Carver's Quiet Brilliance

RAYMOND Carver's Where I'm Calling From is a masterly collection. It brings together in one volume stories that span Raymond Carver's writing career, from the early volume Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? to his more recent work, which has appeared regularly in magazines like Granta and The New Yorker in the past few years. The collection provides an opportunity to survey the influences on Carver and his development.

Where I'm Calling From


391 pp.

New York: Atlantic Monthly Press

Carver's particular turf is alcoholism and betrayal, in the way that Flannery O'Connor's turf was Catholicism and adult children, or in the way that Ernest Hemingway's was masculinity and killing. Frequently, alcoholism and betrayal work together in Carver's stories--couples sink into drinking binges as they despair over their broken marriages, or alcoholism itself is the grounds for a split.

This is not to say that Carver is predictable. In almost every story, the given is a couple, either recently married or recently divorced, but against that given, Carver works a magic of great variation. He can hop from the first person wife ("So Much Water So Close To Home") to the first person husband ("Feathers") or the third person couple ("A Small, Good Thing"). There are blind men, peacocks, euthanasia, horny adolescents and psychopathic politicians.

This much tragedy, in the hands of a less capable author, could easily become bathos. But Carver's characters cling to what they have so earnestly that no reader can dismiss them. They are up against the wall, but they haven't given up. They are still hoping for some transcendence, some moment of connection, even if the connection has to cross 20 years of failed marriage and distrust.

The epiphany, which Carver's characters depend on, is the creature of Modernism; post-modernists are supposed to get beyond it somehow, as writers like Donald Barthelme, Susan Sontag, and Robert Coover have demonstrated. Carver's faith in the epiphany is a throwback to an earlier way of thinking about fiction. He believes in telling a story plainly and completely. Carver's stories follow a discipline that seems to come out of necessity. His stories just barely escape the desperate world that they describe. There's no artifice--Carver wouldn't pass off a "Project for a Trip to China" (Sontag) as a story, or warp a story into the form of twisted aphorisms exchanged by Goethe and Eckermann (Barthelme)--there's only honest, hard work.

At first, Carver's plain style sounds a lot like Hemingway in his short stories. (Carver has written poetry but has never written a novel.) There's a similar use of ellipsis. "A Small, Good Thing" has the seductively simple ring of Hemingway titles like "The End of Something" and "A Clean, Well-Lighted Place." And the men in Where I'm Calling From hunt, fish, drink and brawl. But although Hemingway's men adopt a tough exterior in order to hide when life or women get them down, Carver's men remain vulnerable, as husbands or fathers, and risk compassion.

In both authors, reticence is linked to a code of honor, to an idea of courage that requires accepting misfortune without complaint. The code is not necessarily a male code with Carver; the women (in "Careful," for example) are often more stoic than their men. In narrative style, Carver believes in saying less. He has been called the founder of the new Minimalism, or, according to Granta, Dirty Realism, whose followers include Richard Ford, Mary Robison, Jayne Anne Phillips, Tobias Wolff and Bobbie Ann Mason.

It would be wrong to attribute to Carver or to the loose group of "Dirty Realists" a militant rejection of the rococo experimentation that was rampant in American fiction in the 1960s and early 1970s, but their spareness could easily be a reaction, militant or no.

Raymond Carver has to find his danger somewhere, however, and he finds some of it on the delicate border between life and art. In "Put Yourself in My Shoes," Carver tells the story of a young writer named Myers who gets together with his wife on Christmas eve. He and his wife seem to be separated. For a lark, they visit their old landlords, the Morgans. The Morgans are a stodgy and selfish couple, who try to spin a few yarns for Myers, sententiously advising him to recycle the yarns as "material."

The reader giggles along with Myers-Carver, trying to imagine why anyone would want to fiddle with the stories that the Morgans tell when the Morgans themselves make such good stories. The laughter is a little mean, but it's forgiveable, because the Morgans use storytelling to elicit cheap pity and to load guilt on Myers and his wife for having been bad tenants. Myers' spite is a small comfort that he permits himself, a weapon against the know-nothings that the Morgans represent.

More revealing, however, is the story "Intimacy." A middle-aged man, a successful writer, visits his ex-wife out west. Over the years, he has sent her clippings of his stories, as they appeared in newspapers and magazines. He arrives unexpected, and she berates him mercilessly for having used their life together as "material" for his stories. She accuses him of betraying their tragedy and their love.