It’s been a little over thirty years since the death of Raymond Carver—cancer killed him in 1988; one winces to think he was only fifty—and still he is thought of mostly as the high priest of working-class malaise, chronicler of blue-collar doldrums. Abandoned by the American Dream, left nearly destitute by its fallacy, the men and women in his world, in the early stories especially, live meticulously disappointed lives, far from the glow of God. Dreams, remarks one character, are what you wake up from. They know not to count on wishes: “another wish that wouldn’t amount to anything,” as the narrator of “Feathers” has it. Even when wishes stumble into realization, they are the wrong wishes: “That’s one wish of mine that came true. And it was bad luck for me that it did.” In Carver, as Irving Howe once put it, “ordinary life is the enemy of ordinary people”—people who dwell within “the waste and destructiveness that prevail beneath the affluence of American life.” That’s a devastating appraisal: When you have for an enemy your very life, how are you supposed to succeed if it means defeating yourself?
Carver’s stories certainly sanction this glum reading; some try to cut off the possibility of any other. His people marry, parent badly, work, drink, smoke, cheat; many are let go from jobs they are too good for and furious at a fate so scornful of their needs. All have downgraded their ambitions to match their means and the clobbering strictures of reality. Ordinary objects turn sinister, become omens of ruin: a birthday cake, a refrigerator, an ashtray, an automobile. Everything is hard in Carver’s world, as everything was in Carver’s first life, before sobriety saved him. In one of his most morally squalid stories, “Vitamins,” the narrator’s wife tells him: “This is hard, brother. This life is not easy, any way you cut it.” That sentiment applies to the lot of us—adulthood entails the management of dream-death and the enduring of letdown—but for Carver’s people there’s no ready path of escape, no imaginable avenue of betterment. Just as Christ’s anguish on Calvary is the nucleus of Christianity—no Passion means no Resurrection—Carver constructs his fiction upon the foundation of hardship, on the centrality of suffering: except there’s no resurrection for his characters.
In her biography of Carver, Carol Sklenicka says this: “The basis of Carver’s stories in real despair often shows. It is one source of their power.” I suppose that’s true only if you believe that Carver wasn’t capable of literary invention: whether or not something is “real” in a writer’s life matters not at all for whether or not it works in his fiction. Still, there’s no way around the fact that Carver was committed to autobiographical renderings. The first act of his life does indeed read like a Carver story: husbandhood and fatherhood by the absurd age of nineteen; the calloused years of alcoholism and menial labor at jobs he despised; bankruptcy and infidelity and separations; resentment and bitterness; emotional assaults upon those he loved most; cigarettes by the crateful. His characters are deprived of the second act Carver himself was granted: sobriety, unlikely success and esteem, a curative second marriage, meaningful friendships. Even the two ostensibly content couples in “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” remain alcoholic after surviving the florid adversity of their lives. The talk is of love now, but domesticity, you sense, is still a killer.
Howe dubbed Carver’s people “plebeian loners struggling for speech.” They’re plebes all right, and they certainly struggle for speech, though some don’t know that speech is possible for their mangled emotions; they have not bought into the Word and have no word for what roils in them. But with scant exceptions, his characters aren’t true loners, and therein lies much of their trouble: other people. The blunted lovers and spouses and ex-spouses, the tyrannical children and bosses, the mysterious and menacing strangers: they conspire to make a bad week worse. In “Elephant,” the narrator’s widowed mother, brother, and children hit him up each month for money they have no means of paying back. Between these loans and an alimony he cannot alter, he’s paying out more than he makes, and he handles this first with exasperation and then with a kind of common-man martyrdom, a shrugging acquiescence to the leeches in his life. What choice does he have? Choices are for those born into a different lot.
“Down on their luck, that’s all,” says one narrator about a family that’s just been foreclosed on. “No disgrace can be attached to that.” True, but take away the “dis” from “disgrace” and there’s none of that, either. The colossal hardships in Carver are never romanticized because his people are too near the blast zone; romanticizing one’s own upheaval takes the hindsight of recovery—it takes nostalgia. If there’s one line in Carver that perfectly catches the ethos of his whole battered ensemble it’s from “The Bridle,” when a character says of a family: “They don’t know where they’re going or what they’re going to do.”
Carverian deprivation might be brought on by bad birth and worse luck, or instigated by needy others, but that deprivation finds encouragement in the self-strafing decisions his people are helpless not to make. This is what the alcoholic husband in “Chef’s House” can’t grasp. When his wife, in a moment of earned optimism, asks him to loosen his hold on their past discord, to suppose that they are different people able to make smarter decisions, he says: “Then I suppose we’d have to be somebody else if that was the case. Somebody we’re not.... We were born who we are.... I’m not somebody else. If I was somebody else, I sure as hell wouldn’t be here.... I wouldn’t be me. But I’m who I am. Don’t you see?” She sees all right: she sees he is resigned to the sloth of no hope and more booze.
Even if life has so far unfolded as hoped, as it has for the couple in “A Small, Good Thing,” there are those threatening unknowns waiting to unhinge it, “those forces he knew existed and that could cripple or bring down a man if the luck went bad, if things suddenly turned.” If it weren’t for bad luck—you know the rest. A drunk in “Where I’m Calling From” admits: “I was happy with the way things were going”—he means with his life, until it was ravaged by the haplessness of alcohol.
The bad-luck defense goes only so far in Carver, though. Most of his stories are bafflements of human behavior, songs of the self-menaced, the muted cries of souls sabotaged by their own bungling and lack of belief. In “Where I’m Calling From,” the alcoholic narrator in rehab asks: “Who knows why we do what we do?” The narrator of “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit” admits: “I don’t know what we were thinking of in those days.” Good questions with no good answers. The truth doesn’t work for most of Carver’s people because it would mean beholding themselves not as predetermined casualties of a bogus American Dream, or as targets of a capricious God, but as independent enactors of their own fate. It would mean they are culpable in their own suffering, and that’s a hard admission for many to make.