Raymond Carver knew at an early age that he wanted to be a writer, but such an ambition was not easily achieved. Hardships, including financial insecurity and frequent upheavals, would plague the writer and his family, particularly as Carver’s dedication to writing took precedence over other matters. Once success arrived, in the forms of publication and critical acclaim, the author still had a demon to confront: his drinking. For Carver, literary reputation arrived relatively early in life, while he was still in his thirties, but personal contentment and financial security would be delayed until he obtained sobriety in his forties. It is this dual struggle, to devote his life to writing and to free himself from impediments that kept him from writing, including his family obligations and his addiction to alcohol, that Carol Sklenicka chronicles in Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, her expansive biography.
Sklenicka organizes the thirty chapters of her book into five sections that reflect chronological and literary stages in Carver’s life. Part 1, the aptly titled “Beginnings,” examines the author’s early years, from his birth in Oregon through his young adulthood. Part 2, “Search,” captures Carver’s tentative emergence as a writer. Janitor by night and writer by day, the author’s hand-to-mouth existence provided material for his short stories and poetry. Sklenicka assesses the impact of frequent relocations upon Carver’s family and his work. Part 3, “Success and Discontent,” examines Carver’s growing reputation as a man of letters and his increasingly erratic, alcohol-fueled misbehaviors. In part 4, “Recovery,” Sklenicka records the writer’s break with his addiction, separation from his family, emerging sobriety, and new life with poet Tess Gallagher. Part 5, “Victory,” the shortest of the sections, records the final years of Carver’s life as he achieves success as a writer and combats the cancer that will eventually claim him.
As Sklenicka observes, the circumstances of Carver’s early life provided unusual incubation for a would-be writer. Relocation is a predominant theme in this biography of a writer struck with wanderlust, and Sklenicka traces its origins to Raymond’s working-class parents, C. R. and Ella Carver, who moved from Arkansas to Washington in the 1930’s in part to flee the Great Depression. C. R. found employment in the timber mills, while Ella worked in the service industry. With Ella pregnant with their first child, the Carvers moved to Oregon’s Columbia River Valley. Sklenicka notes that it was into this hardscrabble existence, so at odds with the beautiful wilderness in which they resided, that Raymond was born on May 25, 1938. Both the landscape of the Northwest and the lives of its working-class families would feature predominantly in many of Carver’s short stories. A heavy smoker and a heavier drinker, Carver died at the age of fifty from complications of lung cancer. Throughout his relatively brief life, one chronicled at great length by Sklenicka, Carver’s restlessness, often in search of better opportunities, would manifest itself in travel. Carver uprooted himself, his wife, and his two children, living in various towns and cities in Oregon, Washington, California, and Iowaand briefly abroad in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Carver was a pudgy, awkward child, an outsider who retained his awkwardness well into adulthood. Despite average classroom performance from grade school through graduate school, Carver developed a voracious and lifelong reading habit. As Sklenicka notes, reading was one way to escape the unpredictability of life with an ailing, alcoholic father and an enabling mother, a pattern Carver would duplicate in his own marriage. Carver first announced his intention to become a writer as an adolescent, while on a hunting trip with a family friend, and he made good on his word. Enrolling in the Palmer Method, a mail-order writing program, Raymond completed the...
(The entire section is 1,867 words.)