Dirty Realist

Michael Foley

  • Fires: Essays, Poems, Stories by Raymond Carver
    Harvill, 204 pp, £8.95, April 1985, ISBN 0 00 271243 1
  • The Stories of Raymond Carver
    Picador, 447 pp, £3.50, May 1985, ISBN 0 330 28552 1

Raymond Carver is a typically American hero, a kind of literary Rocky – janitor, delivery man, sawmill operator, servicestation attendant, an uneducated alcoholic no-hoper who rises to Major Writer status and the Professorship of English at Syracuse University. Most writers would give a right arm for such authentic redneck credentials and one can be sure that most funky jobs listed on blurbs were only held for a couple of weeks during summer vacations. One can tell Carver is genuine because he makes nothing of it. It is the professorship that goes on the dust-jackets and not the many jobs, which are mentioned dismissively, in passing, in one of the essays in Fires.

‘Fires’, the title essay, has a marvellous description of fear and loathing in a laundromat in Iowa City. Carver’s wife is working as a waitress and, with five or six loads of family wash to do before collecting his kids from a party, Carver plants himself in front of a dryer just coming to a halt. By the ‘law of the laundromat’ he can dump the clothes within thirty seconds if no one shows up. Just as he is about to do so a woman comes to the dryer, feels the clothes – and inserts two more coins. ‘At that moment I felt – I knew – that the life I was in was vastly different from the lives of the writers I most admired. I understood writers to be people who didn’t spend their Saturdays at the laundromat and every waking hour subject to the needs and caprices of their children.’

These conditions are also given as the reason for choosing the short story form – there was no time for novels. ‘These circumstances dictated, to the fullest possible extent, the forms my writing could take. God forbid, I’m not complaining now, just giving facts from a heavy and still-bewildered heart.’ Urgency also ruled out experimentation – ‘a licence to be careless, silly or imitative in the writing. Even worse, a licence to brutalise or alienate the reader. Too often such writing gives us no news of the world, or else describes a desert landscape and that’s all – a few dunes and lizards here and there, but no people.’ Nor could there even be anything fancy. ‘I hate tricks.’

All this prepares us for a writer impatient with literary conventions and grappling directly with experience – and at the prospect of ‘news of the world’ one’s own heavy and bewildered heart lifts a little. One expects the emphasis to be on content rather than style – but in fact the reverse is true. The overwhelming impression is not of a man driven to testify but of a practised, cunning and profoundly self-conscious artist. The stories are always readable but this is often achieved by mere literary skill and one feels cheated rather than enriched at the end.

There are several reasons for this disparity. One is the influence of Hemingway and Lardner. The faux naif pose with its short, simple sentences and dumb-ass narrators may appear a direct route to the real world beyond literature – but it has never actually been that (unless one goes back to Huck Finn). Hemingway’s vision was distorted by romanticism and Lardner’s by misanthropy. Their legacy is a short story tradition whose apparent directness and sincerity have been eagerly appropriated by a multitude of cynical second-raters. Carver is not cynical – but he does not always avoid the pitfalls of his chosen tradition. Now that the fuss has died down, the Hemingway style looks more mannered than Proust’s and after a few pages of ‘the man said – the woman said’ exchanges one’s whole system cries out for a few polysyllabic words and subordinate clauses.

Then there is the influence of two other clean, well-lighted places – the creative-writing workshop and the national magazine. Both these encourage craftsmanship and professionalism – tricks, in fact. Carver mentions being taught, as a creative-writing student, that it is bad to do a story about a crippled person and leave out the fact of the character’s crippledness until the very end. ‘Any strategy that kept important and necessary information away from the reader in the hope of overcoming him by surprise at the end of the story was cheating.’ However, it turns out that he disapproves of this, not because it is a strategy, but because it is old-fashioned. Nowadays you don’t keep significant information to the end – you omit it altogether. Time and again this technique is used to maintain interest and create the illusion of the story as a chink onto a large, strange, frightening world. Thus ‘Harry’s Death’ does not explain why or how Harry died and ‘The Lie’ does not tell us what the husband and wife are quarrelling about, much less whether or not it is true. This is a pro trick. And there are others: making the reader feel superior by having an unconsciously prejudiced narrator (the Lardner trick), creating the illusion of mystery by using a narrator with only partial knowledge of the characters (the Great Gatsby trick), slipping in ‘significant’ symbols by having your dumb-ass say something like ‘I had this funny dream and I don’t know what it means,’ or ‘I don’t know much about books but I read this story by Jack London’ (the Catcher in the Rye trick). In the third-person stories symbolism is introduced by other means. When a practising alcoholic has trouble with his ear we nod wisely (loss of equilibrium, can’t hear the outside world – get it?). When the freezer in the home of a newly redundant worker breaks down we know it is not just the food that is spoiling – it is this couple’s artificially preserved life.

Then there is the hint-of-menace device, the feeling that something kinky or shocking or violent is about to happen. Carver is open about this. ‘I like it when there is some feeling of threat or sense of menace in short stories. I think a little menace is fine to have in a story.’ National magazines also think it is fine, but those seeking news of the real, as distinct from the Hitchcock world may be less enthusiastic.

What Carver is after, with his many devices, is the soul of inarticulate America, the people who smash things, jump through windows, drag their wives round the house by the heels screaming ‘I love you,’ and often need rocks, hammers and firearms to help them express their feelings. These things happen but often one does not believe in the dumb waitresses, salesmen and factory workers or the carefully orchestrated banalities they repeat to each other. Despite his ‘dirty realist’ tag he is not a mimetic writer. If one wants an ear for dialogue and an eye for American grotesquerie one should go to J.F. Powers, now back in print in the UK after a long lapse.[*]

What Carver excels at is creating a mood or atmosphere, often by concentrating on objects (no ideas but in things), and, luckily, it is not always an atmosphere of menace. In the better stories the mood is of aimless-ness, worthlessness, insubstantiality, indecision or regret – our all-too-familiar contemporary demons. In ‘The Ducks’ a nightshift worker is sent home early, mooches about, rejects his wife’s advances and gets up to stare out at the rain. The sensation of helplessness and claustrophobia is overwhelming. Like many of the other characters, this man believes in the classic American solution: go somewhere else. In ‘How about this?’ Harry, a long-time city-dweller, achieves his dream of a house in the country, but is disillusioned even before he arrives. ‘He had expected something different. He drove on and on with a rising sense of hopelessness and outrage.’ In the marvellously funny ‘Jerry and Molly and Sam’ the hapless Al, beset by domestic and work problems, decides to start putting his life in order by secretly disposing of the tiresome family dog. No sooner is this achieved than the sight of his children drives him wild with guilt: ‘I believe I have made the gravest mistake this time. I believe I have made the gravest mistake of all.’

Stories such as these significantly extend the Hemingway tradition into family life. In Hem’s world your great love and baby die in childbirth, leaving you with romantic despair instead of the indignities chronicled here – work (or lack of it), bills, marital rows, screaming babies, difficult children. The one actual fist fight, in ‘Bicycles, muscles, cigarets’, is between two dads after an argument about damage to a child’s bike. These stories are longer and more relaxed, blessedly menace and symbol-free, the style and dialogue less mannered, the treatment less oblique.

Also completely successful are the stories where Carver is content to indulge his taste for odd characters and weird dialogue: for instance, ‘What we talk about when we talk about love’ or ‘Feathers’, where a couple invited to the home of a colleague of the husband’s encounter a cast of the wife’s pre-orthodentistry teeth on top of the TV, a swan ashtray where butts are stubbed out on the back and smoke drifts from the mouth, a huge, incredibly ugly baby and a pet peacock which screams until it is let into the living-room. All this is rendered with exquisite satirical precision: but where Lardner would continue the crucifixion, right on to breaking the legs and inserting the spear in the side, and where a lesser writer would tip over into caricature and farce, Carver suddenly breaks off the comedy to end on an unexpected and moving note of compassion.

Best of all are the stories dealing with alcoholism and family break-up. These provide news of the world with a vengeance. When the narrator of ‘Night School’ begins, ‘My marriage had just fallen apart. I couldn’t find a job. I had another girl ...’ the short sentences are like jabs from a cattle prod. Instead of being soothed into compliance one is jolted alert – the guy really means it this time. It is not just that the material must be autobiographical, although this obviously gives an extra urgency. What makes these stories arresting is the combination of dramatic – but genuine – material and a throwaway, laconic style. Instead of the anguished breast-beating and self-laceration customary with this kind of material, the stories are written from inside the alcoholic experience, and one is continually startled and thrown off-balance by the casual descriptions of cheating, stealing, abuse, neglect and other kinds of lunacy such as offering the entire contents of a house for sale in the front yard, then getting drunk with a young couple looking for bargains and dancing to your own records with the confused young wife (‘Why don’t you dance?’).

The pick of this bunch is ‘Where is everyone?’ in Fires (an extended and much improved version of ‘Mr Coffee and Mr Fixit’ from the Picador collection), which starts with ‘I’ve seen some things’ and has a more than usually bizarre and sardonic humour.

I was out of work, drinking, and crazy. My kids were crazy, and my wife was crazy and having a ‘thing’ with an unemployed aerospace engineer she’d met at AA. He was crazy too. His name was Ross and he had five or six kids. He walked with a limp from a gunshot wound his first wife had given him. He didn’t have a wife now; he wanted my wife.

After describing a scuffle with his son the narrator mentions with approval a scene from Italo Svevo in which a dying father uses the last of his strength to raise himself and slap his son’s face as hard as he can. Then the narrator adds: ‘I often imagined my own deathbed scene in those days, and I saw myself doing the same thing – only I would hope to have the strength to slap each of my kids and my last words for them would be what only a dying man would have the courage to utter.’ I laughed all the way through the story – but it was awkward, uneasy laughter. Afterwards I had a couple of stiff drinks myself.

This material is also dealt with in the poems in Fires, the furniture on the sidewalk turning up again in ‘Distress Sale’.

What a situation here! What disgrace! Everyone who sees this collection of junk on the sidewalk is bound to be mortified.

But the effect here is less striking. In the stories we are mortified without having to be told to be mortified. Most of the lyrics are tight, competent and readable. These would be terms of abuse for an English poet, but given the range of American windbags, from Ashbery at one end of the scale to Bukowski at the other, one is grateful for competence and readability.

The collection Fires is described as ‘new work’: but five of the seven stories have appeared before in books (three are in the Picador collection, albeit in different form), and the bulk of the poetry is from Carver’s three published volumes.

[*] Hogarth published Morte D’Urban (336 pp., £3.95, 0 7012 0586 5) and Prince of Darkness, and Other Stories (228 pp., £3.95, 0 7012 0585 7) on 4 April. Both are introduced by Mary Gordon.