Carver's own life paralleled that of one of his characters. Born in an Oregon logging town, the author was married and the father of two before he was twenty years old. Also like his characters, Carver worked at a series of low paying jobs: he "picked tulips, pumped gas, swept hospital corridors, swabbed toilets, [and] managed an apartment complex," according to Bruce Weber in a New York Times Magazine profile of the author. Carver's wife at the time, continues Weber, "worked for the phone company, waited tables, [and] sold a series of book digests door-to-door." Not coincidentally, "of all the writers at work today, Carver may have [had] the most distinct vision of the working class," as Ray Anello observes in a Newsweek article. Carver taught creative writing in California and produced two books of poetry before his first book of short stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, was published in 1976.
In introducing readers to his world of the desperation of ordinary people, Carver created tales that are "brief . . . but by no means stark," notes Geoffrey Wolff in his New York Times Book Review piece on Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? Continues the critic: "They imply complexities of action and motive and they are especially artful in their suggestion of repressed violence. No human blood is shed in any of these stories, yet almost all of them hold a promise of mayhem of some final, awful breaking from confines, and breaking through to liberty." The theme of breaking from confines is central to one of the stories, "Neighbors," in which Bill and Arlene Miller agree to feed their neighbors' cat while the neighbors, the Stones, are on vacation. With access to the Stones' home, the Millers find themselves increasingly taken with their friends' clothes, furniture, and other belongings. Bill and Arlene, in fact, begin to assume the identities of the Stones; "each finds this strangely stimulating, and their sex life prospers, though neither can find anything much to say about it at all," reports Edwards. The end of the story finds the Millers clinging to the Stones' door as their neighbors return, knowing that their rich fantasy life will soon end.
The author's "first book of stories explored a common plight rather than a common subject," notes New York Times Book Review critic Michael Wood. "His characters were lost or diminished in their own different ways. The 17 stories in [Carver's third collection, What We Talk about When We Talk about Love], make up a more concentrated volume, less a collection than a set of variations on the themes of marriage, infidelity and the disquieting tricks of human affection." "The first few pieces seem thin and perfunctory," Adam Mars-Jones writes in the Times Literary Supplement, "and there is a recurring pattern . . . of endings which lurch suddenly sideways, moving off in a direction that seems almost random." Anatole Broyard finds such endings frustrating. In his New York Times review of What We Talk about When We Talk about Love, Broyard criticizes what he calls "the most flagrant and common imposition in current fiction, to end a story with a sententious ambiguity that leaves the reader holding the bag."
"Perhaps there is a reason for this," says Mars-Jones. "Endings and titles are bound to be a problem for a writer like Carver, since readers and reviewers so habitually use them as keys to interpret everything else in a story. So he must make his endings enigmatic and even mildly surrealist, and his titles for the most part oblique. Sometimes he over-compensates." And Newsweek's Peter S. Prescott feels that all seventeen stories in Carver's third collection "are excellent, and each gives the impression that it could not have been written more forcefully, or in fewer words."
Prescott also notes that the author was concerned "with the collapse of human relationships. Some of his stories take place at the moment things fall apart; others, after the damage has been done, while the shock waves still reverberate. Alcohol and violence are rarely far removed from what happens, but sometimes, in another characteristic maneuver, Carver will nudge the drama that triggers a crisis aside to show that his story has really been about something else all along." "Carver's is not a particularly lyrical prose," says Weber in his New York Times Magazine article: "A typical sentence is blunt and uncomplicated, eschewing the ornaments of descriptive adverbs and parenthetical phrases. His rhythms are often repetitive or brusque, as if to suggest the strain of people learning to express newly felt things, fresh emotions. Time passes in agonizingly linear fashion, the chronology of a given scene marked by one fraught and simple gesture after another. Dialogue is usually clipped, and it is studded with commonplace observations of the concrete objects on the table or on the wall rather than the elusive, important issues in the air."
Of Carver's 1984 short fiction collection, Cathedral, "it would be hard to imagine a more dispirited assortment of figures," declares David Lehman in a Newsweek review. In each story, a "note of transcendent indifference, beyond resignation or fatigue, is sounded," adds Lehman, cautioning, "fun to read they're not." But, the critic stresses, "it's impossible to ignore Carver's immense talent." In Cathedral, Carver rewrites the ending of one of his most acclaimed stories from What We Talk about When We Talk about Love. The original story, "The Bath," is about a mother who orders a special cake for her eight-year-old son's birthday—but the boy is hit by a car on that day and is rushed to the hospital, where he lingers in a coma. The baker, aware only that the parents haven't picked up their expensive cake, badgers them with endless calls demanding his money. As the story ends, the boy's fate is still unknown, and the desperate parents hear the phone ring again. In Cathedral, the author retells this story (now titled "A Small, Good Thing") up to the final phone ring. At this point, ambiguity vanishes; Carver reveals that the boy has died, and the call is from the irate baker. But this time the parents confront the baker with the circumstances, and the apologetic man invites them over to his bakery. There he tells the parents his own sad story of loneliness and despair and feeds them fresh coffee and warm rolls, because "eating is a small, good thing in a time like this."
"In revising 'The Bath' into 'A Small, Good Thing,' Carver has indeed gone into [what he describes as] 'the heart of what the story is about,' and in the process has written an entirely new story—has created, if you will, a completely new world," declares Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post Book World. "The first version is beautifully crafted and admirably concise, but lacking in genuine compassion; the mysterious caller is not so much a human being as a mere voice, malign and characterless. But in the second version that voice becomes a person, one whose own losses are, in different ways, as crippling and heartbreaking as the one suffered by the grieving parents." As Broyard writes in a New York Times review of Cathedral, "It is typical of Mr. Carver's stories that comfort against adversity is found in incongruous places, that people find improbable solace. The improbable and the homely are [the author's] territory. He works in the bargain basement of the soul." Yardley maintains that "'The Bath' is a good short story," while "'A Small, Good Thing' comes breathtakingly close to perfection."
New Republic reviewer Dorothy Wickenden agrees that "A Small, Good Thing" and the story "Cathedral" "are astute, even complex, psychological dramas," but remarks that "a touch of sentimentality, an element previously foreign to Carver's work, has crept into these stories. Perhaps because he doesn't quite trust the sense of hope with which he leaves his characters, the writing at the end becomes self-consciously simple and the scenes of resolution contrived." Yet "compared with his previous two collections of stories," Broyard concludes, "[ Cathedral] shows an increase in vitality. Like a missionary, Mr. Carver seems to be gradually reclaiming or redeeming his characters."
According to New York Times Book Review critic Irving Howe, Carver's stories evoke "strong American literary traditions. Formally, they summon remembrances of Hemingway and perhaps Stephen Crane, masters of tightly packed fiction. In subject matter they draw upon the American voice of loneliness and stoicism, the native soul locked in this continent's space. [The author's] characters, like those of many earlier American writers, lack a vocabulary that can release their feelings, so they must express themselves mainly through obscure gesture and berserk display." And Paul Gray, writing about Cathedral in Time, says that "Carver's art masquerades as accident, scraps of information that might have been overheard at the supermarket check-out or local beer joint. His most memorable people live on the edge: of poverty, alcoholic self-destruction, loneliness. Something in their lives denies them a sense of community. They feel this lack intensely, yet are too wary of intimacy to touch other people, even with language."
Such appraisals of his writing left Carver himself a little wary. He told Weber: "Until I started reading these reviews of my work, praising me, I never felt the people I was writing about were so bad. . . . The waitress, the bus driver, the mechanic, the hotel keeper. God, the country is filled with these people. They're good people. People doing the best they could."
Carver's 1988 short fiction collection Where I'm Calling From, released shortly before his death, combines new and previously published stories. The entire volume is colored by Carver's standard themes of alienation, failed relationships, and death, but critics generally considered the newer contributions softer and more rambling than the author's earlier, more intense pieces. Where I'm Calling From was nominated for both a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Critics Circle Award.
Carver also wrote extensively as a poet. A collection of his poetry, including some works being written shortly before his death, was published in A New Path to the Waterfall. Although he had already released a volume of his collected verse, the diagnosis of lung cancer inspired him to write another volume. These poems are characterized by a reliance on sentence-sounds and a structure steeped in storytelling. Edna Longley comments in the London Review of Books that "all his writing tends toward dramatic monologue, present-tense soliloquy that wears the past like a hairshirt." He explores tortured marriages and strained familial relationships, all of which lead him bravely into discussing his own terminal illness. Longley praises Carver for his ability to forge solid beginnings and endings: "A Carver poem instantly establishes its presence." Fred Chappell, writing in the Kenyon Review, takes a much different view of the book. He admits that he had reservations in reviewing it: "My personal impression has been that Carver desiccated the short story and that his effort to trivialize the form has been as irrelevant as it was unsuccessful. . . . the poems here are pretty bad. In fact, it is difficult to think of these productions as poems; they stand in relation to poetry rather as iron ore does to Giacometti sculpture."
In 1992 a collection of Carver's early works was published. No Heroics, Please: Uncollected Writings contains poems, essays, book reviews, and other pieces that Carver had chosen not to include in any of his other collected work. Several of the short stories included had only been published before in student literary magazines. Of interest was the fact that in these stories Carver uses literary devises such as flashbacks and experimentation with verb tenses—techniques he shunned in his later work. Alan Davis comments in the Hudson Review that "the artfulness of Carver, the way he consciously chisels a world out of workaday detail, becomes quickly apparent after perusing his earliest stories."
Several of Carver's previously published short stories received attention when acclaimed film director Robert Altman turned them into a motion picture. Although Altman took some liberties in adapting these stories for the screen, they remained essentially true to Carver's ideas. The stories were collected into the book Short Cuts, which bears the same name as the movie. In one story, a couple becomes entranced with their neighbor's life when they are left to cat-sit for a weekend. In "So Much Water So Close to Home," a wife learns that the source of her marital disharmony is the fact that her husband found a drowned woman while on a fishing trip and took days before reporting his find to the police. "Jerry and Molly and Sam" chronicles the life of a disgruntled husband and father who thinks ditching the family pet will relieve some of his stress.
"I never figured I'd make a living writing short stories," Carver told Penelope Moffet in a Publishers Weekly interview only a few months before he died. "How far in this world are you going to get writing short stories? I never had stars in my eyes. I never had the big-score mentality." Astonished by his literary prominence, Carver told Moffet that fame "never ceases to amaze me. And that's not false modesty, either. I'm pleased and happy with the way things have turned out. But I was surprised."
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- Winter Insomnia (poems), Kayak, 1970.
- Put Yourself in My Shoes (short stories), Capra, 1974.
- Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (short stories), McGraw, 1976.
- At Night the Salmon Move (poems), Capra, 1976.
- Furious Seasons (short stories), Capra, 1977.
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- Two Poems, Scarab Press, 1982.
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Poems By Raymond Carver
Articles by Raymond Carver
Raymond Carver was one of a handful of contemporary short story writers credited with reviving what was once thought of as a dying literary form. His stories mainly take place in his native Pacific Northwest region; they are peopled with the type of lower-middle-class characters the author was familiar with while he was growing up. In a New York Review of Books article, Thomas R. Edwards describes Carver's fictional world as a place where "people worry about whether their old cars will start, where unemployment or personal bankruptcy are present dangers, where a good time consists of smoking pot with the neighbors, with a little cream soda and M & M's on the side. . . . Carver's characters are waitresses, mechanics, postmen, high school teachers, factory workers, door-to-door salesmen. [Their surroundings are] not for them a still unspoiled scenic wonderland, but a place where making a living is as...