that carver boy be spitting

Photo by Mr Xerty on Unsplash

Hello friends—

First some news. I was profiled in Publisher’s Weekly about Filthy Animals. An excerpt ran in The Sewanee Review, and was reprinted at Lit Hub. Christian Lorentzen wrote an incredibly moving piece on the late, great Giancarlo DiTrapano, one of contemporary publishing’s most vital, electric forces, gone far too soon.


A couple years ago, after a long time of pretending to have read Raymond Carver, I decided that I probably should actually read him. I bought a copy of Cathedral from Prairie Lights, and I read it through in one intense heat. Then I immediately went out and bought two more of his collections and gulped them down then staggered around Iowa City in a bleary haze. I think every workshop I attended for the rest of the semester had to put up with me referencing “Vitamins” or “Gazebo.” It was kind of embarrassing. I had all the zeal of the fresh convert, and I was all sensitive earnest enthusiasm about this great writer I felt like I had discovered. Why weren’t people talking about this Carver stuff? It was fucking great. I was, for a couple months at least, the most irritating guy in your MFA probably. But I didn’t care. I really loved his stories. I still do.

Like most people, I was struck first by the apparent paradox of his style. His stories feel dense but the prose itself is telegraphic and swift. There’s a spoken casualness to the stories in Cathedral as in all of Carver, that feeling of sitting down in some dim interior and having a stranger unspool a weird, mysterious tale of woe. Lately, I’ve been rereading the stories in my fresh copy of Where I’m Calling From: new and selected stories. And I’ve been thinking about that question I wandered around asking: why aren’t more people reading Raymond Carver stories? I mean, that’s kind of a silly question, I know. People are reading Raymond Carver. Most of my friends have their favorite Carver stories, or the ones they love to teach. But it’s also true that I’m not sure he has the same cultural cache he once had. That’s the fate of writers, of course, and when your work is synonymous with a whole era of American prose literature, there’s really nowhere to go but down. Ask Bellow and Malamud and Updike about that.

Yet, during high Trump time, it didn’t seem like people were turning toward Raymond Carver. I think somehow he had gotten mixed up with Cheever and other writers associated with certain bourgeois values. Or else, he got reduced to the received notions about his work. That he was too buttoned up, too taciturn, that his work was bloodless and bleak. Or else, too white, too middle-class, too masculine, to be equal to the times. Where these received ideas about Carver came from, I don’t know. I suspect there’s some sort of anti-working class sentiment at work in the academe, but that wouldn’t be particularly surprising. Or maybe it’s true that times and styles simply changed. The crepuscular realism of Carver and his descendants gave way or handed back over the right of way to the high-octane theatrics of the hysterical realists or the genre-busters. Realism became at once more fluid than ever and also kind of outmoded. Outpaced by the Saunderses and Sebaldians and all the guys who were trying for Kafka but in dead-end corporate jobs. I mean, who reads Ann Beattie anymore (I do, I read Ann Beattie. “Greenwich Time” is a masterpiece).

When I first read Carver, I was startled at how utterly familiar his world felt. It was like coming home to lawns occupied by junk cars, to people trying with everything in them to make a living, to that jokey warm banter of people having a good time, getting lit and smoking out in the dark, wondering when their next paycheck would hit. Carver wrote about the kinds of people I’d spent my whole life around. And his idiom, that easy way that was by turns charming and by turns brutal, made my throat close up from homesickness. It was like running into my father’s voice a million miles away from home. Carver wrote about working people. Desperate people. Lonely people. But also people who loved and hated each other in equal parts. He wrote about the kinds of things that people who’ve never heard of The New Yorker or The Paris Review or Harper’s live through. That great swath of America that slips under the notice of this country’s liberal intelligence, and bobs there, waiting to be noted down.

To read Carver is to face down that most worrisome of quandaries: what are we to do with the lives that are not remarkable, those lives that everyone else ends up living? I loved his work precisely for the same tensions that had made my previous life unbearable to me. In Carver, that tension resolved into something sweet and kind of sad but ultimately true. I looked up from having read my first Carver stories and felt the whole world changed. I guess that’s why I was a little confused as to why people weren’t reading more Carver even as they said they wanted stories about the white working class or stories not about professors. When people said they wanted fiction about people with jobs who had something to lose if the check didn’t come. They didn’t turn to Carver. Worse, still, they pretended he was some kind of bard of tweedy professors. Anyway, the closest Carver comes to professors, I think, until the later stories, is adjuncts. And we all know what kind of breaking labor that can be.

Carver’s characters, particularly in Where I’m Calling From, all live circumscribed lives. Their circumstances are tethered to material concerns. They fret about jobs, about sobriety, about cigarettes, about alcohol, about feeding themselves and their families. They fret about the nature of happiness, but not in a philosophical, endlessly heady way. In real, concrete terms. The way all of us fret about happpiness. About what we want and when we might have it. There is a naivety to his characters, sweetness, even in the most awful of his creations. You never feel him pressing with his heel at their necks. He is always alert to the flecks of grace that dart through a life, those little shards that give meaning and lift to an otherwise weary existence. He is sensitive. And his stories crackle with life.

I wished I believed in anything the way Carver believes in dialogue. There’s this moment toward the end of “Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes,” where Evan Hamilton has tucked his son into bed. They’ve come from another boy’s house where Hamilton has swapped words and fists with another father over whose son should take more of the blame for destroying a third boy’s bike. But at home, Roger looks at his dad, and says:

“Dad? You’ll think I’m pretty crazy, but I wish I’d known you when you were little. I mean, about as old as I am right now. I don’t know how to say it, but I’m lonesome about it. It’s like—it’s like I miss you already if I think about it now. That’s pretty crazy, isn’t it? Anyway, please leave the door open.”

It’s the kind of moment that could have found its way into exposition, unfolding across paragraphs of misty nostalgia. But here, Carver lets the boy speak. You feel, suddenly, the gulf between these two as the boy realizes that there was a time when his father was a boy, that there are things about him he’ll never know. He’s glimpsed the boy in his old man, and feels the loss of that boy. It’s impossibly tender. It made my chest hurt when I read it this time around. Because I know what that’s like. The sudden, bright gulfs between kids and their parents.

In “The Student’s Wife,” Nan and Mike are a young-ish married couple just settling down for bed. Nan is restless in the way that most of Carver’s women tend to be. She’s burning up to connect to Mike, who’s reading and then only interested in sleep. In her chattering on, she says:

“When I was ten or eleven years old I was as big then as I am now. You should’ve seen me! I grew so fast in those days my legs and arms hurt me all the time. Didn’t you?”

“Didn’t I what?”

“Didn’t you ever feel yourself growing?”

“Not that I remember,” he said.”

Nan’s restlessness intensifies as the story goes on, and you realize that she’s awake because she feels herself growing. Except this time, it’s not the joints of her knees or elbows unlatching themselves. It’s her spirit that’s got the growing pains. The realization swoops down on you only after the fact, flashing back through the story and lighting up the above exchange in a new, sad way.

One of my new favorite stories in the collection is “Put Yourself in My Shoes,” which deals with a couple, the Myerses who decide to visit another couple, the Morgans, who have recently come back from their travels abroad. It’s the holidays. Everyone’s kind of boozy and having a good time, or so it seems. It comes out that the Myerses were short-term leasing the Morgans’ house while they were away, and the Morgans begin to tell stories of their travels and awful things they’ve seen, including a terrifying but hilarious anecdote involving a lost purse and a stranger dropping dead in their living room. The reader falls in with the boozy easiness of the night, and then, just like that, we’re clued into the fact that the Meyers were less than ideal tenants. It’s revealed by way of this really amazing monologue that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lydia Davis story:

“Consider this for a possibility, Mr. Myers!” Morgan screamed. Consider! A friend—let’s call him Mr. X—is friends with…with Mr. and Mrs. Y, as well as Mr. And Mrs. Z. Mr. and Mrs. Y and Mr. and Mrs. Z do not know each other, unfortunately. I say unfortunately because if they had known each other this story would not exist because it would never have taken place.

BRUTAL. But it continues, spilling across pages, culminating in:

“That’s the real story that is waiting to be written.”

“And it doesn’t take a Tolstoy to tell it,” Mrs. Morgan said.

“It doesn’t need Tolstoy,” Morgan said.

Over the space of just a few pages, all through the work of dialogue, we leave our close affinity with the Myerses and swing out to see their action with new, shocking perspective. Not only did they come, unannounced, to these people’s house on a snowy night, sloshed to the gills, but they did so even after having been, by all accounts, shitty tenants. It’s an astonishing trick. Though not as miraculous as what he pulls off in “What’s in Alaska,” where a character’s slip of the tongue reveals, I think, an affair that goes unacknowledged. It’s just a quick, darting little thing, but the whole center of the story shifts around it, and you exit the scene feeling destabilized and nervous about what will come next.

I’ve read most of the stories in Where I’m Calling From, but that’s the magic of truly great writing—it can sustain a lifetime of readings. What first struck me in a story like “Chef’s House” or “Gazebo” was probably how effectively Carver used his style to get across copious amounts of freighted information in very little space. The way his details—the hotel in “Gazebo” summoned by way of the pool and the bathrooms and the tv in the rooms—worked at multiple levels and seemed drawn from life itself. But then, this time around, reading both of those stories, I felt alive to the strangeness at work. Carver’s places are like those hotels and old houses you find in period horror movies. Places where families hard on their luck wash into and never wash out again. It’s always kind of the 70s or 80s in his stories, and the carpets always smelly and stiff with dirt. Carver stories inhabit some charged purgatory where curious forces shift and lurk. Way stations of the soul.

In “Nobody Said Anything,” a boy goes fishing while playing hooky from school, and ends up catching a fish with another boy. The fish takes on an almost malevolent aura by the time he shows his parents at the end of the story:

I said, “You won’t believe what I caught at Birch Creek. Just look. Look here. Look at this. Look what I caught.”

My legs shook. I could hardly stand. I held the creel out to her, and she finally looked in. “Oh, oh, my God! What is it? A snake! What is it? Please, please take it out before I throw up.”

“Take it out!” he screamed.

I said, “But look, Dad. Look what it is.”

He said, “I don’t want to look.”

The aphoristic lilt of his style also gives the sense of vertigo, as though you were descending into the valley of the uncanny. When a strange man shows up in a Carver story, you’re never quite sure if he’s really there or if he’s just glimpsed, some shadowy visitor from another world. Or, if he is real, you aren’t sure if he’s going to murder someone or not. It’s the same vein of the uncanny that imbues so much of Brad Watson and Dennis Johnson’s work. Where strangers knock in the night and you never know who will be waiting there when you crack the door open. It’s the precarity of living on little money and bad luck. When you’ve got no safety net and you can feel the strange winds that comb the earth blowing at you. I think Carver is a more deeply weird writer than he gets credit for. He’s tapped into something dark that’s coursing through all of us unseen. I mean, even in a story like “Cathedral,” which I hate with a passion, there is the feeling of the unreal just out of sight, warping everything.

One of the weirder and more haunting stories in the collection is “What Do You Do in San Francisco,” which is narrated by a postal worker who is privy to the slow implosion of a family that moves to town. The woman is an artist and eventually runs off, leaving her family behind. Her husband waits and waits for a letter. It’s all just a mess. But there is, lingering over the story, this weird darkness that has not a lot to do with the family and everything to do with the narrator who’s been torn apart by something—the war, probably. It’s always the war in Carver. Then there’s the malevolence in “A Serious Talk” about the aftermath of a bad marriage in which a man visits his family for the holidays and undertakes increasingly hostile action against his estranged wife. But all throughout the story, there’s this awful, simmering intensity that makes you wonder just how it’s all going to end:

He left through the patio door. He was not certain, but he thought he had proved something. He hoped he had made something clear. The thing was, they had to have a serious talk soon. There were things that needed talking about, important things that had to be discussed. They’d talk again. Maybe after the holidays were over and things got back to normal. He’d tell her the goddam ashtray was a goddamn dish, for example.

And in “Why, Honey?” a woman answers a letter to a man inquiring about her son and reveals his disturbing past and his ascent to political prominence. I couldn’t help but to think of Trump, of course, but also, all the other bad men. It’s quietly experimental in form, but it’s the tone that’s so eerie and terrifying as you realize that this woman is truly afraid of what her son might be capable of:

I moved here. I had them give me an unlisted number. And then I had to change my name. If you are a powerful man and want to find somebody, you can find them, it wouldn’t be that hard.

Normally, I’m kind of dismissive of the shorter stuff. The two-pagers or the mean-spirited sketches like “Fat,” or “They’re Not Your Husband,” but this time around, I brushed up against the bristle of their strangeness. I still found the stories, on a superficial level at least, fatphobic and mean, but the essential strangeness of the stories, which I had just dismissed before as nonsense, was more legible to me now. The stories were less about hating fat people, specifically fat women, and more about how a person gets trapped inside of their own sense of what other people are saying and perceiving about them. It’s Carver’s quintessential subject—the tension between what one signifies and what one wants to signify to others, and also, that more human thing he’s interested in, what people mean to each other. They’re both kind of surreal stories, ultimately unsuccessful, I think, but interesting in what they’re trying to do. They’re near-fables of a dark sort, and one can imagine how similar impulses might animate a more successful Joy Williams story or a delightfully strange and disorienting Kelly Link story. Or even a Rebecca Curtis story. I’m not saying that they’re inspired by Carver. But that there is a resonance there, and Carver’s realism gives me that same porous elation I feel when I read Link or Curtis or even Sarah Shun-lien Bynum or Carmen Maria Machado. That feeling that anything at all might leap out at me from around the corner, a sense of giddy, electric possibility.

I kind of liked that, getting in touch with the weirder impulses in Carver’s work. There are as many reasons and ways to read a Carver story as there are moments in a life. Sure, you could boil it all down to nuts and bolts and read him like an instruction manual of style. The same way one could do that to any master of the form. The disassembly of his stories into data points to be parsed over and sorted: first person vs third person, men vs women, poor vs middle class, labor vs management, drunk vs sober, employed vs unemployed, western vs everybody else, plot vs character, long vs short, Lish vs post-Lish. There are the tonal fable-like sketches and the more resolutely dramatic stories. There’s him at his most Chekhovian or his more bathetic parables. Having sorted the data, you could then generate some string of nonsense identity lorem ipsum to be slotted into our contemporary idiom: white male writer, toxic masculinity, sexist white dude, suburban white man cheats on wife, etc. 

It’s kind of the general order of operations these days. Read a writer and then find some way to machine them into the dominant paradigm of identity either racial or social, and where they don’t fit, call them apolitical. I’ve started to think that political fiction in the American vernacular just means that the author is non-white, or non-male, or queer, or, all of the above. Political and relevant have come to stand in for good and quality as descriptors for fiction. I don’t mean that political fiction cannot be good or of quality. I mean, quite literally, that when someone wants to signify that a book has value or is of quality, they say It’s so political. It’s so urgent. In this moment, we need to be reading this more than ever. People should read what they want and how they want. I’m just a guy with a newsletter. I don’t know anything.

I do think that there is very much a discourse (not the only one or the most important one for sure, but certainly a very loud one) active in our literary culture that presents a book’s political material at the head of whatever other qualities it might possess. And if that were an active, rigorous, or even interesting political material, that would be one thing. Novels and stories about revolution and nation-making and resistance and labor and capital-theft and the depletion of people’s spirits and will to change or power. What used to be political, socially engaged writing. But now, political means southern grandmothers making cornbread or ambivalence about dating white men or white women being kind of rude in the bathroom. It’s not that the weird, soft racial nostalgia that has come to define Northern black writers’ aesthetic idea of the South or intragender racism is apolitical. It’s more that the gestures made in contemporary fiction toward politics feel so inadequate and silly in the face of novels like Ann Petry’s brilliant debut The Street or Richard Wright’s Native Son or Baldwin’s Another Country or Corregidora by Gayl Jones or The Women of Brewster Place by Gloria Naylor or Beloved or Jazz or Sula or even Ragtime, to name one of our caucasian brethren, I guess.

It's silly to me in a way beyond comprehension that certain contemporary novels and collections of stories, my own included, are considered political while a novel like James Agee’s A Death in the Family with its lyric intensity and psychologically rich depiction of the mid-century South is not considered political in our contemporary idiom. It simply boggles the mind. Sometimes it feels downright dishonest, the way we talk about political fiction in this country. Even the idea of political fiction in this country as some sort of serious category of major literature is kind of a joke, no? In Alfred Kazin’s On Native Ground, he describes in gently mocking condescension the wariness with which the naturalist Frank Norris viewed “pure literature”:

Norris became a naturalist by that hatred of “pure literature” which developed in Europe after Flaubert into the social studies Zola. “Who cares for fine style,” he wrote in 1899. “Tell your yarn and let your style go to the devil. We don’t want literature, we want life."

And later, he describes with a weary amusement the novels of the muckrakers, not the first but one of the loudest genre of socially engaged American fiction:

If any of the muckrakers now deserve censure, it is those who tried to become novelists on the strength of a few facts and a little indignation (rather like some proletarian novelists in the nineteen- thirties); or romantic novelists like Winston Churchill, who set out in “reform" novels like Comston to write truthfully about politics and ended up by sentimentalizing the very political bosses whom they seemed to attack.

[…]

The muckraking novel was essentially a reporter’s novel; at first it was called the “political” novel and later the “economic” novel, as insurance companies turned out to be as corrupt as Tammany elec­tions, and the trusts as coolly wicked as a Philadelphia district leader. Of all the reporters who turned to fiction, David Graham Phillips soon emerged as the shining example. He was a kind of superior arche­type of all the people who went into “reform fiction”—bred and trained in the Middle West, a great reporter, stubbornly honest, pru­dent, handsome, the dashing ideal journalist in a day when all the great reporters were as romantic as foreign correspondents[…] Phillips, in whom the nostalgic Jeffersonianism of the Progressive period became a passion, had no higher aspiration than to lay bare the debasement of the old middle-class spirit in the new plutocracy. As it happens, he succeeded only in documenting, out of the over­ flowing knowledge he had gained as a reporter, the surface corruption in contemporary politics and business.

The chapter goes on to discuss the handwringing and fighting over the “political novels” of the era, describing them as a shifting, artistically dubious category. There’s this incredible line where he says that the Marxists didn’t like “naive novelists” by which they meant novelists who were not Marxists. Plus ça change.

It’s true that sets of critics and artists have long since made it a practice to imbue the word political with a set of characteristics they liked, while all the other critics and artists who did not like those same characteristics decried the “political” as being artistically barren. It’s a tug of war over the meanings of terms that we pretend, for some reason, have concrete meanings when in fact, it’s all just discourse. We’re all trying to validate our decisions to spend our time making art in a world whose need for art seems to diminish daily.

Even the impulse of this letter, to situate Carver within a political framework, isn’t really about wanting to talk about his politics. It’s to make him seem relevant and interesting so that people won’t dismiss him. I mean, yes, his politics are interesting, particularly around the white working class and what all that means, and the absence of black people in his work and the way his stories are situated in places without a dense population center, that thready network of busted towns clinging to survival in the Northwest. Like, yes, there is something interesting there to be discussed, and I would like to. But first, I feel I have to justify my interest, and my way of doing that is to hold up his stories and say, no, no, these are deeply political. As if by proving his political bona fides, the ethical and moral vision of his work, I can save him from being labeled just another white dude. I can get him an invite to the cookout.

I mean, it’s silly, all of this rhetorical fuel burned simply to accrue enough capital and goodwill so that this writer, one of the major stylists in the history of American prose literature, can be wedged into a superficial aesthetic framework that borrows the name but none of the substance of actual political writing.

Anyway, you should read Raymond Carver.

He’s weirder and better than you probably think.

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