People Like Us Essay -- by John Wirebach
ollowing a great American tradition-when things go bad around home, you can always start a new life, maybe out west-in the fall of 1969 Douglas and Adele Springsteen and their two daughters took the advice of their son Bruce's current girlfriend-Bruce called her a kind of hippie-and headed for California. The Springsteens wound up in Sausalito with little money and no job and quickly realized they'd come to the wrong destination.
According to Bruce, his mother went to a gas station and asked the guy there: Where do people like us live?
"That's a question that sounds like the title of a Raymond Carver story," Springsteen said.
It sure does and you wonder how Raymond Carver missed such an obvious title, or maybe he was saving the title for the novel he never got the time to write.
But more importantly the anecdote shows that by the time of his death in 1988, Raymond Carver was a cultural reference even for rock stars. A few years earlier, in 1983, Esquire magazine placed him right in the center of the concentric circles making up the American Literary scene. Literary magazine editors claimed that half the stories they received imitated his style.
It was a long climb up for the kid who began his writing career by sending away a matchbox cover application to the famous writers school.
Carver started bad: In 1957, in Yakima, WA, Carver began his adult life by fulfilling another great American tradition-he knocked up his high school girlfriend, Maryanne Burk. He was eighteen and she was sixteen.
As Bruce Springsteen once sang: "For my eighteenth birthday, I got a union card and a wedding coat..."
The sawmill where Carver went to work was just the first in a long line of shitty jobs.
I worked sawmill jobs, janitor jobs, delivery man jobs, service station jobs, stockroom boy jobs-name it, I did it," Carver wrote later. "One summer, in Arcata, CA, I picked tulips." (Fires)
The Carvers spent the next twenty years supporting two kids, scuffling for jobs, driving beat-up used cars, renting cheap apartments in college towns, and avoiding bill collectors while waiting for Ray's big break. Friends noted that Ray never answered his door until he peeked out a window to see who was knocking.
Their life was kind of a Carver story. Both drank, Ray spent time in jail for assaults (according to novelist and drinking buddy Chuck Kinder, Ray once broke a bottle over Maryanne's head) and drunkenness. Twice he declared bankruptcy. Both Ray and Maryanne had affairs. Kinder says he married a woman who had once carried on a two-year affair with Ray.Much later, Kinder wrote a novel called The Honeymooners about those years. One of the main characters is Carver, under the name Ralph Crawford. In 'Fires', Carver writes that while he has a bad memory for things like towns or houses or people he knew, "I can remember some dramatic things-somebody picking up a knife and turning to me in anger, or else hearing my own voice threaten somebody else. Somebody break down a door, or else fall down a flight of stairs." Carver said he and Maryanne had no problems a little money couldn't solve. "We were always looking for something better," Carver told the NY Times, "But there was never enough." The family was certainly dysfunctional by most standards-daughter Chris Carver moved out to live with aunts and grandmothers several times while still in high school because life in the Carver house was just too crazy. He had fistfights with his son. In 'Fires' Carver says simply, "There were good times back there, of course, but I'd take poison before I'd go through that time again." And in the wonderful contradictions of American life, while his domestic life was the stuff of a Doctor Phil show, Carver was well on his way to becoming the poster boy for the college writing programs.***
When you read a catalog of major American writers who never attended or graduated from college-Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, Eugene O'Neill-you feel like turning in your diploma.
Then you meet Raymond Carver.
Carver may be the first major American writer whose entire career was shaped and formed by the College creative writing programs. At 18, he attended Yakima Community College; when he died he was a full professor at Syracuse University.For example, in 1958, newly married, he and Maryanne were lucky enough to follow his parents to California where he attended Chico State College for a year, the one year he was able to take creative writing courses with John Gardner, who was beginning a one-man crusade to rescue American writing from its mire of metafiction.
Gardner, who died when he wiped out his motorcycle on a Pennsylvania highway in 1982, wrote half a dozen novels and short story collections but is best known for his books on writing.
"Until I met John Gardner," Carver said, "I had no concept of serious literature."
Going over Carver's stories "word by word, line by line," Gardner taught Carver to cut, polish and revise. Particularly revise. Carver once said he'd done as many as thirty drafts of a single story. Only half-joking, he said he'd rather rewrite than write. When he found himself replacing a comma he'd previously cut, he knew the story was done.
Gardner and Carver also founded a short-lived literary magazine at Chico State called Selection that had the honor of being the first magazine to publish a Carver short story, 'Furious Seasons,' in its second issue in 1960.
But by the time the story appeared Carver had moved north to Arcata, CA, to work in a Georgia-Pacific sawmill and had transferred to Humboldt State College where he worked with novelist Dick Day and eventually got his degree in 1963.
When he left Humboldt State, his writing was good enough to win a $500 grant to attend the University of Iowa Writers Workshop, probably the best-known college writing program in the country. But Carver said his time at Iowa "was not productive. I didn't put much work up" and the Carvers left in 1964 without an MFA to move back to Sacramento where he worked as a janitor in a hospital.
While his personal life was going to pieces in the sixties and early seventies, Carver earned a cult following of writers as his stories began to appear in literary magazines. The story "Will You Please be Quiet, Please?" was listed in The Best American Short Stories 1967 and Carver stories appeared in the Best Little Magazine Fiction in both 1970 and 1971. For three years in a row, 1973-75, Carver had stories in the annual O'Henry Prize Stories. In 1971, Gordon Lish, who Carver met in 1969, became literary editor of Esquire and Carver's stories began to appear regularly in the magazine, his first appearance in magazines that paid substantial money for a story.
On the strength of these stories and awards, Carver began to get teaching jobs at Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley among others. But despite the writing awards and teaching jobs, he could not get a collection of his stories published.
He returned to teach at the Iowa Writers Workshop in 1973. Interestingly enough, he was hired because he lost the Iowa Short Fiction Contest. Twice.
John Leggett, who headed the Writing Program at Iowa at the time, felt the collection of stories Carver submitted to the annual Iowa Short Fiction award was by far the best entry.
"I remember reading three of the stories," Leggett said. "They were so much better than any of the other stuff I'd been reading that I knew I didn't have to read another one. It was like panning for gold, and there you have a nugget."
However, judges Joyce Carol Oates (1971) and John Hawkes (1972) disagreed and picked other collections for the award. Leggett was so disturbed because Carver had lost two times that he phoned Carver sight unseen to offer him a job.
Carver confessed that he and fellow writer John Cheever spent the year at Iowa drinking and 'the covers never came off the typewriters."
Although Carver had always been a heavy drinker, by the seventies he'd become a full-time alcoholic. "We were still in a state of penury," he said, "we had one bankruptcy behind us, and years of hard work with nothing to show for it except an old car, a rented house, and new creditors on our backs. It was depressing, and I felt spiritually obliterated. I more or less gave up, threw in the towel, and took to full-time drinking as a serious pursuit."
Even the publication of his first collection of short stories Will You Please Be Quiet, Pleas" in 1976 and its nomination for a National Book Award in 1977 didn't quiet the drinking. The book sold 4,500 copies, good sales for a short story collection but not enough to free the Carvers from day jobs.
By 1977, he'd been hospitalized four times for acute alcoholism. Doctors told him that he would be dead in six months if he didn't stop drinking.
Carver told the Paris Review, "I really do feel I've had two different lives." The dividing line occurred on June 2, 1977, when Carver stopped drinking for good. The ten years that remained in his life he called 'Pure Gravy' in a poem.
Although he and Marianne finally split up for good in 1978, what his friends called the "Good Raymond" years began. Furious Seasons, was published that year, he won a Guggenheim Fellowship, and most importantly, he met poet Tess Gallagher, who he lived with for ten years and who would become his second wife, at a writer's conference in Dallas.
Carver said that Furious Seasons cleaned out his drawers: He had nothing left. He was forty years old and starting over cold sober writing fiction. His life became much more ordered and normal. He told an interviewer he was working on a novel, "an African Queen sort of thing." (A fragment of this novel is available in Call If You Need Me, a compilation of uncollected Carver stories and essays assembled by Tess Gallagher).
He kept an index card on his desk with a quote from Ezra Pound: "Fundamental accuracy of statement is the ONE sole morality of writing, as distinct from ideas in the writing."
Carver later wrote in The New York Times. "I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or a gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover. Tricks are ultimately boring, and I get bored easily, which may go along with my not having much of an attention span. But extremely clever chi-chi writing, or just plain tomfoolery writing, puts me to sleep. Writers don't need tricks or gimmicks or even necessarily need to be the smartest fellows on the block. At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing-a sunset or an old shoe-in absolute and simple amazement."
The goal of no tricks, accuracy and concise writing may have led to what has become Carver's most controversial collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, published in 1981 and edited by Gordon Lish, Carver's mentor since Lish's days as fiction editor of Esquire magazine.
An article by DT Max in the New York Times suggests that Lish did not so much edit Carver's work as much as change it. Studying Carver's manuscripts and Lish's changes, Max concludes that Lish cut some of the stories by as much as 40-50%, changed titles and endings, and even added his own lines to the stories. Lish emphasized the despair in the stories and cut any sentiment, delivering a hard stylized surface that became known as minimalism.
For example, "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit," a story edited by Lish, has this key scene:
I left my mother with the man on her sofa and drove around for a while. When I got home, Myra made me a coffee.
She went out to the kitchen to do it while I waited until I heard her running water. Then I reached under a cushion for the bottle.
Two years later, in Fires, a collection of essays, poems and short stories, the story is now called "Where Is Everyone" and this is the same scene:
I left my mother with the man on her sofa and drove around for a while, not wanting to go home and not wanting to sit in a bar that day either.
Sometimes Cynthia and I would talk about things-'reviewing the situation,' we'd call it. But now and then on rare occasions we'd talk a little about things that bore no relation to the situation. One afternoon we were in the living room and she said, "When I was pregnant with Mike you carried me to the bathroom when I was so sick and pregnant I couldn't get out of bed. You carried me. No one else will ever do that, no one else could ever love me in that way, that much. We have that, no matter what. We've loved each other like nobody else could or ever will love the other again.
We looked at each other. Maybe we touched hands, I don't recall. The I remembered the half-pint of whiskey or vodka or gin or Scotch or tequila that I'd hidden under the very sofa cushion that we were sitting on and I began to hope she might soon have to get up and move around-go to the kitchen, the bathroom, out to clean the garage.
"Maybe you could make us some coffee," I said. "A pot of coffee might be nice."
"Would you eat something? I can fix some soup."
"Maybe I could eat something, but for sure I'll drink a cup of coffee."
She went out to the kitchen. I waited until I heard her begin to run water. Then I reached under the cushion for the bottle, unscrewed the lid, and drank.
Fires contained several other stories that Lish had edited restored to their original form, notably "So Much Water So Close To Home," which almost doubled in length and has both a different ending and a different emphasis from the Lish version. In Where I'm Calling From, his collected stories, published in 1988, Carver restored several other stories.
For example, a ten-page story called "The Bath," as edited by Lish, tells of a mother ordering a birthday cake for her son who later in the morning is hit by a car. But we find no resolution, good or bad, in "The Bath." The story ends with Scotty in a coma and the mother receiving a series of enigmatic phone calls. The story ends: "Scotty," the voice said. "It's about Scotty," the voice said. "It has to do with Scotty, yes."
In Where I'm Calling From, "The Bath" is 25 pages long and it's called "A Small, Good Thing." In the restored version, we learn Scotty has died and the baker is making the phone calls. The mother and father go to the baker's shop to confront him.
But instead of a confrontation, they find themselves eating the baker's bread. "Eating is a small, good thing at a time like this," the baker says, and listening to him talk about his life:
They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years...They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.
Although I consider the restored stories far superior to the Lish-edited versions and others agree-'A Small, Good Thing' won both the O'Henry prize and the Pushcart Press prize in 1983-I have to admit that both versions have their supporters. Both versions of the story are often published in college textbooks as examples of revision.
Whatever the truth, whether credit should go to Lish's editing or to Carver's writing, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love made Carver famous. Critics placed Carver at the head of a whole new school of American short story writers such as Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Ann Beattie, and many others. His later collections sold upwards of 20,000 copies in hard back and enormously more in paperback.
Minimalism became the hot topic among literary critics throughout the eighties and nineties. To the end of Carver's life, interviewers would ask him about Minimalism. There is an excellent analysis of Carver's work called 'Minimalism and its Discontents" by Robert Rebein in his book Hicks, Tribes and Dirty Realists.
Carver never denounced Lish for tinkering with his stories. He told interviewers he was responsible for the cut-down stories and thought he'd gone about as far as he could go in that direction.
However, when it came time to collect his stories in one volume, in almost every case, he published his own restored versions of the stories, not Lish's edited versions. And none of his later fiction in Cathedral (1983) or the last stories that appeared in Where I'm Calling From could be called minimalist.
The eighties became a decade of triumph for Carver. His stories were a staple in anthologies and 'Best of' collections, and on the cutting edge of a resurgence of the short story. High paying magazines like the New Yorker solicited his work and interviewers solicited his opinions. Conversations With Raymond Carver, published by the University of Mississippi Press, collects 23 interviews with Carver during the eighties ranging from The Paris Review to local newspapers.According to novelist Jay McInerney, a student of Carver's at Syracuse, Carver was generous to young writers. As a teacher of creative writing, Carver did not consider it his job to discourage anyone. Carver always found something good to say about a story no matter how bad it might be. He said there was enough discouragement out there for anyone trying against all odds to be a writer.
However, he did warn that success as a writer will "never, never happen to those who don't work hard at it and don't consider the act of writing as very nearly the most important thing in their lives, right up there next to breath, and food, and shelter, and love, and God."
He lived with Tess Gallagher, who told him "God has give you to me to take care of" (they married in 1988 two months before his death). DT Max says she won the 'long tug of war for Carver's soul." Seeking peace and quiet for writing, the two bought a cabin in Port Angeles, WA and hung up a 'No Visitors' sign. He gave up teaching when he won the first Harold and Mildred Strauss Livings Fellowship ($35,000 a year for five years) in 1983.
At the peak of his fame, with money in the bank (he bought a boat and a Mercedes) and a contented domestic life, he continued to write stories and poems and think about longer projects. In 1986, he and Tess wrote a screenplay about the Russian writer Feodor Dostoevsky for director Michael Cimino.
He was fifty when he was diagnosed with lung cancer.
He died on August 2, 1988.
The Irish short story writer Frank O Connor, whose book The Lonely Voice is a classic of short story criticism, wrote that one of the few things uniting the great short story writers is discovering a submerged population. Joyce had Dublin, Hemingway the lost generation, Chekov the underemployed Russian intelligentsia, and it might seem that Carver has found his submerged population among the inarticulate American working class.
Nick Hornsby, an English novelist and acute critic of American fiction, notes that when discussing Carver, American literary critics always talk about style, usually about minimalism. English critics, on the other hand, discuss the subject matter of his work. Several English critics compared Carver and other American writers to the 'Angry Young Men' of the fifties writing about the Industrial North of England.
One very successful issue of the literary magazine Granta (it sold some 55,000 copies) published during the early eighties pronounced Carver the Godfather of 'Dirty Realism,' a term that has stuck to the new American short story writers who became famous in the eighties such as Carver, Ford, Wolff, Louise Erdich, Bobbie Ann Mason and others.
Editor Bill Buford (now fiction editor of the New Yorker) described the collection as "low rent tragedies about people who watch daytime television, read cheap romances or listen to country and western music. They are waitresses in roadside cafes, cashiers in supermarkets, construction workers and unemployed cowboys. They play bingo, eat cheeseburgers, hunt deer and stay in cheap hotels. They drink a lot and are often in trouble...drifters in a world cluttered with junk food and the oppressive details of modern consumerism."
Although Buford's tongue in cheek quote does seem to cover a lot of what has come to be known as 'Dirty Realism,' Hornsby says Carver stories are not "aimed at bringing the working poor to the notice of the public, Steinbeck style...They are Carver's materials, not the finished product, and to concentrate on them is to miss the point of the stories. These are miniaturized of how we behave under extreme circumstances, and not portraits of the circumstances themselves."
It's worth noting that the three most anthologized Carver stories -- 'A Small Good Thing,' 'So Much Water Close to Home,' and 'Cathedral' -- do not feature characters who are drunk, out of work, or sleeping around.
It's also worth noting that although Carver began writing in the sixties and came to prominence in the seventies, aside from a stray reference or two, his stories virtually ignore the social and political turmoil of those years.
William Stull, a leading Carver scholar, puts it most succinctly: "Following the example of Tolstoy's 'The Death of Ivan Illich,' he had taken for his province unheroic lives 'most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.'"
In other words Carver wrote about people like us.