Sunday, December 27, 2015
Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life - Carol Sklenicka
Go back to the year 2000 with me, if you please. I'm in Wilmette, IL at my parent's house, home on break from school out east, getting ready to apply to college, sitting in an armchair in the living room (designated "the library") leafing through an anthology of American literature. I'm vaguely familiar with Raymond Carver from Roger Ebert's review of Short Cuts, which I read a few years earlier, and I see the story "Cathedral." I decide to read it, and it's beautiful, a sketch of a blind man being helped to draw a cathedral from an image in his mind of which he can have no reference. It's a pretty quick read, but enormously moving, and I decide this might be a writer worth checking out.
Fast forward a year and I'm at NYU in a Prose Composition class and our professor gives us a xeroxed copy of Carver's poem "Fear," a list poem about things he fears. I've seen Short Cuts at least a time or two by now (even going so far as to call my favorite movie at the time (Magnolia) a rip-off), and I go to one of those used book tables in Greenwich Village and pick up a copy of Where I'm Calling From and I read the stories sporadically throughout the course of my freshman year, all the while hearing praise of Carver from anyone the least bit connected to any creative writing class. I pick my oldest sister for Secret Santa for Christmas that year, and though she has never really expressed an interest in so-called literary fiction, give her a copy of Where I'm Calling From, asterisking all the stories in particular that I think she should read.
So yes, I love Raymond Carver, and this biography easily makes the list of the Best Books reviewed on Flying Houses. It's not a perfect biography, but it's very close. It's so painstakingly researched that a reader can almost observe Carver's movements on a day-to-day basis.
Also, Carver went to the same high school as Justice Douglas. So two of the graduates of Yakima High School would go onto lives worthy of biographies listed as Best Books on FH. Therefore I believe my friends Byron Johnson and Erin Ecklund will be moving on to live great lives (though I think they went to a different high school). Boarding school was a waste of money. Families should move to Yakima to go to this school. Then again, it would be inadvisable to base one's child's future on a career in the arts, or the law...
The book is subtitled "A Writer's Life" and indeed the first half of the book lays out in excruciating detail all of the obstacles that Carver had to overcome to become an author worthy of publication in The Best American Short Stories series and The New Yorker. He marries quite young to Maryann Burk and they have their first child before he turns twenty. Even before then, he had developed enough of an interest in creating writing that he paid $25 to the Palmer Institute of Authorship in Hollywood at the age of 16. Sklenicka cannily observes that some of the correspondence has a ring of destiny about it--the first lesson is aimed squarely at the short story and reads:
"In becoming a Palmer student you are taking an important step in establishing yourself in a profession that enjoys the respect and esteem of all classes of people, a profession you may be proud to claim as your own...This may be the vital turning point in the course of your life...." (39)
Later, Ray goes to the Writer's Workshop at the University of Iowa, several times, in varying guises--never quite earning an MFA, but sometimes taking credit for it. In the meanwhile, he works at sawmills and barely earns enough to support their family. Their continual poverty is a constant theme of the biography. However, what struck me most about their family was Maryann. She just seems awesome. This is a biography of Raymond Carver--but there is so much Maryann in here that it might as well be a biography of her, too. And this was the surprisingly compelling aspect of the book to me: they have this beautiful relationship, but also an extremely difficult one, and they stick it out for so long. He owed his early career to her. He would not have accomplished what he accomplished without her.
His first stories were published in the late 1950's and early 1960's, but he seemed to hit his first stride in 1964 with "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" Eventually that would be the title story for his first collection, which would be released thirteen years later. More than any other book I've read, this truly depicts the "writer's life" of living your life for your work and spending a considerable amount of time submitting to journals and magazines for publication. The "second stride" probably came with the publication of "Neighbors" in Esquire, where Gordon Lish served as fiction editor.
There are several literary friendships depicted here. First there is John Gardner as Carver's writing professor at Iowa (though he is only a few years older). Second, there is Lish, who certainly comes across as one of the more entertaining (and ruthless) characters in the book. Third, there is Tess Gallagher, and later Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford. There is also an entertaining and sad section where a 61-year-old John Cheever drinks and teaches alongside Carver at Iowa in 1973 (Chapter 18 "Drowning," which is not quite rock bottom for Carver, but very close).
Alcoholism is another major theme of the book, and it is written about with such precision and empathy that I thought Sklenicka must have battled demons of her own on that score. He would drink for three more years after the episodes with Cheever up until the publication of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? Roughly a year after that was published he would become sober and remain sober. It is quite harrowing to read about his plight during these times, all in the "Celebrated and Homeless" chapter.
One quick side note: one of his earlier stories is called "Are These Actual Miles?" This is just an awesome title for a story:
"One of those new stories configured the rock-bottom days of the Carvers' lives in Sacramento when they were forced to sell their convertible. 'Are These Actual Miles?' is about bankruptcy, suspections of infidelity, and suicidal depression. Ray pushed into new territory with this story, and it proved to be exactly what Lish was waiting for. Late in November, Lish telephoned to say that Gingrich and Hayes were 'wild' about the story. Not only that, but Lish planned to include both 'Neighbors' and 'Miles' in an anthology of fiction from Esquire that he was editing for Doubleday." (214)
But they change to the title to "What is It?" Worst title change ever! Ray is upset about it and Maryann calls him a "whore" for selling out, but Esquire gives them another boost in credibility and they accept it.
I really shouldn't give away the whole story--I'll speak in generalities. It is an impressive story. You know, people think that writer's lives are boring. This is anything but a boring life, but I do not think anybody in their right mind would ever want to live it. It is filled with so much uncertainty and chaos and desperation that no one should set their sights on a literary career unless they are willing to sacrifice almost everything in favor of that pursuit.
This is a really hard review to write because there's so much to say. This is a big book--not quite as big as the Ernest Hemingway biography that holds the record for longest gestation time on FH--but at 496 pages a hefty read. I tore through it. It took me less than 2 months. Maybe a month and a half. It was a little slow going in the beginning, but within the first 100 pages Carver is publishing his first stories. It seems that the period up until say, Cathedral, is very tightly documented, and that the last five years of Carver's life, when he finally began to taste the fruits of literary success, pass a bit more quickly.
It is worth telling how I found this book, because it is quite fortuitous. I live in a very bad apartment building, but we do have a free washer and dryer in the basement. The machines themselves leave something to be desired. The room is disgusting. No one ever cleans it, except for me the one time my landlord took $40 off my rent one month when I agreed to do it. Despite this atmosphere, it also becomes a kind of dumping ground for unwanted items that could be used for other tenants passing through. You see, my landlord does not rent out three, 3 BR apartments--he rents out 9 rooms. Each of them is around $600, so he is making over $5000 per month off us. But we live in relative squalor. Some of this is the doing of my roommates, but it is mostly the doing of the 1st and 2nd floor tenants, over the years.
Sometimes though, a treasure appears. I had noticed a very good book collection laying on the ground. Sometimes I would flip through the Williams S. Burroughs compilation Word Virus while waiting a few extra minutes for a garment to be dried. But this one particular day in late October or early November, I saw the Raymond Carver biography and I thought it was such a quirky book to have that I had to seize the opportunity and read it quickly and return it in case the person that owned it moved out. Finally I talked to two of the basement neighbors and asked whose it was and they said somebody who had moved out had left it and I could keep it. That took the pressure off, but I read it quickly regardless. At a certain point I read "Fires" out of Fires (which is the only Carver collection I own) and a description of a scene in a laundromat stands out as imminently moving:
"The dark heart of 'Fires' is a two-page anecdote about doing his family's wash at a laundromat in Iowa City. The laundromat was on the corner of Burlington and Gilbert, around the corner from the writers' favorite beer joints. Canadian writer Clark Blaise sometimes chatted with Ray while their clothes spun at this laundromat, as Blaise and his wife, the novelist Bharati Mukherjee, struggled to keep up with their baby's diapers. But Carver is alone in the laundromat epiphany he reports. Maryann is at work, the kids are at a birthday party, and Ray is waiting for a dryer. It's Saturday afternoon and crowded, so he is becoming frantic. Another dryer has stopped, and Carver is moving toward it, ready to replace the other clothes with his own, when the owner of the clothing decides to let it go for another cycle:
....I remember thinking at that moment....that nothing could come anywhere close, could possibly be as important to me, could make as much difference, as the fact that I had two children. And that I would always have them and always find myself in this position of unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction.
Like that it came to me. Like a sharp breeze when the window is thrown open. Up to that point in my life I'd gone along thinking...that things would work out somehow--that everything in my life I'd hoped for or wanted to do was possible.
Is Carver writing fiction here? Could this one moment encompass so much? The essay dramatizes a situation that had smoldered for years. Carver admits in the essay that many writers have overcome 'far more serious impediments to their work, including imprisonment, blindness, the threat of torture or death...'" (96-97)
Later, Carver's children come to resent him for "Fires" and a few other stories and poems throughout the years. Perhaps he should have kept his mouth shut, but you know, we all need little anecdotes about the petty frustrations involved with laundry. Most strikingly though, Scklenicka adds that, in this scene, Carver is 25 and halfway through his life.
This review is getting long as it is. There are just too many little details that I'd like to reference. One of the cutest, for me, is Ray's favored non-alcoholic beverage:
Okay unfortunately that's not in the index so I can't find it, but at one point his children notice that he always drinks RC Cola. He likes it because his initials are R.C. The image of him sitting around drinking R.C. and presiding, like, "Yep, that's my cola," is hilarious.
There are several details about other writers, but the big gaping hole in this biography that we've left so far is Gordon Lish. Lish's anecdote about J.D. Salinger is worth excerpting (as is almost any anecdote about that controversial legend). I also wish Obama/whoever wins in 2016 cared more about people like us:
"No project Lish undertook was too humble to become a vehicle for his prodigious personality. For the Job Corps, a Kennedy-era program for unemployed young men, he created a box set of reading folders called Why Work. Instead of gathering already published materials, Lish sent telegrams to thirty writers he admired. One of these telegrams went to J.D. Salinger, who had been in seclusion for more than a decade. Lish followed his telegram with letters--numerous letters--to Salinger that show Lish inventing himself as a literary impresario. A few months later, he received a telephone call at work from Salinger himself. When he understood who was calling him, Lish reports, 'I was grinning so hard that my brain could not have had any room left over in it for one speck of business.' As Lish tells it, Salinger said, 'I'm calling because I was worried about you.' Salinger again refused to write for Why Work. But Lish was not unhappy: 'I mean, forget that it was animating him all four months later, it worked! had worked!--because there he was, J.D. Salinger, the impeccably reclusive J.D. Salinger, calling me--.'" (151)
It is necessary to take a detour into Lish, and relate one final personal anecdote in two pieces. First, on the day I finished this biography, the Winter 2016 edition of the The Paris Review (#215) arrived at our apartment (I don't subscribe to it; my roommate does--one of several reasons why I will be sad to see him go). One of the interviews was of the now 82-year-old Gordon Lish, who is cantankerous as ever. Lish donated his papers to Indiana University, and he encourages all Carver fanatics to visit this collection to see just how responsible he is for Carver's acclaim. Now it is very true that Carver is widely imitated and extremely influential, and Lish's labors cannot be diminished. However, Lish makes it seem like Carver is a stumbling drunk who can barely form a sentence, who spits out a couple dozen pages of gibberish, which Lish then cuts by more than 50% to emerge with a prize-winning story. Lish is just a very heavy editor, and other writers, such as Barry Hannah, acknowledge how deeply he changed their work for the better. Carver, on the other hand, was sheepish about this, and fought the accusations that he was really just Lish's puppet.
For Christmas, I got my mother a copy of Beginners, which is the manuscript Carver sent Lish of the stories that would comprise his second book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which is certainly one of the most famous short stories he wrote. I haven't read it yet, but it's one of those gifts where you are really getting something for yourself--though I know my mother loves literature and I was just trying to turn her on to Carver. Maybe it will be weak, though. I am afraid. I looked at the opening of "What Is It?" from Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? in the Barnes & Noble and it starts off like a rocket--"First thing, we have to sell the car," or some other such opening. Lish would remove characters, remove names from characters, cut out whole scenes, remove neat conclusions and leave stories to end on an ambiguous or dark note. Carver is often defined as a minimalist, but I think it is quite clear that Lish is responsible for that reputation. Reading this biography reignited my interest in his work, and I hope to read the Lish-edited books and then perhaps Beginners once my mother is finished with it. Really one would need to read them side-by-side--or at least focus on the story "Beginners" itself--to determine if that 2009 volume, positioned by Tess Gallagher as truer versions of the stories, is responsible in the least for Birdman, which I feel like put Carver back into the national consciousness. To be sure, Birdman is an achievement all on its own--but would it really have been the kind of Best Picture type film it was without the Carver motif? I'm sure plenty of people watching didn't know a thing about "WWTAWWTAL," but those that did understand why the film is such a powerful statement on artistry and fame.
Carver never became "famous" until he stopped drinking, though it was his many drunken misadventures that became the stories of "Bad Ray" which "Good Ray" would then write in his sober years. There are so many little things in this book that are just hilarious; there are just as many that will break your heart.
A brief word on domestic violence: Ray beat Maryann, and Sklenicka does not shy away from describing it, though she does perhaps whitewash it a bit--but understandably so! Because Maryann would beat him back, too, and often drank as much as he did. There is one shocking incident though, where Maryann is nearly killed by a bottle of wine broken on her neck, which opens an artery. They have a volatile, tempestuous relationship, and it nearly kills them. One does not get the sense that Ray is the typical abuser and Maryann is the typical victim. It never seems like she is "scared" of him, though she is remarkably loyal to him. I will not spoil what happens when they finally divorce, and the alimony arrangement they reach, but let's just say, as I've intimated above already, that Carver owes his career to Maryann. He owes a debt to Lish as well, but Maryann most of all--because she nourished and cared for him and supported him through the worst times most human beings are ever made to suffer.
Amidst all the messiness of life, Carver eventually succeeds. Really, here we have someone--in the generation of the "post-Beats" or the New Journalism (or "the New Fiction" Lish curated)--who grew up wanting to be a writer, who did all the things that people still do nowadays (like go to Iowa, submit to journals, etc.) and who made it, but not without extreme difficulty. It's just such a true story that it has to be one of the Best Books. Even with a few weird moments--I admit that a few of Sklenicka's rare exclamation points are quirky--this is an incredibly valuable tome for anyone that wants to be a writer. You cannot help but smile at certain passages.
Okay I had a good one to end with, but we have to keep Thomas alive, too:
"In Zurich, a friend secured them entry to Thomas Mann's archives and Mann's large study with its fine mahogany desk, parquet floor, couch, and easy chairs. They opened Mann's books and handled his fountain pens and Asian figurines. 'Who couldn't work well with a study like this?' Ray wrote on a postcard, before grumbling that Zurich had 'more Japs than Swiss' and more gays than straight people. Tess's journal indicates that Ray felt anxious about getting meals at specific times and taking a nap in the afternoon. Those difficulties were somewhat offset for him by the availability of Swiss chocolate. After making their third visit to the cemetery where James Joyce is buried and studying several funerary sculptures there, they dined at Kronenhalle, which Joyce had frequented. Lectures and meetings with publishers in Rome and Milan closed the trip at the end of April. Weary of media attention and foreign food and foreign languages, Ray gratefully returned to Port Angeles." (456)
But it's a scene from Syracuse with his son, Vance, that may have touched me more than anything else:
"When Vance took Tobias Wolff's survey course in the short story, he said to Wolff, 'My dad's really good, isn't he?' Wolff said, 'Vance, your dad is one of the greatest short story writers who ever lived!' And that had some meaning for him because he was learning about this art form that his father pursued so single-mindedly. He could see him in this landscape of art." (365-366)
Biographies can be tedious and disappointing. They can also make you love their subject even more. Raymond Carver was far from a perfect human being. In fact, he is downright dastardly at times, but it's the humanity peaking through such moments that give this book its heart. Not everyone will love it--it seems targeted at Carver's fans, of which there are many--and though there are many writers one might care to emulate if they hope to "make it" in short fiction (Joy Williams comes to mind as she pops up throughout the book as a sort of contemporary female counterpart to Carver), one ultimately must find greatness within themselves. This book portrays that process beautifully.