restricted access Raymond Carver: Hemingway Without Money
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In November, 1993, I published a review of three books, all related to Raymond Carver, in my local hometown paper, the South Bend Tribune . In another context, I once claimed that reviews were eulogies for books no one reads, but that remark, like most, is never entirely true. In Carver’s case, there will be, has been, an audience for Short Cuts;butforthemajorityofbooks,youcancountononlyoneattentive reader – of the review, at least: the author. Obviously, I would not hear from Carver; but I did hear from his widow, Tess Gallagher, who took exceptiontosomethingIwrote,anexceptionthatisimportantenough to be discussed more fully in connection with the work of Raymond Carver:thesubjectofmoney.Sincethebookreviewsinthe South Bend Tribune arenotindexedanywhere,ourdailytownpaperbeingtheproverbial fish wrap, it is not likely any present reader has read what I had to say. Below, one will find the original review I wrote, shorn of the local paper’s editing and cuts. RaymondCarveralwaysstruckmeasHemingwaywithoutmoney. But, since his death in 1988 of cancer at age fifty, it’s become clear that even a quick assessment needs to be more elaborate. Carver is Raymond Carver: Hemingway Without Money 211 212 an American success story of a different sort; one of his editors, Gary Fisketjon, quotes Carver in Remembering Ray, a collection of memoirs and tributes that serves as notes towards a biography, “Nobody ever asked me to be a writer,” and that makes him different than Hemingway , indeed. Becoming a writer was not on the list of possible occupations counselors recommended at high schools a guy from Carver’s background attended in the early 1950s. Throughout Remembering Ray, it is often said that Carver did something “new” in his short stories; one typical comment, by the novelist Lewis Buzbee: “He added to our literature an original body of work that gave voice to a world that had, until him, no voice of its own, a world of working-class tract homes and the quiet and powerless families who live in them . . .”; and another, his widow’s, the poet Tess Gallagher, forgivable hyperbolic reaction: “Carver’s stories had the kind of impact on American fiction that Einstein’s theory of relativity hadonscience.Wecouldn’tquitefathomhowitworked,butitchanged the way we regarded the lives of middle-class working people.” Partoftheproblemcomesfromtheconfusion,asexpressedabove, about “working class” and “middle class” – who was Carver writing about?And,despiteCarver’sconsiderableimpactonAmericanfiction, none of his classmates at the thirtieth-year reunion of his high school class in Yakima, Washington – that Carver and Gallagher showed up at – knew him as a writer (except the organizer of the reunion, who worked at the local newspaper and had read an article about him). Now,thatsayssomethingpoignantaboutthestateofAmericanfiction. Carver seemed to be Hemingway without money because of his simple, most often called “accessible,” prose style. Here is the beginning of his story “Vitamins,” reprinted in Short Cuts, a collection of nine Carver stories and one poem, which serves as the basis and companion volume for the 1993 film by the à la mode director, Robert Alt- 213 man: “I had a job and Patti didn’t. I worked a few hours a night for the hospital. It was a nothing job.” That simplicity is one reason Carver’s style has been so emulated by young writers who have risen to that level of flat statement, without yet sinking to Carver’s depths of understandingandfeeling .ButitistheearlyHemingwaystoriesthatprompt the comparison, before glamour took over most of Hemingway’s subjects . For Hemingway travel was international; for Carver it was up and down the West Coast. Carver did begin to isolate, and speak for, something new in the culture, and it was at the heart of his odd generation: born in 1938, too young for World War II, too old for Vietnam (and missing as well the police action in Korea), a generation of smokers and drinkers, a lot of them dying early of lung cancer, like Carver. He married young and had two children. The poet Dennis Schmitz describes Carver’s early adultlife:“Thesmalltowns,seedyrentals,thepiecemealcollegestudy, the intermittent bursts of relative prosperity. . . . Ray understood the characters in his stories who were knocked about by circumstance because he was one of them.” Living in Northern California during the boom and bust cycles of the sixties floated a generation of white males with families through irregular jobs that still allowed them a semblance of “middle class” life. The West Coast-ness, the California aspect of Carver’s stories, is important. Ted Solotaroff, the East Coast editor and writer, gives this very Manhattan summary of his view of Carver’s characters before he met...


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