repossessed cars, late-night drunken phone calls, and demeaning jobs. Whatever momentary triumphs or loves his characters enjoy are often only temporary respites from ultimate loss, betrayal, and defeat.
This Library of America volume pulls together a career-spanning collection of his short fiction, in which from first to last Carver wrote about the lives of the defeated with a distinctive empathy, even - or perhaps especially - when his characters were at their most self-destructive. Carver had an unfailing and informed eye for the traps so many people stumble into, the vicious combination of circumstance and simple human frailty that sets the stage for self-compounding mistakes: the job loss that leads to the daytime drinking or the eviction that turns out to be more burden than an already frail marriage could bear.
And his stories are told in a prose almost frightening in its spareness. In pieces like the two-page “Popular Mechanics,’’ in which estranged lovers literally fight over their baby or the eight-page “Are You a Doctor?’’ in which two lonely strangers fumble for connection, the brief descriptions and minimal dialogue compel the reader to fill in the gaps, to complete the bleak realities Carver conveys yet doesn’t express. The result is devastating.
Yet this volume isn’t unremittingly grim. Several of the stories demonstrate Carver’s dark humor, such as “Whoever Was Using This Bed,’’ a story of late-night quarreling and hypochondria inadvertently provoked by repeated wrong-number calls from the same person. And in “A Small, Good Thing,’’ a couple whose young son died on his birthday find unexpected consolation and support in the obnoxious baker who made the cake for the party.
However, this collection illustrates not only Carver’s unquestionable talent but also his profound debt to his editor Gordon Lish. This volume includes “Beginners,’’ the manuscript version of his 1981 breakout collection “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.’’ Only by comparing stories from the two is it possible to grasp Lish’s contribution to Carver’s work. For example, Lish cut “Where Is Everybody?’’ - the original version of “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit’’ - by nearly 70 percent. “Everybody’’ is an impressive story, an alcoholic’s meditation on his family’s crumbling relationships; but buried in its descriptions of scenes, additional characters and (comparatively) extensive dialogue, was the brilliantly episodic, punishingly bleak “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit’’ that is all the more heart-wrenching for being less than half “Everybody’s’’ length.
The discoveries made by comparing the two versions of “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’’ should detract nothing from Carver’s reputation. All art is collaborative to some degree, and this volume serves as a small but healthy corrective to our desire to believe in solitary geniuses. Carver himself was quite frank about his debts to other writers such as John Gardner and his second wife, Tess Gallagher. Now we know more of Lish’s contribution to Carver’s work.
The “Collected Stories’’ also includes Carver’s essay on fiction writing, a remembrance of his father, and an anguished letter to Lish regarding the edits to “Beginners.’’ As a one-volume exploration of Carver’s career (excluding the poetry), this book belongs on the shelf of any serious reader of American literature.
Kevin O’Kelly is a regular reviewer for the Globe and blogs at www.notesandcomments1.blogspot.com.