... the best American short story writer, Raymond Carver
Every time I revisit Raymond Carver’s writing I become viscerally moved. I find myself sometimes catching my breath at a sentence, at a paragraph, at an idea. What is it in Carver’s writing that touches me so? I find this strong reaction in me as I read the collection of Carver’s essays, poems and stories. I hope, in this exploration, to try to figure out why.
FIRES, the title of this collection, are representative of Carver’s writings, essays, poems and stories. The idea of “Fire” comes from Carver’s mentor, John Gardner, who exclaimed that “fire” defined the essential for a writer.
Carver also touches on other influences on his writing. He claims that his two children were the greatest influence on his production as a writer. It was in the mid-sixties, frustrated at a Laundromat dealing with the family wash, Carver came to the realization that he would “…always find myself in this position of unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction.” Carver loved his children deeply. His early marriage and birth of two children before he was twenty, though, set a dimension of constraint surrounding what he might accomplish as a writer. Carver speaks of “…ferocious years of parenting…” that made it so difficult to think of writing as anything longer than a poem or short story. Not surprising in an essay here, ON WRITING, Carver tells us his instincts for writing became honed for shorter fiction. “Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on!” This became a hallmark.
I was deeply moved by DISTANCE, a story about brevity and family, typifying Carver’s style and sentiments. The story begins in a Milan hotel; a daughter visiting a father. The father and daughter visit infrequently. The daughter asks to be told what it was like “back then.” The father demurs, but with the daughter’s insistence, tells a story of when first married, he at 18 and his wife 17.
Crazy in love, a baby soon follows. The three lived together in a small apartment above a dentist’s office. Cleaning the dentist’s office and other chores like shoveling snow paid the rent. The baby was just three weeks old. After cleaning the office one evening, the new father called an old hunting friend of his father’s, Carl. An arrangement was made for 5:30am the following morning for a hunting trip.
The boy and girl, as Carver will continue to refer to them, got the infant ready for bed. During the night both parents frequently take turns trying to sooth the distressed baby, turns that continue till dawn. When the boy father readies himself to leave for his hunting trip, the girl mother laments that the boy father must not leave her with their sick baby. “You’re going to have to choose, the girl said. Carl or us. I mean it, you’ve got to choose.” With a stare, without comment, the boy father drives to Carl’s. When he gets there, though, he tells Carl the baby is sick, “The thing is, I guess I can’t go this time, Carl.” “ I GUESS I can’t…”, is a question for confirmation from Carl, an ambivalent decision, or both? Carl says, “What the hell, this hunting business you can take or leave it. It’s not important.” Carl adds that he probably won’t miss much anyway and how lucky the boy is. The boy, husband father makes his way home.
“The living room light was on, but the girl was asleep on the bed and the baby was asleep beside her. The boy took off his boots, pants and shirt. He was quiet about it. In his socks and woolen underwear, he sat on the sofa and read the morning paper.”
A little later, the boy goes to the kitchen and begins to cook bacon. The girl comes out in her robe and silently wraps her arms around the boy from behind. Then the girl tells the boy that she is sorry for what she said and doesn’t understand why she did it. Then the girl takes over the cooking. As the boy cuts into the waffle thick with maple syrup she has prepared, it turns over in his lap covering the front of his woolen underwear. They both are reduced to hilarious laughter.
“He peeled off his woolen underwear and threw it at the bathroom door. Then he opened his arms and she moved into them. We won’t fight anymore, she said. It’s not worth it, is it?”
“That’s right," he said.
“We won’t fight anymore," she said.
“The boy said, we won’t." Then he kissed her.
So ends the tale of a father to a daughter who has come to visit. The daughter asks what happened, “I mean later?” The father shrugs and lamely says that things change without realization or wanting to. The story ends as the father remembers how laughter sealed them off from the cold outside, “…for a while anyway.”
Each time I read this story it grabs me. All kinds of feelings and thoughts fly around. My marriage began at 22. I went to Boston University for my freshman year a week after our honeymoon. By my junior year we had four children, Ellen, Elizabeth and our twins, Michael and Maura. I went to college days and worked evenings, first in a gas station and then in a bank till 9 or 10pm. Those were hard, responsible years as Carver suggested, but happy too, with the future at hand.
I read this story as a prose poem, powerfully conveying the sentiments expressed. The father’s tale is told in brief though tender sentences.
“He peeled off the woolen underwear and threw it at the bath-room door. Then he opened his arms and she moved into them.”
This is the structure
of the story
When I’m captivated by stories like this it is from deep, personal connection. I too have felt the strong, powerful tug of fatherly responsibility. And ambivalence, too, though that comes less easily to the surface. Carver poetically shows how we can love wife, kids, and feel beat up by them sometimes, all at once.
Entwined with such sentiments is the sparse, fluent, intimate language Carver uses to tell the story. The style and language draws me in and warmly cloaks me.
September 5, 2008