Raymond Carver’s decision to dedicate Cathedral to the memory of John Gardner, from whom Carver took a writing course in the fall of 1958, may seem rather odd to many readers. Gardner’s expansive stories and novels sprawl across page after page as the author seeks to affirm the eternal verities of moral fiction. Carver’s fiction is written in an entirely different mode: concise, elliptical, and tightly controlled, suggestive rather than (as with Gardner) exhaustive. This style, which several reviewers have inaccurately termed minimalist, is as clipped as Ernest Hemingway’s and as incisive and emotionally detached as Joan Didion’s. Nevertheless, Carver and Gardner do resemble each other in one most important way: their shared commitment to “values and craft,” as Carver phrases it in his foreword to Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist (1982).
Since the publication of his first collection of stories in 1977, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, Carver’s distinctive prose style and commitment to the craft of fiction have provoked widely divergent critical judgments. Although his work has been richly and deservedly praised—his first collection was nominated for a National Book Award, while his second, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981), helped Carver win the prestigious Mildred and Harold Straus Living Award—the two books (comprising thirty-nine at times very short stories) have led a few reviewers to question whether Carver’s style and “terrifying vision of ordinary human life in our country” (as Leonard Michaels once described it) has hardened into fashionable despair and mere literary affectation. The criticism is understandable but by no means merited, especially now that Cathedral has appeared, a work which, even as it recalls the earlier stories, marks a distinct advance in both the author’s vision and his narrative aesthetic.
Before discussing this advance, it is necessary to establish the chief object of Carver’s concern, the lives of his characters. These characters are not, as one reviewer has complained, “morbid caricatures”; rather, they are only as monotonous and monochromatic as the featureless, middle-class or lower-middle-class America in which they live—a world, incidentally, that Carver has progressively stripped of particular geographical details in order to focus better and more intensively on the internal lives of his characters. Carver does for his segment of the contemporary American population what Didion has done for her more affluent characters; he has portrayed a world in which the individual has been stripped of all the usual forms of support—family, religion, politics, economic security, shared culture, and so forth. Radically cut off from what once served to preserve and sustain human life, his characters necessarily fall back on themselves and their own meager resources. One dreams of living “in an old house surrounded by a wall”; another believes that she and her husband will thrive within the self-contained world of their marriage, but then the husband-narrator unintentionally makes clear how impoverished their lives actually are: “Some nights we went to a movie. Other nights we just stayed in and watched TV. Sometimes Fran baked things for me and we’d eat whatever it was all in a sitting.” Here is a quiet desperation such as Henry David Thoreau never could have imagined. For these people, transcendence seems less a problem than an impossibility. The simple, seemingly trivial ways in which their uncertainty manifests itself—what, for example, to bring one’s nominal friends when invited to dinner at their house—suggests a deeper dis-ease. They begin to discover the drab truth of certain clichés—time is what passes you by, dreams “are what you wake up from.” What they wake to is a dim perception of the fragility of their lives and of bad situations getting slowly but inexorably worse.
They do not concern themselves with the problems of radioactive waste, the greenhouse effect, or nuclear war; their disasters are not environmental or international but intensely personal. “Without looking, the birthday boy stepped off the curb at an intersection and was immediately knocked down by a car.” In another story, J. P. gets everything he wants: marriage, good job, children, house. Then, slowly and inexplicably, he begins drinking, and his life falls apart. These characters come to realize that their seemingly safe domestic lives have transmogrified into minor, even commonplace tragedies in which, as helpless victims, they can at best hope to endure rather than, as William Faulkner had it, prevail. As Carver explained in an interview, “They’d like to set things right, but they can’t” and so are left just trying to “do the best they can.” Often, the best is not much. In the aptly titled story “Preservation,” husband and wife spend a night discussing what he can do now that he has lost his job as a roofer, “but they couldn’t think of anything,” and so the husband spends the next three months lying on the living-room sofa. The narrator of “Where I’m Calling From” (the “where” refers to a rehabilitation house for alcoholics) adopts a similarly fatalistic view. “I’ve been here once before. What’s to say? I’m back. . . . Part of me wanted help. But there was another part.” In turning to alcohol, he is turning away from the pain of a failed marriage and eventually from all potentially painful human relationships. As he says in explaining why he will not call his girlfriend, also an alcoholic, who has recently learned she has vaginal cancer: “I hope she’s okay. But if she has something wrong with her, I don’t want to know about it.” Given such an attitude, the reader usually finds it easier to understand and sympathize with Carver’s isolates than to like them.
In rehabilitation houses, furnished rooms, and rented apartments, loneliness stalks these characters, often driving them to acts that only further separate them from others. Wes, for example (in “Chef’s House”), rents a house from his friend Chef and, like Carver, makes an apparently successful recovery from alcoholism. In Wes’s mind, however, the recovery is mysteriously linked to the rented house, a home of sorts, and when Chef says he needs the house for his daughter, the recovery abruptly ends, leaving Wes and his wife (who left her lover for Wes’s sake) homeless and alone. The story’s closing lines effectively summarize just how transient their lives are and how precarious is their hold on everyday existence: “Wes got up and pulled the drapes and the ocean was gone just like that. I went in to start supper. We still had some fish in the icebox. There wasn’t much else. We’ll clean it up tonight, I thought, and that will be the end of it.” As the narrator of “The Bridle” says about four different yet similar characters, “These people look whipped.” In Carver’s fiction, they often do.
The vision is bleak but convincing, the author relentless in his depiction of the darker side of ordinary American life yet compassionate as well, detached but never condescending. Something of a Samuel Beckett of the blue-collar classes, Carver has not until recently mixed his compassion for his characters with an equal measure of hope. It is precisely here that Cathedral represents a distinct advance over the previous works, a movement toward what Carver has called a more “generous” fiction that is particularly evident in the collection’s two finest pieces, “A Small, Good Thing” and “Cathedral.” A much shorter and much less “generous” version of “A Small, Good Thing” appeared under the title “The Bath” in Carver’s second collection. In that earlier version, a mother orders a birthday cake for her son, Scotty, who, on the morning of his birthday, is struck by a car and falls into a coma. While in the hospital, the baker (without identifying himself and apparently without any knowledge of the accident) calls the house several times, asking the parents (whichever one happens to be home at the time) if they have forgotten Scotty—meaning the cake, though they immediately—and guiltily—think of their son. Reading the story is a painful experience, especially for the reader who also may be a parent. The longer version, of which “The Bath,” slightly but significantly revised, forms the first half, is even more emotionally trying. In the second half of “A Small, Good Thing,” Scotty dies, and his stunned parents return home to face both the loss of their only child and the sudden emptiness of their own lives as well. The wife says, “He’s gone and now we’ll have to get used to that.” Before they can even begin to adjust, the phone rings; the wife realizes the caller’s identity and demands that her husband drive her to the bakery. The confrontation very nearly turns violent, but then a transformation occurs; the anger turns into grief, the grief into a special kind of understanding. Realizing what he has done, the baker asks for forgiveness and explains that while he is not evil, as the woman has claimed, neither is he entirely human. Lonely and childless, he has somehow lost his humanity, and it is the sense of loss that binds these three people together. “You have to eat and keep going,” the baker tells the grieving parents, offering them the rolls and bread he has made. “Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.” In this moment of communion (no other word will do to describe it), the baker regains what he has lost—as do the parents—becoming at once father and son to the childless couple, who, as the story ends, continue to sit at his table and “did not think of leaving.”
“Cathedral”—the first to have been written of the twelve stories in the collection—is arguably the best, a tour de force in which Carver seems determined to prove to himself as well as to the reader that in the contemporary wasteland, redemption is still possible, as it clearly was not in most of the author’s earlier fictions. As with all of his stories, the plot of “Cathedral” is simple and straightforward. A blind man named Robert visits the narrator and his wife, who worked for Robert some ten years before. The real story occurs not in the events of Robert’s visit but in the narrator’s changing attitude toward his unwanted guest. The blind man’s presence makes the narrator feel self-conscious (as if he, not Robert, were the stranger), even jealous and resentful. Robert, he thinks, may actually know more about his wife than he does. (The wife and the blind man have exchanged tape-recorded “letters” throughout the ten years.) At first, the narrator mentally derides Robert as “spiffy” and “creepy,” but gradually he begins to observe the blind man more closely. His scrutiny leads first to understanding and then, as in “A Small, Good Thing,” to his sympathetic identification with his guest. Whereas earlier he found Robert’s presence “disconcerting,” now the narrator is glad to have his company and concerned that Robert may not be able to visualize a cathedral from his description of it on the television screen. The problem stems less from Robert’s physiological blindness than from the narrator’s spiritual blindness—his self-centeredness and lack of faith in anything or anyone, including himself. He cannot describe a cathedral adequately, even to himself, because cathedrals do not really mean anything to him; nothing does. In the story’s remarkable conclusion, Robert asks the narrator to draw a cathedral while the blind man holds his hand. The narrator begins with a simple box that reminds him of his own house and then adds a roof, spires, arches, windows, flying buttresses: “I couldn’t stop.” Closing his eyes, he continues to draw, and as he draws he loses all of the anxiety, selfishness, and feeling of confinement that characterized him earlier. For the first time, he is free to understand, as the blind man has apparently understood all of his life despite the loss of his sight and of his wife, that “It’s really something”—the mystical “it” being purposely left undefined.
The blind man teaches the sighted narrator to see their shared world and to desire to live in it. The seeing in “Cathedral” corresponds to Carver’s purpose in writing these stories. His characters have an urgent need to explain themselves, their lives, and more especially their failures, but, like the woman in “A Small, Good Thing” who “didn’t know how to begin” or the man in “Careful” who “didn’t know where to start,” they are unable to articulate the point of their stories—the point, really, of their lives. Carver’s purpose, however, is not to explain; it is, more humbly, to “allow certain areas of life to be understood a little better than they were before.” These “certain areas” are only superficially socioeconomic in nature; as the resemblance between his fictions and those of Beckett, Didion, Renata Adler, John Cheever, and Walker Percy suggests, Carver’s concern is not with the problems of any one class but rather with the universal condition of psychological and spiritual exhaustion that afflicts contemporary man.
In his three collections, Carver has illuminated the darkened lives of his defeated and bewildered characters; only in Cathedral, however, has he begun to affirm, as John Gardner would have said, the emotional values that enable them to go on in the face of what appear to be overwhelming odds and certain defeat. His is a stoic vision, one that is tempered, however, by the possibility—no longer so terrifyingly remote—of understanding and perhaps even love.