- Two Darings
They do not apprehend how being at variance it agrees with itself: there is a connection working in both directions, as in the bow and the lyre.Heraclitus, Fragment 45
Well before his death at age fifty in August 1988, Raymond Carver spoke of having lived two lives. As Carver saw it, his first life had all but ended before his fortieth birthday. After a childhood on the poverty line, a too-early marriage, and ten years of “crap jobs” and “ferocious” parenting, in his thirties he had taken to the bottle with a vengeance. “I was completely out of control and in a very grave place,” he told an interviewer in 1983. Between October 1976 and January 1977 Carver underwent four hospitalizations for acute alcoholism. “I was dying from it, plain and simple, and I’m not exaggerating.”
Miraculously, on June 2, 1977, estranged from his dysfunctional family and making a last-ditch effort at sobriety, Carver vowed never again to take a drink. “I’m prouder of that, that I’ve stopped drinking,” he later said, “than I am of anything in my life.” For the eleven years remaining to him he counted June 2 his second birthday, “the line of demarcation” separating his new life from his old. “There were good times back there, of course,” he allowed. “But I’d take poison before I’d go through that time again.” Moreover, less than six months after this turning point Carver met Tess Gallagher, the poet, short-story writer, and essayist who was to be his collaborator and companion for the next ten years. They began living together on New Year’s Day 1979, and what followed is literary history. Carver, who had all but consigned himself to [End Page 468] the grave, lived to write the books that made him the most respected and influential short-story writer of his generation. As his former student Jay McInerney observes, “look at all the short-story writers younger than Ray, and there’s hardly one that, you might say, didn’t come out of Carver’s overcoat.”
Even after learning of the cancer that would cut short his second life, Carver counted his remaining days a gift, a miracle, and a blessing. “My life was a mess domestically, my health was a shambles,” he told Gail Caldwell a few weeks before his death; “this, in a way, is like a picnic, compared to that.” From beyond the grave he expressed his astonishment and gratitude in a posthumously published poem aptly titled “Gravy”:
Gravy, these past ten years. Alive, sober, working, loving and being loved by a good woman.
“Don’t weep for me,” he urged his friends. “I’ve had ten years longer than I or anyone / expected. Pure gravy. And don’t forget it.”
It is sobering indeed to think how little we would have of Raymond Carver’s work had he not lived his gravy years. Before he stopped drinking, Carver had published only one book with a major press. This was Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976), a collection of twenty-two stories eked out over fifteen years. The book received a National Book Award nomination in 1977, but at a time when the short story still languished in the shadow of the novel, the collection marked at most an auspicious debut. To date, most of Carver’s work had appeared in the small-circulation “little” magazines his early mentor John Gardner had championed as “where the best fiction in the country and just about all of the poetry was appearing.” Carver had also published three slim books of poetry with small presses: Near Klamath (1968), Winter Insomnia (1970), and At Night the Salmon Move (1976). In November 1977, the same month he met Gallagher, a second volume of fiction from his first life appeared. Published by Noel Young’s small but respected Capra Press, Furious Seasons contained only eight stories. The book had a print run of one hundred hardbacks and 1,200 paperbacks, making it more a collector’s item than a public confirmation of Carver’s early promise.
What do we have...