Fires, a collection of essays, poems, and short stories by Raymond Carver, was published in 1983, the year I was born. Sometimes, I used to think that I was lucky to live within the lifetime of some of the greatest writers. Raymond Carver is definitely one of the greatest American writers of the 20th century, but I wouldn't be surprised if some people consider him to be overrated nowadays. Anyways, he passed away in 1988, when he was about 50, way, way too young. He would have just turned 80 a few months ago. Fortunately, Milan Kundera is still kicking around somewhere in France at 88. (Note: I had no idea that The Festival of Insignificance existed until a moment ago.)
The only other American authors that I can think of that are on similar footing are Thomas Pynchon and Philip Roth. I might have said John Updike, but I haven't read enough of him, and he passed away 8 years ago. Perhaps JCO and Joan Didion belong in that category, but again, not familiar enough with oeuvre.
I don't want to retread too much territory from Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life, which made the Best Books list, but I will need to use that as a reference guide for some of the material here to provide background information. I first became aware of Raymond Carver via a Roger Ebert review of Short Cuts, a Robert Altman film based on a number of Carver's short stories, which was released in 1993, and I first became aware of that film because my older brother rented it from Blockbuster some random night in the early-to-mid 90's. If you haven't seen it, see it. If you have seen Magnolia, but not Short Cuts, see it and you will see how badly it is ripped off (yet also improved upon). While Short Cuts is a great film, and an epic viewing experience, the ultimate power of it does not match the short stories themselves.
Only one of those stories that figures into Short Cuts, "So Much Water So Close to Home," is reproduced in Fires, but the real menace in the story is absent in the film. It is a much, much better story. Ultimately it is still somewhat inscrutable, and I will use this review as a way to ask questions, in the hope that other readers may provide their own interpretations.
I think there is a quality of mystery to short stories that people consider "really good"--the type of stories that get published in The New Yorker or The Best American Short Stories of XXXX. Like, there is an undercurrent of only hinting at something that a reader may miss, whereas in a novel, it's all pretty much going to be in your face. There's going to be a fair amount of plot, or else the reader is not going to miss the quality that makes it great by the sheer force of the word volume. But in a short story, it can be like a poem, and maybe this is why I don't care all that much for most poetry-- that quality of inscrutability, or archness, or intellectualism. Another reason why I don't mind Carver's poetry. Most of the poems are closer to prose, and most of Carver's short stories only have a slight quality of inscrutability, enough that I can say I love them for the most part. The only exception here is "The Cabin." Also, "The Lie." Actually I like "The Cabin" for the most part, but don't care as much for "The Lie." But I see I am getting ahead of myself. We should discuss the book chronologically.
It starts off with the essays, and the essays may actually be the best part of Fires, the part that made it worth publishing (because I believe most of the other material had already been included in other volumes). This is the first mention of Fires from A Writer's Life:
"Besides the story collection for Knopf, Carver was preparing a new book for Capra Press. Since At Night the Salmon Move and Furious Seasons were both almost sold out, Noel Young proposed combining them into one volume and adding new pieces to make 'a kind of Carver reader' to be called Fires. The advance was under $1,000 but Ray wanted to keep his less commercial work in print. He rearranged the poems and added thirteen that were not in his earlier collections. He republished the long versions of "Distance" and "So Much Water So Close to Home" from Furious Seasons and also took the opportunity to include "Where Is Everyone?" (from which Lish had carved "Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit").
Carver must have realized all this shuffling and reshuffling would confuse even the most earnest scholars. Whether for his own peace of mind or theirs, in an 'Afterword' to Fires he explains that he'd 'rather tinker with a story after writing it, and then tinker some more, changing this, changing that, than to have to write the story in the first place...I think by nature I'm more deliberate than spontaneous, and maybe that explains something.' He explained, too, that 'Distance' and 'So Much Water' had been 'largely rewritten for the Knopf book' but neglected to mention that the rewriting had been done by Lish. 'After some deliberation, I decided to stay fairly close to the versions as they appeared in the Capra Press book...they have been revised again, but not nearly so much as they once were. But how long can this go on? I suppose there is, finally, a law of diminishing returns. But I can say now that I prefer the latter [in other words, earlier] versions of the stories, which is more in accord with the way I am writing short stories these days.'" (A Writer's Life, 383-384)
Nothing about the essays, but maybe there's something in there, some passages in A Writer's Life that delves into the background of the essays. There's certainly something about the essay "Fires," as apparently it made his children hate him, or was viewed as an extremely mean-spirited piece of writing. Frankly I think it is hilarious and true and heartbreaking, but it primarily concerns how his children are his greatest influence, and "have been a negative one, oppressive and often malevolent" (28), and that he would always find himself in the position of "unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction." (33) It has a certain sort of rambling drunk ramshackle quality, but it's an extremely entertaining and honest piece of writing.
Two of the others directly concern his thoughts on writing and being a writer, one of which is focused on John Gardner, who was his teacher at Chico State College in the summer of 1958. The other essay is about his father's life. All four are excellent, but "On Writing" and "John Gardner: the Writer as Teacher" seem to run around some of the same territory. If pressed, I would have to say "On Writing" is the best of the four:
"I have friends who've told me they had to hurry a book because they needed the money, their editor or their wife was leaning on them or leaving them--something, some apology for the writing not being very good. 'It would have been better if I'd taken the time.' I was dumbfounded when I heard a novelist say this. I still am, if I think about it, which I don't. It's none of my business. But if the writing can't be made as good as it is within us to make it, then why do it? In the end, the satisfaction of having done our best, and the proof of that labor, is the one thing we can take into the grave. I wanted to say to my friend, for heaven's sake go do something else. There have to be easier and maybe more honest ways to try and earn a living. Or else just do it to the best of your abilities, your talents, and then don't justify or make excuses. Don't complain, don't explain." (25) (underline by me, circa 2001 or 2002)
All of these essays are great because they are imbued with the quality that makes all of Carver's writing special. The simplicity of its style and clarity, and his ability to beautifully evoke a scene, is perhaps influenced by his desire to "write about commonplace things and objects using commonplace but precise language, and to endow those things--a chair, a window curtain, a fork, a stone, a woman's earring--with immense even startling power. It is possible to write a line of seemingly innocuous dialogue and have it send a chill along the reader's spine--the source of artistic delight, as Nabokov would have it." (24) I think we should move onto the poems before I run the risk of excessive excerpting.
The next 74 pages or so are devoted to poems, in four sections. The first section is the most accessible and the best, in my opinion. "Fear" is not included, but I feel that "Drinking While Driving," "Luck," "Bankruptcy," and "Iowa Summer," are all amongst his best poems. The second section consists solely of a long poem about an evening with Charles Bukowksi, which seems to mimic his literary voice, or at least further his legend. The third and fourth are more impressionistic and not as interesting to me (others that are into more naturalistic writing about fishing and the outdoors may like it more), but "Morning, Thinking of Empire" and "Trying to Sleep Late on a Saturday Morning in November" are two of my favorites. Then you get to the stories, which run roughly 72 pages.
"Distance" is about a young couple growing irritated by their baby waking up all throughout the night, and plans to go hunting, and co-parenting responsibilities. The framing device in particular makes the story especially heartrending, with the father telling his adult daughter a story from when she was a baby.
"The Lie" is so short that I hardly know what to say about it, but seems to be about a quarreling couple, something heard from a friend, purported to be a lie. It is probably my least favorite in the selection, but its brevity might make it another's favorite, as it is one of several Carver stories that could be seen to influence "flash fiction." It also may or may not be a total ripoff of "Hills like White Elephants" (except that it could be about any number of things besides abortion) by Ernest Hemingway, whom Carver acknowledges as a kind of spiritual forbear in one of the essays.
"The Cabin," however, is generally the more enjoyable of the two mentioned above as "inscrutable." It is about a man going away for the weekend to a cabin to go fishing, and a menacing encounter with a gang of unruly youths, and his plans and how they change. If anybody can shed light on the ending (why he decides to leave earlier) I would appreciate it. Is it just because he got scared during the encounter, and he didn't want anything worse to happen? Because he missed his wife?
"Harry's Death" concerns the death of a friend, and dealing with the aftermath and how it ripples throughout all of their shared relationships and how it changes his life.
"The Pheasant" is an interesting story about a couple with a fairly large age gap (12 years) and a spontaneous trip from L.A. to Carmel and an unfortunate road kill incident that is revealed to be semi-intentional and other moments of self-sabotage. For its lightness and strangeness, it is probably my favorite story.
But then, "Where is Everyone?" is pretty great too. It's definitely not as light, but it is arguably as strange, as it eventually settles onto a thread after going off on a bunch of weird tangents like the narrator's 65-year old mother's dating life, his kids and his casual hatred of them, going to AA meetings drunk because "[y]ou're scared and you need something more than cookies and instant coffee," (177) and his father's death at age 54, drunk in his sleep. The thread concerns Ross, or "Mr. FixIt," an unemployed former aerospace engineer whom the narrator's wife has a "thing" with after meeting at an AA meeting. Ross collects old cars and appliances and tries to repair them and . It is basically a character study on Ross. But it is also about the narrator and how he wishes him well now.
Then you get to the end, "So Much Water So Close to Home," which must be the longest story here and is certainly the most epic. This is probably the most "classic" story collected here, because it just seems to be of a more substantial nature. Perhaps because a lot happens in it, but it is really very simple: a man discovers a dead body while fishing with his friends for a weekend, and they decide to keep fishing for the weekend before reporting it to anybody. The narrator is the man's wife and expresses her disbelief at how he could do something like that. She becomes suspicious of her husband and obsessed with the young woman who died, traveling to her wake, and having a scary encounter with a man that may have been her murderer.
There are other Carver stories that I love more, and I hope to review a couple other collections in the near future. I was taking college creative writing classes a comparatively long time ago, now, and I'm not sure if Carver is still all of the rage and cited quite as frequently as the late 20th century master of short fiction--he had only been gone 12 years then, and 16 years have passed since--but I think he still is, and he's one of the few writers whose entire oeuvre is worth digesting. I hope to review Beginners soon, which I got for my mother for Christmas in 2015, despite her not having ever expressed any desire to read Carver. I did the same for my oldest sister with Where I'm Calling From in 2001 or 2002, putting asterisks next to all the stories I thought were worth reading. Basically I think he belongs in a person's library, and perhaps over the next thirty or so years I will continue to foist upon each family member's shelf a different Carver volume. I remember thinking Where I'm Calling From as the more essential volume, so Fires is not going in the Best Books list but it is probably the most essential for a creative writing teacher to photocopy and share with students.