With Raymond Carver’s death from lung cancer on August 2, 1988 (at the age of fifty), American letters lost a major voice. Carver is credited with beginning the renaissance of realism in the short story, countering the experimental fiction of the 1960’s with a carefully observed, clean prose that inspired a generation of writers after him. Though he published his first story, “Pastoral,” in 1963, his first short-story collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? did not appear until 1976. One year later, the collection was nominated for the National Book Award, and that same year Carver suddenly stopped drinking, after having been hospitalized several times for alcoholism.
Carver’s second collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981; written with the support of a Guggenheim Fellowship), is considered a minimalist masterpiece. Critic Michael Gorra defines minimalism as a kind of writing “in which the intentional poverty, the anorexia, of the writer’s style [mirrors] the spiritual poverty of [the] characters’ lives.” In his essay “On Writing” (1981), Carver sketches his own views by citing the influence of three famous writers: Ezra Pound, from whom he took the quotation that “fundamental accuracy of statement is the one sole morality of writing”; Anton Chekhov, who showed him the importance of sudden awakenings, or epiphanies; and Geoffrey Wolff, from whose exhortation “No cheap tricks” he got his notion of no tricks at all. Carver’s writer’s creed is “Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.” Reflecting this fear of wasted language, the stories of Carver’s first two collections are lean and spare. Indeed, what is absent often matters as much as—or more than—what is present. With Cathedral (1983; nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award and runner-up for the 1984 Pulitzer Prize), Carver began to move away from the bleak pessimism of his first two collections toward a fuller and warmer vision of human nature.
Where I’m Calling From is Carver’s tenth book and includes his selection of the best thirty stories from the earlier collections mentioned above, combined with seven new stories that previously appeared only in The New Yorker. Maintaining his dedication to his craft, Carver revised or retitled a number of the stories for what he knew would be his last—and definitive—short-story collection. By organizing them in an essentially chronological sequence, Carver laid out a twenty-five-year writing career.
Carver begins Where I’m Calling From with “Nobody Said Anything,” a story whose emphasis on fishing recalls the influence of Ernest Hemingway and his Nick Adams stories. In “Nobody Said Anything,” a boy whose parents are quarreling bitterly feigns illness and cuts school. Once his parents are gone he heads for the creek, where he and another boy struggle together to catch a fish of near mythic proportions and color. When they catch their fish, they must decide how to apportion the single product of their shared labors and agree to divide the fish in half. The narrator takes the headed half home, where his parents are arguing so vigorously they do not notice the pan smoking on the stove. When he interrupts their quarrel to show them the fish, his mother screams and his father yells at him to get rid of it. The story closes with the narrator looking at the fish and saying, “I held him. I held that half of him.” Of course he only has half the fish but, as critics have noted, things are not what they seem in Carver’s fiction. Rather, they are much more than they seem. In “Nobody Said Anything” the dividing of the fish implies the imminent division of the family by divorce, while the half of the fish the boy holds suggests the one parent with whom he may soon be living.
“Neighbors” is the first story Carver published in Esquire (in 1971), where he published other stories under the guiding eye of the fiction editor, Gordon Lish, who moved Carver’s writing from the careful work he did with John Gardner at California State University, Chico, to the pruned style that marked his most minimalist period. When the Stones go out of town, they ask their neighbors, the Millers, to care for their cat, plants, and...
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