Cathedral Criticism
by Raymond Carver

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Paul Gray (review date 19 September 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Cathedral, in Time, Vol. 122, September 19, 1983, p. 95.

[In the following review, Gray suggests that Cathedral contains hidden depths of meaning.]

For years now, the demographics of the American short story have been moving up-scale. The line of Hemingway drifters and Flannery O'Connor grotesques seems to be dying out. Characters rarely worry any more about finding God or their next meal. They are likely instead to be well educated, sensitive to a fault, politically liberal, and affluent enough to feel pleasurable guilt in their possessions. They tend, in short, to resemble the stereotypical reader of The New Yorker, which is where the luckiest of these fictional people are chosen to appear. The rejected ones must troop off to the quarterlies and go through their paces (at greatly reduced rates) for smaller audiences composed of people with whom they can feel equally at home. These days a good many characters in short stories are also quarterly readers.

Author Raymond Carver, 45, has successfully bucked this trend toward the gentrification of short fiction. Furthermore, he has done so in part in The New Yorker, where three of the twelve stories in Cathedral originally appeared.

Carver's art masquerades as accident, scraps of information that might have been overheard at the supermarket checkout counter or the local beer joint. His most memorable people live on the edge: of poverty, alcoholic self-destruction, loneliness. Something in their lives denies them a sense of community. They feel this lack intensely, yet are too wary of intimacy to touch other people, even with language. "What's to says?" wonders one man. Another, traveling to meet the son he has not seen in many years, dreads the moment of greeting: "He really didn't know what he was going to say."

Such uncertainty leads to eruptions of inappropriate behavior. In "Feathers," a man named Jack and his wife Fran are invited to dinner at the home of one of Jack's co-workers. They arrive and find a peacock strutting about the front yard, a wife happily domesticated in the kitchen and their host offering them drinks in a room where a TV set is carrying a stockcar race. All of this is too much for Fran, who did not want to come in the first place. She eyes the screen: "Maybe one of those damn cars will explode right in front of us. Or else maybe one'll run up into the grandstand and smash the guy selling the crummy hot dogs." Her aggressive remark is double-honed: it registers Fran's contempt for her enforced surroundings and the notion that there is nothing like violence to break up tedium.

Carver's stories radiate a sense of laconic menace. The worse the fates of his people, the more elliptically they seem to be telegraphed. In "Chef's House," Edna is persuaded to rejoin her husband Wes. He tells her he has stopped drinking and is living in a rented house with a view of the ocean. Together, they happily pass a summer. But then the landlord says his daughter needs the house, and Wes and Edna will have to leave. Edna realizes that his news will send West back to booze and her away from him: "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."

Not all of Carver's surprises are unhappy ones. Much of the vibrancy of his fiction stems from the sense, achieved in offhand cadences, that blessings can fall as unexpectedly and undeservedly as damnations. In "Cathedral," the title story, a husband grudgingly awaits the arrival of a house guest: "This blind man, an old friend to my wife's, he was on his way to spend the night. His wife had died." The narrator's sympathy is initially in short supply: "A blind man in my house was not something I looked forward to."

As the evening wears on, though, the husband reflects on changes that he had not intended to undergo. Robert, the visitor, is a hearty eater...

(The entire section is 76,719 words.)