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1 Beaverton Literature- A to Z

Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life

by

Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life Cover

 

 

Excerpt

Introduction

We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.
— epigraph to Raymond Carver's Where I'm Calling From,
quoted from Milan Kundera's The Unbearable
Lightness of Being


Few American short story writers have been celebrated as Raymond Carver was in the 1980s. Because his spare, colloquial prose hints at something absent and mysterious, critics called him the father of minimalist fiction. Writers and writing teachers revered and imitated his style. Readers loved his grim, often funny, sometimes transcendent stories about the lives of the working poor. He wrote about their money problems, alcoholism, embittered marriages, and disaffected children; about muted, interior crises brought on by bad luck or neglect rather than intent. Carver knew that territory because he lived in it for much of his life.

Carver paid a high price for the experiences that served his art.

When printer's galleys arrived for his first book of short stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, Carver and his wife, who was a schoolteacher, had just been released from their debts by a federal bankruptcy court. Carver drank vodka while he corrected the pages at his dining room table in Cupertino, California.

On the day after the book's publication in March 1976, two of Carver's friends arrived at his house early in the morning. They didn't come to celebrate the book that would become a National Book Award finalist. They came to drive him and his wife to his trial at the county courthouse; he had been charged with lying to obtain unemployment payments. As they all departed, Maryann Carver took a shiny, white book from a stack on their table. The book was dedicated to her, a fruit of their nineteen married years. She would show it to the judge as evidence that her husband was still a man with prospects. She hoped to be able to keep him out of jail. She would explain that he was the victim of unfulfilled dreams and alcoholism.

Indeed, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? was a career-launching book. Carver, then thirty-eight, had published in literary magazines — plus two stories in Esquire — but this first book had been a long time coming.

It came almost too late.

Alcohol had ruled Carver's life for longer than he cared to admit. Lying to the state of California was hardly the worst offense Carver had committed as he capitulated to late-stage alcoholism. "Everything," he wrote later, that he and Maryann "held sacred, every spiritual value, [had] crumbled away."

Carver's fate had closed in on him when he suffered an alcoholic withdrawal seizure in the lobby of a clinic where he'd just been detoxified. A doctor told him then that he'd risk irreversible brain damage if he drank again; that first book could be his last. Despite the dire warning, Carver continued to drink, detox, and relapse for another two years. As he became sicker and sicker, he hid the severity of his problem more cunningly from everyone but his family and close friends. These people worried, but they couldn't influence him.

Yet Carver finally turned his life around, becoming one of the rare exceptions in a long line of hopelessly alcoholic American authors. When he finally quit drinking, he made the decision alone. That day of his last drink was the natal day of his new life, the beginning of the decade he described as "gravy" — the sauce that enriches an ordinary meal.

In his eleven sober years, Carver made difficult decisions that changed his work and his circumstances. He relished the rewards, affection, and freedom that came his way. When he died in 1988, Where I'm Calling From, a selection of his short stories that the New York Times named a favorite book of the late twentieth century, had just been published; he had just completed his third collection of poetry in five years. His work appeared in twenty-two languages and the Times of London called him "the American Chekhov." He was a full-time writer, acclaimed by the press and supported by royalties from his books and a generous five-year grant from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.

In the end, though, Carver measured his own success by what he'd come through and by the work that he believed would survive him. He wasn't a saint, and his sobriety wasn't perfect — he remained a nervous, obsessive, and lovably boyish man addicted to cigarettes and reliant on marijuana. But he credited his productive final years to not drinking: "I'm prouder of that, that I've quit drinking, than I am of anything in my life."

Carver liked to say he had two lives, and sometimes he spoke of two people, Bad Ray and Good Ray, viewing himself with the bemused, kindly detachment he held for his fictional characters. Of course, he was one man with one life. Bad Ray and Good Ray together were messier and more human than his dichotomy supposed.

Carver acknowledged the irrevocable singleness of his life when he selected as an epigraph to his final volume of stories a quotation from Milan Kundera that speaks of the impossibility of knowing "what to want" or of perfecting oneself within one lifetime. Carver became a more confident and luckier man when he stopped drinking, but he didn't become a different man. In recovery, he accepted himself and marveled at his own achievements. His intention to write well remained his true north.

Copyright © 2009 by Carol Sklenicka

Product Details

ISBN:
9780743262453
Author:
Sklenicka, Carol
Publisher:
Scribner Book Company
Subject:
Literary
Subject:
General Biography
Subject:
Authors, American -- 20th century.
Subject:
Carver, Raymond
Subject:
Biography-Literary
Copyright:
Publication Date:
20091131
Binding:
HARDCOVER
Grade Level:
General/trade
Language:
English
Illustrations:
Y
Pages:
592
Dimensions:
9 x 6 in

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Related Subjects

Biography » Literary
Featured Titles » NYT Ten Best Books » 2009
Fiction and Poetry » Literature » A to Z

Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life Used Hardcover
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Product details 592 pages Scribner Book Company - English 9780743262453 Reviews:
"Staff Pick" by ,

Carver's concerns with the consequences and consolations of human frailty were deeply rooted in his own life, as revealed in Sklenicka's captivating and very human portrait. Her insights into his stories inspired me to reread old favorites and discover new ones.

"Publishers Weekly Review" by , "He has been called 'a chronicler of blue-collar despair.' He led a relatively private life, much of it spent trying to raise cash via odd jobs and the writing-conference circuit, and died from the cancerous effects of excessive drinking and smoking. Raymond Carver (1938 - 1988) is a fascinating figure more for what went on in his imagination, as it registered the dynamics of couples' relationships amid the counterculture, than for his messy life. He came from the lower-middle class of Yakima, Wash., and was a father before he turned 21.

Maryann Burk, his first wife, had her own measure of success as a memoirist, but as the Carvers' lives came to resemble his stories, they divorced. Carver soon found his second great love, Tess Gallagher. It's ironic that the master of the minimalist short story has his own life recounted in such whopping detail by short story writer and essayist Sklenicka. Earnest and carefully researched, this biography interestingly recounts Carver's working relationship with editor Gordon Lish and other publishing figures. But the writing is most compelling in an epilogue that highlights posthumous legal disputes showing Gallagher maintaining an iron grip on Carver's growing legacy and reputation." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)

"Review A Day" by , "Carol Sklenicka's meticulously researched, sharply analytical biography never denies Carver his talent, but it also sheds ample light on larger literary forces that shaped his career. That makes the book something of a shadow history of American fiction writers across three decades, with Carver as a typical if troubled exemplar." (read the entire Star Tribune review)
"Synopsis" by , In this biography of the iconic literary figure the London Times called the American Chekhov, Sklenicka penetrates the myths and controversies surrounding Raymond Carver's life and career. b&w photographs.
"Synopsis" by , The first biography of america’s best-known short story writer of the late twentieth century.

The London Times called Raymond Carver "the American Chekhov." The beloved, mischievous, but more modest short-story writer and poet thought of himself as "a lucky man" whose renunciation of alcohol allowed him to live "ten years longer than I or anyone expected."

In that last decade, Carver became the leading figure in a resurgence of the short story. Readers embraced his precise, sad, often funny and poignant tales of ordinary people and their troubles: poverty, drunkenness, embittered marriages, difficulties brought on by neglect rather than intent. Since Carver died in 1988 at age fifty, his legacy has been mythologized by admirers and tainted by controversy over a zealous editor’s shaping of his first two story collections.

Carol Sklenicka penetrates the myths and controversies. Her decade-long search of archives across the United States and her extensive interviews with Carver’s relatives, friends, and colleagues have enabled her to write the definitive story of the iconic literary figure. Laced with the voices of people who knew Carver intimately, her biography offers a fresh appreciation of his work and an unbiased, vivid portrait of the writer.

 

 

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