Here’s something I came across while browsing through my updates, a very good article by Stephen King.
Raymond Carver’s Life and Stories
By Stephen King
Illustration by Ruth Gwily, based on a photograph by Bob Adelman/Corbis
Raymond Carver, surely the most influential writer of American short stories in the second half of the 20th century, makes an early appearance in Carol Sklenicka’s exhaustive and sometimes exhausting biography as a 3- or 4-year-old on a leash. “Well, of course I had to keep him on a leash,” his mother, Ella Carver, said much later — and seemingly without irony.
Mrs. Carver might have had the right idea. Like the perplexed lower-middle-class juicers who populate his stories, Carver never seemed to know where he was or why he was there. I was constantly reminded of a passage in Peter Straub’s “Ghost Story”: “The man just drove, distracted by this endless soap opera of America’s bottom dogs.”
Born in Oregon in 1938, Carver soon moved with his family to Yakima, Wash. In 1956, the Carvers relocated to Chester, Calif. A year later, Carver and a couple of friends were carousing in Mexico. After that the moves accelerated: Paradise, Calif.; Chico, Calif.; Iowa City, Sacramento, Palo Alto, Tel Aviv, San Jose, Santa Cruz, Cupertino, Humboldt County . . . and that takes us up only to 1977, the year Carver took his last drink.
Through most of those early years of restless travel, he dragged his two children and his long-suffering wife, Maryann, the mostly unsung heroine of Sklenicka’s tale, behind him like tin cans tied to the bumper of a jalopy that no car dealer in his right mind would take in trade. It’s no wonder that his friends nicknamed him Running Dog. Or that when his mother took him into downtown Yakima, she kept him on a leash.
As brilliant and talented as he was, Ray Carver was also the destructive, everything-in-the-pot kind of drinker who hits bottom, then starts burrowing deeper. Longtime A.A.’s know that drunks like Carver are master practitioners of the geographical cure, refusing to recognize that if you put an out-of-control boozer on a plane in California, an out-of-control boozer is going to get off in Chicago. Or Iowa. Or Mexico.
And until mid-1977, Raymond Carver was out of control. While teaching at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he and John Cheever became drinking buddies. “He and I did nothing but drink,” Carver said of the fall semester of 1973. “I don’t think either of us ever took the covers off our typewriters.” Because Cheever had no car, Carver provided transportation on their twice-weekly booze runs. They liked to arrive at the liquor store just as the clerk was unlocking for the day. Cheever noted in his journal that Carver was “a very kind man.” He was also an irresponsible boozehound who habitually ran out on the check in restaurants, even though he must have known it was the waitress who had to pay the bill for such dine-and-dash customers. His wife, after all, often waited tables to support him.
It was Maryann Burk Carver who won the bread in those early years while Ray drank, fished, went to school and began writing the stories that a generation of critics and teachers would miscategorize as “minimalism” or “dirty realism.” Writing talent often runs on its own clean circuit (as the Library of America’s “Raymond Carver: Collected Stories” attests), but writers whose works shine with insight and mystery are often prosaic monsters at home.
Maryann Burk met the love of her life — or her nemesis; Carver appears to have been both — in 1955, while working the counter of a Spudnut Shop in Union Gap, Wash. She was 14. When she and Carver married in 1957, she was two months shy of her 17th birthday and pregnant. Before turning 18, she discovered she was pregnant again. For the next quarter-century she supported Ray as a cocktail waitress, a restaurant hostess, an encyclopedia saleswoman and a teacher. Early in the marriage she packed fruit for two weeks in order to buy him his first typewriter.
She was beautiful; he was hulking, possessive and sometimes violent. In Carver’s view, his own infidelities did not excuse hers. After Maryann indulged in “a tipsy flirtation” at a dinner party in 1975 — by which time Carver’s alcoholism had reached the full-blown stage — he hit her upside the head with a wine bottle, severing an artery near her ear and almost killing her. “He needed ‘an illusion of freedom,’ ” Sklenicka writes, “but could not bear the thought of her with another man.” It is one of the few points in her admirable biography where Sklenicka shows real sympathy for the woman who supported Carver and seems to have never stopped loving him.
Although Sklenicka exhibits something like awe for Carver the writer, and clearly understands the warping influence alcohol had on his life, she is almost nonjudgmental when it comes to Carver the nasty drunk and ungrateful (not to mention sometimes dangerous) husband. She quotes the novelist Diane Smith (“Letters From Yellowstone”) as saying, “That was a bad generation of men,” and pretty much leaves it at that. When she quotes Maryann calling herself a “literary Cinderella, living in exile for the good of Carver’s career,” the first Mrs. Carver comes across as just another whining ex-wife rather than as the stalwart she undoubtedly was. Ray and Maryann were married for 25 years, and it was during those years that Carver wrote the bulk of his work. His time with the poet Tess Gallagher, the only other significant woman in his life, was less than half that.
Nevertheless, it was Gallagher who reaped the personal benefits of Carver’s sobriety (he took his last drink a year before they fell in love) and the financial ones as well. During the divorce proceedings, Maryann’s lawyer said — this both haunts me and to some degree taints my enjoyment of Carver’s stories — that without a decent court settlement, Maryann Burk Carver’s post-divorce life would be “like a bag of doorknobs that wouldn’t open any doors.”
Maryann’s response was, “Ray says he’ll send money every month, and I believe him.” Carver carried through on that promise, although not without a good deal of grousing. But when he died in 1988, the woman who had provided his financial foundation discovered that she had been cut out of sharing the continuing financial rewards of Carver’s popular short-story collections. Carver’s savings alone totaled almost $215,000 at the time of his death; Maryann got about $10,000. Carver’s mother got even less: at age 78, she was living in public housing in Sacramento and eking out a living as a “grandmother aide” in an elementary school. Sklenicka doesn’t call this shabby treatment, but I am happy to do it for her.
It’s as a chronicle of Carver’s growth as a writer that Sklenicka’s book is invaluable, particularly after his career path crossed that of the editor Gordon Lish, the self-styled “Captain Fiction.” Any readers who doubt Lish’s baleful influence on the stories in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” are apt to think differently after reading Sklenicka’s eye-opening account of this difficult and ultimately poisonous relationship. Those still not convinced can read the corresponding stories in “Beginners,” now available in the sublimely portable and long-overdue “Raymond Carver: Collected Stories.”
In 1972, Lish changed the title of Carver’s second Esquire story — which he edited heavily — from “Are These Actual Miles?” (interesting and mysterious) to “What Is It?” (boring). When Carver, wild to be published in a major slick, decided to accept the changes, Maryann accused him “of being a whore, of selling out to the establishment.” John Gardner had once told Carver that line-editing was not negotiable. Carver may have accepted that — most writers willing to submit to the editing process do — but Lish’s changes were wide and deep. Carver argued that “a major magazine publication was worth the compromise.” Lish, who tried unsuccessfully to edit Leonard Gardner (who would go on to write “Fat City”) with a similarly heavy hand, got his way with Carver. It was a harbinger.
Was Gordon Lish a good editor? Undoubtedly. Curtis Johnson, a textbook editor who introduced Lish to Carver, claims that Lish had “infallible taste in fiction.” But, as Maryann feared, he was — in Ray Carver’s case, at least — much better at discovery than development. And with Carver, he got what he wanted. Perhaps he sensed an essential weakness at Carver’s core (“people-pleasing” is what recovering alcoholics call it). Perhaps it was the strangely elitist view he seems to have held of Carver’s writing, branding the characters “grossly inept” and speaking of “their blatant illiteracies, of which Carver himself was unaware.” This did not stop him from taking credit for Carver’s success; Lish is said to have bragged that Carver was “his creature,” and what appears on the back jacket of “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”(1976), Carver’s first book of stories, is not Raymond Carver’s photograph but Gordon Lish’s name.
Sklenicka’s account of the changes in Carver’s third book of stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (1981), is meticulous and heartbreaking. There were, she says, three versions: A, B and C. Version A was the manuscript Carver submitted. It was titled “So Much Water So Close to Home.” B was the manuscript Lish initially sent back. He changed the name of the story “Beginners” to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and that became the new title of the book. Although Carver was disturbed by this, he nonetheless signed a binding (and unagented) contract in 1980. Soon after, Version C — the version most readers know — arrived on Carver’s desk. The differences between B and C “astounded” him. “He had urged Lish to take a pencil to the stories,” Sklenicka writes. “He had not expected . . . a meat cleaver.” Unsure of himself, Carver was only three years into sobriety after two decades of heavy drinking; his correspondence with Lish over the wholesale changes to his work alternated between groveling (“you are a wonder, a genius”) and outright begging for a return to Version B. It did no good. According to Tess Gallagher, Lish refused by telephone to restore the earlier version, and if Carver understood nothing else, he understood that Lish held the “power of publication access.”
This Hobson’s choice is the beating heart of “Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life.” Any writer might wonder what he’d do in such a case. Certainly I did; in 1973, when my first novel was accepted for publication, I was in similar straits: young, endlessly drunk, trying to support a wife and two children, writing at night, hoping for a break. The break came, but until reading Sklenicka’s book, I thought it was the $2,500 advance Doubleday paid for “Carrie.” Now I realize it may have been not winding up with Gordon Lish as my editor.
One needs only to scan the stories in “Beginners” and the ones in “What We Talk About” to see the most obvious change: the prose in “Beginners” consists of dense blocks of narration broken up by bursts of dialogue; in “What We Talk About,” there is so much white space that some of the stories (“After the Denim,” for instance) look almost like chapters in a James Patterson novel. In many cases, the man who didn’t allow editors to change his own work gutted Carver’s, and on this subject Sklenicka voices an indignation she is either unwilling or unable to muster on Maryann’s behalf, calling Lish’s editing of Carver “a usurpation.” He imposed his own style on Carver’s stories, and the so-called minimalism with which Carver is credited was actually Lish’s deal. “Gordon . . . came to think that he knew everything,” Curtis Johnson says. “It became pernicious.”
Sklenicka analyzes many of the changes, but the wise reader will turn to the “Collected Stories” and see them for him- or herself. Two of the most dismaying examples are “If It Please You” (“After the Denim” in “What We Talk About”) and “A Small, Good Thing” (“The Bath” in “What We Talk About”).
In “If It Please You,” James and Edith Packer, a getting-on-in-years couple, arrive at the local bingo hall to discover their regular places have been taken by a young hippie couple. Worse, James observes the young man cheating (although he doesn’t win; his girlfriend does). During the course of the evening, Edith whispers to her husband that she’s “spotting.” Later, back at home, she tells him the bleeding is serious, and she’ll have to go to the doctor the following day. In bed, James struggles to pray (a survival skill both James and his creator acquired in daily A.A. meetings), first hesitantly, then “beginning to mutter words aloud and to pray in earnest. . . . He prayed for Edith, that she would be all right.” The prayers don’t bring relief until he adds the hippie couple to his meditations, casting aside his former bitter feelings. The story ends on a note of hard-won hope: “ ‘If it please you,’ he said in the new prayers for all of them, the living and the dead.” In the Lish-edited version, there are no prayers and hence no epiphany — only a worried and resentful husband who wants to tell the irritating hippies what happens “after the denim,” after the games. It’s a total rewrite, and it’s a cheat.
The contrast between “The Bath” (Lish-edited) and “A Small, Good Thing” (Ray Carver unplugged) is even less palatable. On her son’s birthday, Scotty’s mother orders a birthday cake that will never be eaten. The boy is struck by a car on his way home from school and winds up in a coma. In both stories, the baker makes dunning calls to the mother and her husband while their son lies near death in the hospital. Lish’s baker is a sinister figure, symbolic of death’s inevitability. We last hear from him on the phone, still wanting to be paid. In Carver’s version, the couple — who are actually characters instead of shadows — go to see the baker, who apologizes for his unintended cruelty when he understands the situation. He gives the bereaved parents coffee and hot rolls. The three of them take this communion together and talk until morning. “Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this,” the baker says. This version has a satisfying symmetry that the stripped-down Lish version lacks, but it has something more important: it has heart.
“Lish was able . . . to make a snowman out of a snowdrift” is what Sklenicka says about his version of Carver’s stories, but that’s not much of a metaphor. She does better when talking about Lish’s changes to a passage in “They’re Not Your Husband” (in “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”), pointing out that the Lish version is “meaner, coarser and somewhat diminishing to both characters.” Carver himself says it best. When the narrator of “The Fling” finally faces up to the fact that he has no love or comfort to give his father, he says of himself, “I was all smooth surface with nothing inside except emptiness.” Ultimately, that’s what is wrong with the Ray Carver stories as Lish presented them to the world, and what makes both the Sklenicka biography and the “Collected Stories” such a welcome and necessary corrective.
Stephen King’s latest novel is “Under the Dome.”