Trouble man

Amid the alcoholism and tales of turmoil, portrait shines new light on a short-story master’s work

The book leans on a wealth of source material, including Raymond Carver’s papers and those of his editor Gordon Lish. The book leans on a wealth of source material, including Raymond Carver’s papers and those of his editor Gordon Lish. (Sophie Bassouls/ Corbis Sigma)
By DeWitt Henry
Globe Correspondent / December 20, 2009

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Partly in reaction to his working-class background (his father was a sawyer in Yakima, Washington), Raymond Carver decided relatively early in life that he wanted to become a great writer on the models of his literary heroes Ernest Hemingway, William Carlos Williams, and later Anton Chekov. But equally early came domestic life in the form of a teenage marriage to Maryann Burk and the birth of two children, and of struggles for education and for livelihood.

In “Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life,’’ Carol Sklenicka offers up a detailed, heavily researched portrait of the late poet and short-story master, a man whose artistry persevered through debilitating, near deadly bouts with alcoholism and an often emotionally tortured private life. Sklenicka manages in her examination of Carver’s life to offer some fresh insights into the writer’s work and achievement.

Both marital conflict and alcohol abuse emerged during Carver’s early years of menial jobs, bankruptcy, and of his first publishing and socializing in the West Coast literary underground. John Gardner at Chico State was an early mentor. The appearance of his work in literary magazines and small presses led to an association with Gordon Lish, and after Lish moved to New York and became fiction editor for Esquire, to appearances in Esquire (and thanks to Lish, in other national magazines). When Lish joined McGraw-Hill as an imprint editor, he published and promoted Carver’s breakthrough collection of stories, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’’ (1976), which was a finalist for the National Book Award and established Carver as a master of “minimalism’’ (a term that Carver disliked).

By this time Carver’s alcoholism was at its worst, and rumors spread about “bad Ray,’’ even as he won awards and got prestigious teaching appointments. Both he and Maryann had affairs. They fought, bloodying each other, and his stories reflect their marital hell, where ambition seemed stifled by penury and parenting. “The basis of Carver’s stories in real despair . . . is one source of their power,’’ Sklenicka argues. “He would learn to use stories as a tool for emotional survival, a means for negotiating the terrifying waters of his own psyche.’’

In his essay “Fires,’’ Carver writes that: “Everything my wife and I held sacred, every spiritual value, crumbled away.’’ He had affairs with Diane Cecily (who was an editor at the University of Montana and later married Carver’s novelist friend Chuck Kinder); with fellow writers Joanne Meschery and Linda McCarriston; and finally with the soul mate of his recovery and his later fiction and poetry, poet Tess Gallagher, with whom he lived for his last nine years, and whom he married just before his death.

Maryann was the first to attend Alcoholics Anonymous. After a seizure and the threat of death, Carver finally entered the drying out facility that he later fictionalized in his story “Where I’m Calling From.’’ He took his last drink on June 2, 1977. Soon afterwards, he met Gallagher as “good Ray.’’ He also began to pull away from Lish.

In 1981, after moving to Knopf, Lish published “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’’; he edited Carver’s stories so heavily that he “refabricated their feeling’’ and later claimed that “Carver and his stories were his personal creation.’’ From then on, Carver insisted on full editorial control. He separated from Maryann in 1978, and in 1982 they finalized their divorce.

In the years following, “gratitude became a keynote of Ray’s response to life,’’ writes Sklenicka. Carver’s masterpiece, “Cathedral,’’ appeared to wide acclaim in 1983, and was followed by new and selected stories, “Where I’m Calling From’’ (1988).

Also in 1983, Carver retired from teaching with the support of a Strauss Living award and worked on new stories, on restoring the fuller versions of old ones, on essays, and on poems. He collaborated with Gallagher on a screenplay of Dostoyevsky’s life. After an operation for lung cancer in 1987, he was hopeful of recovery, but the cancer had metastasized to his brain, and he died in 1988.

A major contribution of this biography is its synthesis and interpretation of a wealth of source materials, including: Carver’s works; his own accounts of his life (often slanted and unreliable); the collected interviews; the writer’s papers at Ohio State University Libraries, combined with Lish’s papers at Indiana University; reviews and critical studies of Carver, pro and con; earlier memoirs, including “Soul Barnicles: Ten More Years with Ray’’ by Gallagher (2000) and “What it Used to be Like: A Portrait of my Marriage to Raymond Carver’’ by Maryann (2006); and anecdotes collected by Sklenicka from some 292 family members, colleagues, acquaintances, and friends of Carver.

While Sklenicka belabors the framing of Carver’s life with explanatory primers on popular history or the nature of alcoholism as a disease - passages that informed readers will want to skip - she also illuminates the fiction with the life. She suggests, for instance, that the dead girl in the story “So Much Water Close to Home’’ is an image of Ray himself as “the one beyond help’’; in “Menudo,’’ a late story about Carver’s marriage, she points out that “an unfaithful husband obsessively rakes leaves, trying to create order in a neighborhood where marriages are falling apart,’’ which echoes a similar image in “Intimacy.’’ “It’s the kind of detail,’’ she writes, “that serves Carver as an objective correlative for an emotion without standing out as imagery.’’ One wishes for more such insights in a book too often given to dogged minutiae.

DeWitt Henry’s most recent book is “Safe Suicide: Narratives, Essays, and Meditations.’’ He was the founding editor of Ploughshares and teaches at Emerson College.

By Carol Sklenicka
Scribner, 592 pp., $35

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