Books and Arts

Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit

By

Raymond Carver: Collected Stories
By Raymond Carver
(Library of America, 1019 pp., $40)
 

Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life
By Carol Sklenicka
(Scribner, 578 pp., $35)

In the summer of 1984, the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami and his wife traveled to the remote coastal town of Port Angeles, Washington, to visit Raymond Carver in the glass-walled “Sky House,” overlooking the ocean, which he shared with his partner, the poet Tess Gallagher. It was more of a pilgrimage than a social call. Murakami, who had run a jazz bar in Tokyo before taking up writing six years earlier at the age of twenty-nine, admired Carver more than any other writer. Although they had never met, he considered Carver “the most valuable teacher I had.” Murakami had embarked on the epic task of translating all of Carver’s writings--stories, poems, essays--into Japanese. He had somehow concluded that Carver must be “thin and delicate,” and was surprised by his massive shoulders and big hands. As Carver sipped black tea instead of the alcohol he had sworn off after thirty years of dangerously heavy drinking, Murakami felt that his idol “sat on the sofa with his body crouched up as if to say that he had never intended to get so big.”

The first thing Murakami had read of Carver’s was “So Much Water So Close to Home.” In that classic story, four friends go on a fishing trip to a distant river. On their first day out, they find a woman’s naked body in the river. Rather than allowing this awkward discovery to interrupt their long-anticipated frolic, they tether the corpse to shore with a piece of nylon cord and proceed to fish for two more days, telling stories--“coarse stories,” in the longer version of the story that Murakami read--over the campfire. The wife of one of the men, appalled by her husband’s behavior, feels a strange kinship with the murdered woman in the river, and attends the funeral. Reading this story, Murakami felt that he was in the presence of “an entirely new kind of fiction.” While Carver’s style was “fundamentally realistic,” he noted, there was “something penetrating and profound in his work that goes beyond simple realism.”

The two shy writers spoke so softly that the tape Murakami made of their conversation sounded like “a badly done wiretap.” They speculated, according to a commemorative poem that Carver wrote, about the reasons for Carver’s popularity in Japan. Perhaps, Murakami suggested, it was the way he wrote of small humiliations that become unbearable, a recognizable phenomenon in contemporary Japan, or maybe it was how he wrote of chance determining the course of individual lives. In an interesting note appended to his translation of the Analects of Confucius, the Belgian Sinologist Simon Leys suggested another possible reason for the resonance of the story in Asia. Respect for the dead, “always at the heart of every humanistic civilization,” has become, according to Leys, “only a dim memory” in the West. Carver, he adds, “perhaps one of the most sensitive witnesses of our present cultural collapse, has given a chilling illustration of this deterioration in one of his stories, ‘So Much Water So Close to Home.’”

Murakami invited Carver to come to Japan, and later had a large bed built for his Tokyo apartment in anticipation of the visit. But Carver, diagnosed with lung cancer in 1987, was too sick to travel to Japan or anywhere else. He died in August 1988, in Port Angeles, at the age of fifty.

At the time of his death, Carver left two ambiguous and bedeviling bequests. One was his will, drawn up in 1982, leaving five thousand dollars each to his first wife and two children, and the rest of his estate to Gallagher, whom he married just before his death. The other was his literary testament of published and unpublished writings. Gallagher was named the legal executor of both. The will, as Carol Sklenicka reports in her generally evenhanded and well-informed biography of Carver, predictably provoked a great deal of legal wrangling and ill feeling, which was eventually resolved, at least financially, in various legal settlements. But there remains the puzzling case of Carver’s literary estate, specifically the ongoing--and now, with the publication of the excellent Library of America edition of the stories, readily available--co-existence of competing versions of his stories. One might reasonably think that the publication of a reliable biography of the man and an authoritative edition of his writings might bring some closure to things.

 

Raymond Clevie Carver was born in 1938 in the lumber town of Clatskanie, Oregon. His father, known as C.R., had come west from Arkansas, on foot and by boxcar, looking for work, and learned to sharpen saws for a living. When demand for lumber slumped during the Depression, C.R. worked on the Grand Coulee Dam, the New Deal project that Woody Guthrie called “the biggest thing that man has ever done.” He was a heavy drinker and chased women. The rental houses in which Carver grew up were the scenes of domestic squalor and occasional violence. In his fine essay “My Father’s Life,” Carver remembered an occasion when his mother hit his father “between the eyes with a colander and knocked him out.”

Carver, nicknamed “Frog” as a child, was teased for being overweight and for living in a shack with an outhouse in the backyard. He spent his free time fishing, reading Tarzan novels, and trying to grow up fast. In 1955, he met a pretty girl named Maryann Burk, just shy of her fifteenth birthday, and married her two years later. Their first child, Christine, was born in the same hospital where C.R. was receiving electroshock treatments after suffering a nervous breakdown. Carver went upstairs to give his father the good news.

They let me in through a steel door and showed me where I could find him. He was sitting on a couch with a blanket over his lap. Hey, I thought. What in hell is happening to my dad? I sat down next to him and told him he was a grandfather. He waited a minute and then he said, “I feel like a grandfather.” That’s all he said. He didn’t smile or move. He was in a big room with a lot of other people. Then I hugged him, and he began to cry.

In 1958, the young couple moved to Paradise, California, where Ray, twenty years old at the time, enrolled at Chico State College. During the following years, they held multiple “crap jobs,” as Carver called them. She waited on tables and worked as a switchboard operator; he worked in a drugstore and mopped floors in a hospital.

At Chico State, Carver had the amazing good luck to enroll in a creative writing class taught by John Gardner, who had a doctorate in medieval literature but was still a long way from publishing his novels Grendel and October Light. Gardner recognized something in Carver’s flailing attempts at writing fiction, and let him borrow his office on weekends to get some work done away from the kids--a second child, Vance, was born that same year. Carver later wrote, in a bitter essay called “Fires,” that the major influence on his writing career was having children when he and his wife were not grown up themselves. It dawned on him “that I would always have them and always find myself in this position of unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction.”

In an early story called “The Father,” a little girl says that the new baby looks like Daddy. But what exactly does Daddy look like? The assembled family concludes that Daddy, sitting in a chair with his back to them, “doesn’t look like anybody.” Sklenicka suggests, plausibly enough, that the story expresses Carver’s sense of being “effaced by the swirl of life around him.” Reading Sklenicka’s chapters about the Carvers’ early married life, one is surprised that any writing at all got done. Maryann, who eventually trained to be a schoolteacher, comes across, in Sklenicka’s telling, as an admirable and loyal partner: “Her shoulders were thin, but her willpower was prodigious.”

Carver’s life during the 1960s was perhaps no more chaotic than that of many other artists during what he called those “furious” years. He bounced from school to school and job to job, getting a B.A. along the way at Humboldt State and a scholarship to study, along with seemingly every other writer of his generation, at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, which he entered during the fall of 1963 and later returned to as an instructor (and a regular drinking partner of John Cheever). At Iowa he wrote his first major story, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please,” about a couple named Ralph and Marian--why not just Ray and Maryann?--strained by jealousy, poverty, and alcohol. The story gives a vivid sense of Carver’s own turmoil at the time. The main character “took some classes in philosophy and literature and felt himself on the brink of some kind of huge discovery about himself. But it never came.”

 

“Will You Please Be Quiet, Please” was selected for Best American Short Stories 1967. It was a momentous year for Carver, who took what he called his “first white-collar job” as a textbook editor at a Palo Alto firm. A friend introduced him to a young editor and aspiring writer named Gordon Lish, who worked at a textbook company nearby. A Long Island kid who had been teased at Phillips Academy for being a “dirty little Jew,” Lish had drifted west in a vague search for Jack Kerouac’s fictional hero Dean Moriarty. Lish admired Carver’s writing, but felt that he could improve it. He was bothered by the ending of “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please,” in which Ralph and Marian come together in an open-ended moment of understanding. Lish let it be known that if he had written the story, Ralph would have left his wife. “Well, that’s just the point, Gordon,” Maryann says she told him. “It isn’t your story. You didn’t write it.”

Maryann’s rejoinder, however reasonable and even decisive it sounds, turned out to be not quite accurate. As Lish ascended the publishing ladder back in New York, from fiction editor at Esquire to editor at Alfred A. Knopf (where he dubbed himself “Captain Fiction”), he enthusiastically published Carver’s stories along the way. His editing of Carver’s stories, however, sometimes verged uneasily on re-writing. The first thing Lish did to Carver’s stories was to make drastic cuts. In two rounds of editing, he curtailed the manuscript of seventeen stories published by Knopf in 1982, as the hugely popular and influential What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, by more than half. Carver was so shocked by the result that he wrote a long anguished letter to Lish, in July 1980, beginning with the line, “I’ve got to pull out of this one.”

Carver was especially upset with what had become of a story called “Where Is Everyone?,” reduced from ten pages (in the restored Library of America version) to barely two and a half. In the longer version, the narrator is dealing with two crises: his sixty-five-year-old mother is dating men she meets at her singles club, and his estranged wife, Cynthia, is dating a man called Ross. Nicknamed alternatively “the weasel or Mr. Fixit,” Ross is “an unemployed aerospace engineer she’d met at AA.” The story is leisurely in its pace, meandering from the narrator’s reading--he is particularly taken with a deathbed scene in a novel by Italo Svevo, in which a dying old man uses his last ounce of strength to slap his son’s face as hard as he can--to details about Ross’s work for NASA, where there are “Mr. Coffees in every office.” At one point, he asks Ross “whether, if I pulled out (I had no intention of pulling out of course; it was just harassment), he intended to support Cynthia and our kids.” The story ends with the narrator retreating to his mother’s house, where she makes him dinner and he goes to sleep, before waking up, confused, in his sweat-soaked pajamas. “A snowy light filled the room. There was a roaring coming at me. The room clamored. I lay there. I didn’t move.”

Lish saw an opportunity for reconstructive surgery. It is tempting to read the story as edited by Lish, which he renamed “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit,” as an allegory for the working relationship of the manic storyteller (Mr. Coffee or Mr. Carver) and the patient fix-it man, Lish himself. Oddly, in his letter Carver threatens to “pull out” of his arrangement with Lish just as his narrator threatens to “pull out” of his marriage with Cynthia. Gone in the final and radically compressed version was any mention of Svevo. The final scene was transposed from the mother’s house to the wife’s, whom Lish re-named “Myrna.” The feel of the two stories is completely different. The longer version is confessional, fully told, easy to follow; the shorter version is jagged, elliptical, challenging the disoriented reader to fill in the blanks.

Kindred violence was done to Carver’s exquisite story “A Small, Good Thing,” in which a little boy named Scotty is hit by a car on his birthday and sinks into a coma in the hospital. As his parents struggle with breezy doctors and their own escalating panic, they begin receiving harassing phone calls from someone--a baker, it turns out, who wants payment for the cake he has baked for the boy. Eventually everything is sorted out. In a moving final scene, the baker urges the bereaved couple to eat something. “I hope you’ll eat some of my hot rolls,” he says. “You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this.” As they smell the newly baked bread, dawn is breaking. “They talked on into the early morning, the high pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.”

Mr. Fixit would have none of this comforting resolution, with its hints of communion and ecclesiastical high windows. Rewriting the story, Lish repeatedly referred to Scotty condescendingly and a little cruelly as “the birthday boy”: “At an intersection, without looking, the birthday boy stepped off the curb, and was promptly knocked down by a car.” A small change like this introduces that “note of disdain” that Irving Howe once complained of in Carver’s stories. Lish hacked the story, renamed “The Bath,” back to one of the menacing calls from the baker:

“Yes!” she said. “Hello!” she said.

“Mrs. Weiss,” a man’s voice said.

“Yes,” she said. “This is Mrs. Weiss. Is it about Scotty?” she said.

“Scotty,” the voice said. “It is about Scotty,” the voice said. “It has to do with Scotty, yes.”

 

If one were to summarize Lish’s version of Carver, based on these and other examples, it would go something like this. Carver, like Hemingway, is a writer of radical concision, some of whose most suggestive effects come from repetition. Lish introduced additional repetitive patterns into Carver’s stories, such as the often-mentioned “fellow in denim” who cheats at bingo in “After the Denim.” In Carver’s original version, the man isn’t even wearing jeans. It is hardly surprising that Lish would rename Carver’s story “Beginners”--a conversational symposium on the nature of love--with the repetitive title “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Lish also purged Carver’s stories of references to literature or other evidences of high culture; and he did his best to eliminate the persistent religious yearnings expressed in the stories, such as the prayer that ends the original version of “After the Denim.”

Perhaps most importantly, Lish got rid of the feel of oral storytelling itself, the ways in which Carver’s narrators circle around a story like a worried bird, trying, amid distractions and digressions, to get the full story told. Carver used the process to memorable comic effect in his early “Put Yourself in My Shoes,” when a fatuous couple instructs a writer on the proper way to write a short story. “I’ll go right to the climax, as you writers say,” says the husband. One might argue that Mr. Fixit, like this bullying husband, misconstrued the nature of Carver’s art. He thought that Carver was in the tradition of Hemingway, that he was a “minimalist” of some kind, an artist of radical abbreviation; in short, a writer of “short stories.” Lish certainly “improved” Carver’s stories by the standards of that tradition, giving them extra point, concision, suggestiveness, and climax.

 

But in fact, as we can now see from the original versions of his stories in this important Library of America volume, Carver was part of a different tradition altogether--the tradition of orally based storytellers such as Mark Twain and Sherwood Anderson. One could even argue that the abbreviations of the “short story,” as taught at Iowa and elsewhere, are fundamentally opposed to the oral nature of the kind of storytelling that Carver was practicing. “Modern man no longer works at what cannot be abbreviated,” Walter Benjamin declared in his famous essay “The Storyteller.” “In point of fact, he has succeeded in abbreviating even storytelling. We have witnessed the evolution of the ‘short story,’ which has removed itself from oral tradition.”

Twain and Anderson, along with Chekhov and Babel, were the writers Carver went to in times of trouble, the beacons he tried to steer his own wavering course by. During the summer of 1968, for example, the Carvers embarked on an ill-fated sojourn in Tel Aviv, funded by an academic fellowship that Maryann had won. Everything went wrong on the trip--disappointing accommodations, typewriter damaged in transit, overly sweet Israeli wines, and then, in the wake of the Six Day War, terrorist bombings in their neighborhood. Carver, as he recalled in a poem, tried to maintain perspective by reading Life on the Mississippi:

I hang my legs further over the banister

and lean back in shade,

holding to the book like a wheel,

sweating, fooling my life away,

as some children haggle,

then fiercely slap each other

in the field below.

The story of Carver’s final decade, as Sklenicka tells it, is one of reprieve, of release from the dependencies that had plagued his life. He stopped drinking in June 1977, after repeated warnings from doctors that liquor would kill him. His marriage ended the following year, and he began living with Gallagher in 1979. It was during this transitional period that he wrestled with Lish over the editing of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and finally gave in on all the important points. With the publication of his next volume of stories, Cathedral, in 1983, he had broken this dependency as well. Not only was the ecstatic title story reminiscent of Sherwood Anderson (about whom Carver published an admiring essay the following year), but the religious valences of the story were unambiguous, as the narrator guides the blind man’s hands over the flying buttresses and great doors of the cathedral that they are drawing together. The collection also included a restored version of “A Small, Good Thing.” Carver, one is tempted to say, was saved.

And yet that stubborn sense of things unresolved will not go away. There is that measly five-thousand-dollar bequest to the members of the family left behind, and the concomitant human cost of Carver’s eventual success as a writer. And there is the recalcitrant fact that we now have to deal with two Carvers. There is the historical Carver whose books, especially the epochal What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, as edited by Lish, are an ineradicable part of the evolution of American literature. And then there is the restored Carver, who writes in a different tradition altogether. Under ordinary circumstances, one could rule out this unpublished Carver, for books are made not just by writers, but also by editors and agents and publishers as well. Under ordinary circumstances, original intentions deserve as much respect in literature as in law. As Lish remarked acerbically, rhetorically, and, with an awkward passive, evasively: “Which has the greater value? The document as it issues from the writer or the thing of beauty that was made?”

But when you actually sit down and read the words that Carver originally wrote, all these convictions disappear into air. I cannot read “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit” ever again. “The art of storytelling is reaching its end,” Benjamin wrote, “because the epic side of truth, wisdom, is dying out.” When Murakami remarked on “something penetrating and profound” in Carver’s work, he was not referring to clever repetitions and oblique narrative disjunctions. He was talking about wisdom, the epic side of truth. It is Carver’s hard-earned and vulnerable wisdom that we are hungry for, not the disdainful toughness that Mr. Fixit thrust into his gentle creations. It is increasingly clear that at this late date we are only at the very beginning of our understanding of this extraordinary storyteller.

Christopher Benfey is Mellon professor of English at Mount Holyoke and the author of Degas in New Orleans and A Summer of Hummingbirds.

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