The Redemption of Raymond Carver

‘This Life Is Not Easy’
Edward Hopper, Nighthawks, 1942 (Wikimedia Commons)

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.

 

Transcendence is a privilege Carver’s people have perhaps heard rumor of but have not been granted access to.

The distinct Carverian character, says Howe, lives “a meager life...without religion or politics or culture.” If they’ve adjusted to living on the periphery of culture, and living with jettisoned dreams, they’ve adjusted also to living without the ballast of religion. Frank Kermode once made the point that Carver’s is “a society in despair”: not a family, mind you, not a town or region or class, but a society in toto. It does often appear that way in his fiction: the whole world has gone rotten.

The seven deadly sins seethe everywhere in Carver, but it’s the term “despair” that gets a workout in almost any study of his life and work, mostly as a synonym for “dejection” or “depression.” Carver was no Catholic—he came from a clan of tepid Methodists—and so he was not concerned with the doctrinal definition of despair as the sin of shunning God. Despair is born of a ravening inwardness and spiritual sedition his people don’t bother with. Aquinas includes despair among his six crimes against the Holy Spirit, one that will not be forgiven because in despair one accepts one’s damnation—think of Faustus; think of all the soul-sick in Sartre, Camus, Kafka, Beckett—and that acceptance becomes a rejection both of Christ’s sacrifice and of Providence. This is what Gerard Manley Hopkins means when he writes: “Not, I’ll not, carrion comfort, despair, not feast on thee; / Not untwist, slack they may be, these last strands of man / In me.” For Carver’s people it might be more accurate to say that God has bailed on them (Deus absconditus), has lost all interest in the janitors, roofers, and barmaids who never gave him much mind. Here’s John Updike, in 1994, writing about Carver’s America:

The church is a footnote to the social scene and religion a dim undertone at best in the inner lives of the characters. It is not merely that lives seem to have little meaning beyond the immediate emotional need; the very lack of meaning is scarcely felt by characters who no more look within themselves for significance than they look into the flickering dramas of television or the flickering affective lives of their friends and kin. The world they have grown up in...is thin soil for the illusion of self-importance that religion needs to take root in.

Even when Carver’s characters can realize the vanquished meaning in their lives, as the narrator of “Fat” certainly does—she ends her story with “My life is going to change. I feel it”—they have limited comprehension of what they’re supposed to do with that realization. When belief does make an appearance in Carver, it is only by rote—by a kind of dulled cultural memory, as when a couple in “Feathers” says grace before their meal.

Some of Carver’s storytelling sensibility might contain residue from a Methodist upbringing, but there’s no real way we can tag Carver as even an infrequent believer. His biography is clear on this. In a 1983 interview, Carver was asked whether or not he was religious, and he replied with characteristic candor: “No, but I have to believe in miracles and the possibility of resurrection.” The bulk of his characters, though, never come close to believing that. Gordon Lish, Carver’s editor first at Esquire and then at Knopf—and never mind for now the well-trod controversy over whether or not the early Carverian aesthetic was really a Lishian aesthetic—has remarked that Carver’s people are “impoverished in spirit,” and that’s mostly true.

In his interviews and nonfiction, Carver often resorts to religious expression—in that 1983 interview he speaks of the “spiritual nourishment” provided by art—but that expression is only the secular hijacking of religious metaphors for emotional purposes. In his essay “Fires,” he says this about the attritional years of raising children: “Everything my wife and I held sacred...every spiritual value, crumbled away”: more metaphorical talk, secular suffering decked out in sacral garb. Likewise, the prayer at the end of his story “The Student’s Wife”—“God...God, will you help us, God”—shouldn’t be taken for anything more than the desperate enacting of a ritual long without relevance. If better lives are reserved for those who have been better born, then God is for those whom God chooses. That’s very Protestant of him; there can be no sacramental striving in Carver.

In his quote about miracles and resurrection Carver means the seeming miracle of his sobriety and his resurrection into the new life that followed: he means to be grateful for a second chance. What the forty-year smoker didn’t know in 1983 was that he’d need a revitalized confidence in miracles by 1987 when he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He’d need the grace that had thus far eluded him. Once cancer got into his blood, grace got onto his mind. In 1988, not long after his diagnosis and the surgery that didn’t work, Carver told an Italian interviewer: “I feel good in my own skin. Sure, the radiation is tough, but it will be okay. I have faith. I’m calm. I feel I’m in a state of grace.”

Talking to the New York Times three months before his death, he called up grace again: “In the last few years, some light and radiance, and, if you will, grace has come into my life.” In Paul, and in Romans especially, grace is achieved primarily through unflagging faith. For too many Catholics, grace is understood as a merit award from the boss, a gift for good behavior. Protestants are having none of that; they prefer the arbitrary: God will forgive and bless if he wants, and if so it will have nothing to do with you, or nothing you can point to. Carver wants to marry these two views, or marry elements of them: he seems to comprehend the grace of his post-addiction life as both a reward for his sobriety and a mystery outside his grasp.

In his brief essay “Meditation on a Line from Saint Teresa,” the line Carver ponders is this: “Words lead to deeds.... They prepare the soul, make it ready, and move it to tenderness.” And then: “There is something more than a little mysterious, not to say—forgive me—even mystical about these particular words and the way Saint Teresa used them, with full weight and belief.” By “full weight and belief,” he means, I think, the full weight of belief. About the word “soul,” Carver says it is one “we don’t encounter much these days outside of church,” and that’s truer now than it was in his day. Soul isn’t all that trendy. Soul is a bit musty. We surrendered to the radical soullessness of technology and right away became soulless ourselves.

“To give the mundane its beautiful due” is how Updike described his own literary program, and in Carver the mundane is honed to ominous implication. You don’t often see Carver’s name hitched to Whitman’s, but consider the Whitmanian exuberance of the everyday: almost nothing is too insignificant to escape Whitman’s communion. Carver’s socially insignificant people, and the insignificant artifacts of their lives, are not insignificant to him. Wholly unlike Whitman, though, Carver’s literary program takes no stock of the sublime. His language achieves a demotic splendor, a conversational artfulness—always a grand talker, Carver wrote stories in an eminently spoken register; his art is as oral as Whitman’s—but his language cannot connect with that junction where this world rubs against the other. Though Carver’s characters often pine for exalted things, they cannot articulate their pining. The oppressive immediacy of their lives prevents such articulation. Transcendence is a privilege Carver’s people have perhaps heard rumor of but have not been granted access to.

 

“Eucharist” comes from the Greek eucharistia, “thanksgiving,” but for what could these three wrecked people possibly be giving thanks?

And yet there are transcendent sparks in Carver I keep going back to, moments of human communion that raise his people briefly above the wreckage of their worlds. Here are some of the lovely closing lines of “Fever”—about a father of two young children abandoned by his recreant wife—as he waves goodbye to a nanny who can no longer help him:

It was then, as he stood at the window, that he felt something come to an end. It had to do with Eileen and the life before this. Had he ever waved to her? He must have, of course, he knew he had, yet he could not remember just now. But he understood it was over, and he felt able to let her go. He was sure their life together had happened in the way he said it had. But it was something that had passed. And that passing—though it had seemed impossible, and he’d fought against it—would become a part of him now, too, as surely as anything else he’d ever left behind.

What’s notable here is the clause he felt able to let her go, and also what he does immediately after these lines: “He brought his arm down and turned to his children.” Not to the bottle, not to cigarettes, not to a damaged lover with damage to give, but to his children. There’s a minim of grace in that gesture, of self-forgiveness and, yes, of hope, however fugitive.

Carver’s most famous story, “A Small, Good Thing,” ends with an unambiguously Eucharistic gesture. A mother orders a cake for her child’s birthday; the child is then killed by a car and the baker, unaware of this calamity, is left with the unpaid-for cake, a slight that prompts him to make harassing phone calls. The parents confront him at his bakery and, mortified by his own callousness, the lonesome baker serves them pastries: “Eating is a small, good thing at a time like this.” Here we have a trinity of sufferers, a sharing among the dispossessed. The metaphor insists that the baker become the priestly agent dispensing the body of Christ to a couple at the start of a lifelong grief. “Eucharist” comes from the Greek eucharistia, “thanksgiving,” but for what could these three wrecked people possibly be giving thanks? For the small, good thing of this communion, unplanned and temporary, but very much needed in the moment.

The only Carver story that addresses belief in a more than oblique manner is the title story of his collection Cathedral. The blind friend of the narrator’s wife visits, and after the wife nods off, the two men are left uncomfortably to themselves. The TV shows a documentary about cathedrals, and it occurs to the narrator that the blind man has not the slightest notion of how a cathedral looks. So he tries to describe one but can’t, and tells the blind man: “In those olden days, when they built cathedrals, men wanted to be close to God. In those olden days, God was an important part of everyone’s life.” Those olden days: so olden and irrelevant to him he might as well be talking about the Pliocene. And when the blind man asks the narrator if he is “in any way religious,” the narrator shakes his head no, but of course his guest can’t see him, so he says: “I guess I don’t believe it. In anything. Sometimes it’s hard.... The truth is, cathedrals don’t mean anything special to me. Nothing.”

But then something almost miraculous happens. The blind man asks the narrator to draw a cathedral. He puts his hand on the narrator’s as it draws so he can trace the movements and determine the shape. The narrator is so buoyed by this, his dormant spirit so unexpectedly uplifted, he keeps drawing, now with his eyes pinched shut as the blind man cheers him on. “Put some people in there now,” the blind man says. “What’s a cathedral without people?” This is one of the grandest moments of humanism in all of American short fiction, but humanism by way of holiness. “His fingers rode my fingers as my hand went over the paper,” the narrator says. “It was like nothing else in my life till now.” Such a moment could have happened only in late Carver, post addiction—post despair.

The writer Tobias Wolff once recalled that his introduction to Carver happened while escorting Grace Paley to an event: “I have always been happy to remember that I met Ray in the presence of a conjurer named Grace.” Carver’s people are kin to the Beckettian sufferer who declares: “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” In its seeming absurdity that’s a wonderfully balanced assertion, the first part undone by the second. It’s also an assertion that applies to Carver’s own two lives: the suicidal drinking that almost succeeded, and his life’s coda for which he always gave thanks—a decade of grace in which he composed the fiction that for many remains holy writ.

Published in the May 3, 2019 issue: 

William Giraldi’s newest book is American Audacity (August 2018).

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