Synopses & Reviews
Raymond Carver was the most beloved American short-story writer of the late twentieth century. Two decades after his death, this definitive biography tells the story of Carver's uncanny ambition, legendary life, and enduring work.
When Raymond Carver died at age fifty, readers lost a distinctive voice in its prime. Carver was, the Times of London said, the Chekhov of middle America. His influence on a generation of writers and on the short story itself has been widely noted. Not so generally known are how Carver became a writer, how he suffered to achieve his art, and how his troubled and remarkable personality affected those around him.
Carol Sklenicka's meticulous and absorbing biography re-creates Carver's early years in Yakima, Washington, where he was the nervous, overweight son of a kindly, alcohol-dependent lumbermill worker. By the time he was nineteen, Ray had married his high school sweetheart, Maryann Burk. From a basement apartment where they were raising their first child and expecting their second, they determined that Ray would become a writer. Despite the handicaps of an erratic education and utter lack of financial resources, he succeeded.
Maryann's belief in Carver's talent was unshakable, as was her willingness to support the family and see her experiences transformed in his fiction. Sklenicka reveals the entwined histories of this passionate, volatile marriage and Carver's career. She describes his entry into the literary world via little magazines and the Iowa Writers' Workshop; his publication by Esquire editor Gordon Lish and their ensuing relationship; his near-fatal alcoholism, which worsened even as he produced many of the unforgettable stories collected in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The biography also depicts Carver's warmhearted friendships with scores of writers, including Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, John Gardner, Joy Williams, Al Young, William Kittredge, Leonard Michaels, Chuck Kinder, and Hayden Carruth.
Sklenicka shows how his stories about unemployment, drinking, marital trauma, divorce, troubled children, and suburban malaise, dubbed minimalist by critics, won readers with their precise and humane portrayal of ordinary lives. She examines the dissolution of his first marriage and his partnership with poet Tess Gallagher, who helped him enjoy the full measure of his success. Ever grateful that he'd been able to renounce alcohol, Carver shunned pity and considered himself a lucky man as he faced death from lung cancer in 1988.
Carol Sklenicka draws on hundreds of interviews with people who knew Carver, prodigious research in libraries and private collections, and all of Carver's poems and stories for Raymond Carver, which took ten years to write. Her portrait is generous and wise without swerving from discordant issues in Carver's private affairs. Above all Sklenicka shows how Carver's quintessentially American life fostered the stories that knowing readers have cherished from their first publication until the present day.
"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.)
"Raymond Carver's stories and poems are still very much alive, and thanks to Carol Sklenicka's biography, Ray the writer comes to life again. This is a remarkable book, very thorough and deeply moving. I knew Ray, and now I know him better than ever." -- Richard Cortez Day, author of When in Florence and Something for the Journey
"If his stories, told in a clipped, brusque voice, help us better understand life in all its loveliness and anguish, then this biography does the same for the man behind them, only with a shout -- full-throated with the voices of those who knew him. Meticulously researched, unflinchingly honest, and always compelling. What we talk about when we talk about Carver will forever be defined by this poignant monument of a book." -- Benjamin Percy, author of Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk
"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." Mark Athitakis, Star Tribune
(read the entire Star Tribune review
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.
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.
About the Author
Carol Sklenicka grew up in central California
during the 1960s. She attended college in San Luis Obispo
and taught high school in Oxnard
before going to graduate school at Washington University
in St. Louis
, where she studied with Naomi Lebowitz, Stanley Elkin, and Howard Nemerov. Her stories, essays, and reviews have been published in South Atlantic Quarterly
and other periodicals.
To research the life of Raymond Carver, she studied archives and visited towns all over the United States and conducted hundreds of interviews with his relatives, friends, and colleagues. She lives with her husband, poet R. M. Ryan, near the Russian River in California.