Thursday December 3rd, 2009

Carver and the Captain

Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life by Carol Sklenicka
Scribner, 592 pp., $35.00

For those who remember the publication of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in 1981, its importance is nearly impossible to exaggerate. The end of the prior decade was scorched by academic scrivening formulas, or otherwise filled with the genuinely talented minimalism of Mary Robison and Ann Beattie. But Carver’s lean phrases offered something more filling, and cast a light into a world the writing school algorithms could never get a bead on: alcoholics and deadbeats talking in their own scratched voices, adrift in a world of ostracizing, unfamiliar abundance. As Robert Pope said: “People imitated him and found the way back into high realism, which has little to do with Carver’s stories . . . [T]heir comedy is peculiar; He could have fit perfectly into the experimental period, but instead he became this salvation of American literature.”

The facts of Carver’s life are simple enough. While the blue collar atmosphere of his childhood friends’ houses appeared stolid and predictable, the air in Carver’s mill-town home quivered with menace. “Both parents’ personalities were distorted by tension and anger, frozen by obstinacy,” writes Carol Sklenicka in her new biography. According to Frank Sandemeyer, a co-worker of Carver’s father in Yakima, Washington: “At the Carvers, [t]hings seemed as if the whole enterprise might fly apart at any minute.” The atmosphere of his pre-teen years was captured in the germinal story “Nobody Said Anything,”  from his first collection Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? The story captures the theme that occupied Carver throughout his life: that of the divided self, which first manifests in the divided child. Like Pound’s toddler of Dante standing rapturous before a fish’s beauty in the Florence market, the young boy of “Nobody Said Anything” stands dumbfounded before a similar creature. But Carver’s is a monstrosity, truncated and demeaned, the mythical symbol of the watcher’s desire to be salvaged and redeemed: “He looked silver under the porchlight. He was whole again, and he filled the creel until I thought it would burst. I lifted him out. I held him.”

After Carver met Maryann Burk in a Yakima donut shop in 1955, they began a family and a fierce itinerancy, Maryann finally settling them down to teach high school so Carver could write full time. Earning his degree at Chico State in California, Carver studied under John Gardner. The white-haired mentor, himself a mass of violent contradictions, inculcated in Carver both the desire to write serious literature and the warning that making a living that way was nearly impossible. Yet early publication successes coaxed him onward, kindling a bristly hope in his oversized athletic frame. On May 29, 1967, four days after his twenty-ninth birthday, Carver received news he called “the best thing that’s happened, ever.” “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?” had been selected for Best American Short Stories 1967, and Carver returned to Iowa City, a young contender in the fabled Writer’s Workshop’s ring of champions.

Gordon Lish accepted his work for publication in Esquire, and Carver fell under the vain, manic spell of the man who was to tout himself as “Captain Fiction.” Newly sober after years of binging, Carver entered that period of his life he called “gravy”—everything that happened to him after his last drink in 1977. While Maryann saw Lish as a Machiavel to watch closely, Carver was too weak and dazzled to question the editor’s ruthless control, his merciless parings and reworkings. If, as Lionel Trilling would have it, authenticity and sincerity are the watermarks of valuable prose, the two questions that haunt Carver’s output beginning in the mid-seventies can be called the questions of authentic content and authentic voice.

The slapdash merging of intended subject matter and actual subject matter jumped out at careful readers of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? One got the feeling that the characters just might be fellow writing acolytes dressed up in the denim of steelworkers. Critics and writers like Dagoberto Gilb recognized that a genuine worker’s flow of duties and obligations would prevent the ruminations seen on the page:

These stories didn’t really seem to be about working people. Working people are energetic. They can be dangerous and energetic, but they are not sitting around. I could see where [Carver] came from the working class, but he wasn’t it. His stories were about graduate students’ lives, but he smartly made his stories about vacuum cleaner salesmen or whatever.

This problem began to be corrected as Carver’s mastery of vernacular improved. The later stories of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love still foregrounded dialogue, but settings and behavior fleshed out a more believable proletarian world. Where before there were simply duos speaking in empty rooms, scenes now simmered with yard sales gone haywire, thefts and repossessions, wobbling men finding the keys to strangers’ houses in their coats.

The issue of authenticity of voice—of whose writerly voice is really speaking—is the stuff of one of modern publishing’s longest and most agonizing soap operas. The original versions of the What We Talk About stories, reprinted in a new Library of America collection of Carver, are dense with narration and have a more robust strain of dialogue. When these “A” versions were honed into the stories making up (what is now called) Beginners and sent to Lish, Carver had himself gotten them down to what he thought was “the bone.” But the eventual “C” version brought into being by Lish shocked Carver, and left him vacillating between assertions that the editor was “a god” and a feeling that sounded like one of his inquisitive, mystified titles—this is not what I meant to say at all. As Sklenicka explains, Lish’s perspective of the completed work—the almost skeletal sheen and polish of his version—took precedence over the original expressions, desires, and tastes of the artist. Lish offered no further proof for the necessity of his heavy hand than the fact that neither Carver nor his agents had been able to place the original copy with major magazines. Lish answered one of the author’s letters with Socratic rapid-fire: “Which has the greater value? The document as it issues from the writer or the thing of beauty that was made? What remains is an artifact of power.”

Though this writer certainly has his problems with Lish, I tend to agree with Captain Fiction here. The efforts of Tess Gallagher and others to reissue Beginners as the “real” What We Talk About was ill-advised. At its worst, it bordered on farce and was, albeit counterintuitively, an insult to the author. As Carver’s good friend Richard Ford said (outraged at Gallagher’s revisionism), a writer writes for readers, and the last step toward the reader is the granting of freedom to the editor with whom the manuscript is entrusted. Lish correctly persuaded Carver that earlier versions of the book were sentimental and structurally baggy, and he was right in saying that the final thing was the most beautiful.

Sklenicka’s history of these struggles is compelling, though her prose can be clumsy and turgid. What she handles best is the dichotomies, the contradictions that lie behind the personalities of the greatest artists, what Updike said was “the good and bad in every man, that is more interesting than whether he is actually good or bad.” This encompasses both craftsmanship and morality. Sklenicka shows how Carver could be like Faulkner. When writing badly, he wrote truly abysmally; when writing well, his words possessed the power of revelation. She recounts his undivided loyalty to friends and supporters and his late-life lover Gallagher, existing as it all did beside his grim view of his “baleful” children and his terrible mistreatment of Maryann. Carver’s disparities were exemplified in his physical presentation. When I heard him read with Gallagher at the old Venice Jail (apropos) in 1988, scarcely a year before his death, he recited the late, majestic story “Elephant.” An awe settled over the audience, after lavish, reverential introductions. But his high, tinny voice grated, seeming to so contradict the frame it came from.

All in all, Sklenicka has done Carver and literary biography a great service with this volume. The notes on sources and tables and grids of first publications form a beautiful history of 1980s magazine prose, and her treatment of Carver’s late, supremely nourishing friendships (Ford, the brothers Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff, William Kittredge) are especially touching and subtly presented. Her chosen excerpts from the stories return you to the jolts those lightning-rod paragraphs had when you first read them, like my favorite, the opening sentences of “Mr Coffee and Mr Fixit”:

I’ve seen some things. I was going over to my mother’s to stay a few nights. But just as I got to the top of the stairs I looked and she was on the sofa kissing a man. It was summer. The door was open. The TV was going. That’s one of the things I’ve seen.

Thank you, Mr. Carver, for so sharply condensing tens of thousands of words of Freud. And thank you, Mr. Lish, for condensing this out of whatever was its original form.

Richard Wirick lives in Santa Monica, California, where he practices law and writes. He is the author of One Hundred Siberian Postcards, a memoir about the adoption of his daughter, and Kicking In, a forthcoming collection of stories.

Mentioned in this review:

Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love
Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?
Raymond Carver: Collected Stories (Library of America)