It is difficult for an established writer to convince a publisher to take a chance on issuing a collection of short stories. Thus, when a relatively new and unknown author comes out with such a book, the reader may rest assured that the book must succeed on its own merits. Raymond Carver, whose stories heretofore have appeared largely in the smaller literary magazines (though some have appeared in Esquire and Harper’s), specializes in very short, delicate vignettes of the commonplace. Although some of these stories have been previously anthologized in Best American Short Stories: 1967, Short Stories from the Literary Magazines, and Best Little Magazine Fiction of 1970 and 1971, they are now made available as a group to a wider reading public for the first time through the present publication. These stories are not the type to be readily understood or appreciated by a popular audience, but the more discerning reader will find a rare treat in the subtle, enigmatic portraits of modern life.
Carver does not condescend to entice readers with shocking or startling attention-getting openings. Rather, the stories almost invariably begin with flat understatement, and progress through to their subtle, inconclusive endings, leaving the reader barely aware that something of significance has happened. A closer reading, however, yields wry insights, judgments that are usually beyond the command of the characters in the stories themselves.
Carver’s short stories are masterpieces of concision and understatement. Attempts at analysis cannot do justice to the delicate spell woven by these glimpses of domestic tranquility marred by the occasional unexpected happening. The title of the book itself, which is also the title of the longest story in the collection, illustrates Carver’s basic appeal. An expression of exasperation, of a breakdown in communication familiar to all of us, it is spoken by a harried husband after spending the night trying to deal with his wife’s admitted infidelity of four years previous. His suspicions had smoldered all these years until he finally wheedled an admission from her. His reaction to the news is more of a shock to him than the fact of her unfaithfulness, and wandering about in a kind of daze, he is finally mugged at the waterfront. On his return home in the morning, his problem is still unresolved; his wife’s attempts to discuss it elicits from him on the phrase, “Will you please be quiet, please?” as he tries to sleep. As in real life, there is no neat, pat solution to his dilemma; the story ends with his marveling at the “impossible changes he felt moving over him.” Will he be able to live with his new burden, or will his relationship with his wife radically change? Many readers will wonder what occurs at the conclusion of this and several other stories in this collection, for everything, including the endings, is underplayed.
If there is a unifying theme running throughout all the stories, it is that life continues and our task is simply to endure. Crises are not disposed of with finality, never to arise again. At best one can only hope, with the hero of the title story, that such an “impossible” change may come over him and he will be able to come to terms with reality. Throughout, one is left with the feeling expressed by another of Carver’s characters from the story, “Sixty Acres”: “Yet he could not understand why he felt something crucial had happened, a failure. But nothing had happened.” Paradoxically, something has happened, but these forlorn protagonists cannot grasp its significance.
Ranging from the two-page description of relatives commenting on the appearance of the newborn child in “The Father,” to the title story of twenty-four pages, the twenty-two stories comprising this volume are very short, usually less than ten pages. Sometimes exciting things almost happen, or are alluded to, but these are not the substance of Carver’s tales. Instead, he concentrates on the commonplace. In “Put Yourself in My Shoes,” he ironically plays with this concept of the writer ignoring sensational stories to concentrate on the minor domestic quarrels of everyday life. The title of the story is a double pun, referring both to the author living other people’s lives in his writing, and to the writer in the story living in another person’s house. In this story, Myers, who has quit his job to be a writer, is vacuuming rugs at home when he is...