Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1761
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 apartment. The Millers take turns handling the responsibilities, each visit to the Stones’ apartment becoming longer and more interesting as Bill and Arlene Miller, in turn, delve into the Stones’ lives and belongings. Bill tries on both Jim and Harriet Stone’s clothing, smokes her cigarettes, drinks their Scotch, and returns to his own apartment with heightened desires. The Millers’ sex life improves dramatically as a result of their visits across the hall. Finally, they decide to go into the Stones’ apartment together, but Arlene discovers that she has locked the key inside. They are denied access to the apartment, to lives more interesting than theirs, and to the possibility of vicarious living.
“Are These Actual Miles?” (originally titled “What Is It?”) is the last of twelve stories chosen from Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? Leo and Toni fall on hard times and are about to declare bankruptcy. Leo sends Toni out to sell their convertible before a creditor can “slap a lien on the car.” The sale has to be that night and it has to be cash. Toni spends two hours on her hair and face, preparing to negotiate. Leo stays home, drinking Scotch. He relives their history while waiting, and the reader comes to know him and Toni: They are a blue-collar couple who, for a time, had more money than they could spend but then “sign up for it all” and get into credit-card debt. Hours pass; Toni should be home by now. Leo “understands he is willing to be dead.” His wife comes home the next morning with a check for “six and a quarter.” The car dealer pulls into Leo’s driveway in the convertible, leaves Toni’s makeup bag on the porch, and Leo runs out to say, “Monday.” What is absent, but implied, is that Toni was deliberately unfaithful to her husband to punish him for going bankrupt. Leo’s enigmatic comment, “Monday,” refers to the new beginning he hopes for Monday, but, typical of the stories of Carver’s first collection, the ending seems pessimistic rather than hopeful.
Carver selected seven stories from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, the collection that established his reputation as an important writer and a minimalist. In “So Much Water So Close to Home,” Stuart Kane goes on a three-day fishing trip with his friends, returning home a day earlier than expected. The next morning, his wife, Claire, discovers that Stuart and his friends found the nude body of a young woman but rather than report their discovery to the police opted to stay on, only stopping their drinking and fishing long enough to secure the dead woman’s body by tying a nylon cord around her wrist. Though nothing changes for Stuart and nothing will change in their marriage, Claire perceives her husband differently as she identifies with the victim. Carver said he likes it “when there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace in short stories,” and in “So Much Water” the menace is Stuart’s possible violence toward his wife. Susan Miller died at a man’s hand, a victim of rape. When Claire refuses to have sex with Stuart after his first night home, he tries to force her and does not understand her behavior. He accepts no responsibility for his actions or inaction regarding Miller and seems to feel that all his wife needs to make her happy is sex—the very thing she rejects because she now sees herself, like the dead woman, as an object and victim of men’s desires.
Where I’m Calling From includes eight stories from Cathedral, among them the story that gives Carver’s last collection its title. Cathedral manifests the definite shift in Carver’s fiction from hopelessness and despair to the possibility of hope and redemption. Tragedies still occur, loss is a daily event, but characters cope better with the disasters of their lives and they do so in fuller narrative settings. In “A Small, Good Thing,” for example, Scotty, a seven-year-old only son, dies as a result of being hit by a car on his birthday. When his parents go to the bakery to berate the baker for repeatedly calling them to pick up a cake for their now-dead boy, the baker confesses that his difficult life makes him less humane. He apologizes, and the three adults break bread together in a communion of life’s difficulties. In “Cathedral,” a blind man comes to visit the narrator’s wife, who worked for him years ago and maintains their friendship. Bub, the narrator, belittles the blind man even before meeting him, and the early part of their evening together is awkward. After his wife is asleep, however, Bub finds himself “watching” television with Robert. He attempts to describe the cathedral on the screen but cannot, so he guides Robert’s hand to sketch the structure. Robert has Bub close his eyes and complete the drawing. “It’s really something,” says Bub, whose attitude changes as a result of his sudden understanding.
The last seven stories Carver published differ substantially from his earlier works. They are longer and more detailed; they deal with family relationships rather than domestic situations between a husband and wife; their characters range beyond the blue-collar marginalized characters of earlier stories; and, as Carver commented, they are “somehow more affirmative.” The collection closes with “Errand,” a story of Chekhov’s last days and of his death from tuberculosis. When the end is obvious and immutable, Chekhov’s doctor brilliantly orders champagne. Chekhov, his wife, and his physician toast his life. He dies, but the wife waits with his body until morning, when a delivery boy comes to collect the glasses and bring her some flowers. She asks him quietly to find the best mortician in the city, without raising an alarm about the great writer’s death. He nods in agreement, but before leaving on his errand he leans down and picks up the champagne cork that fell under the edge of the bed. The large event of Chekhov’s death is paired with the small event of an anonymous errand boy’s attention to detail. Carver brought the same attention to all of his stories, those of his minimalist period and those of his rich last days.
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