When Raymond Carver died at age fifty, readers lost a distinctive voice in its prime. Carver was, the Times of London said, "the Chekhov of middle America." His influence on a generation of writers and on the short story itself has been widely noted. Not so generally known are how Carver became a writer, how he suffered to achieve his art, and how his troubled and remarkable personality affected those around him.
Carol Sklenicka’s meticulous and absorbing biography re-creates Carver’s early years in Yakima, Washington, where he was the nervous, overweight son of a kindly, alcohol-dependent lumbermill worker. By the time he was nineteen, Ray had married his high school sweetheart, Maryann Burk. From a basement apartment where they were raising their first child and expecting their second, they determined that Ray would become a writer. Despite the handicaps of an erratic education and utter lack of financial resources, he succeeded. Sklenicka describes Carver’s entry into the literary world via "little magazines" and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop; his publication by Esquire editor Gordon Lish and their ensuing relationship; his near-fatal alcoholism, which worsened even as he produced many of the unforgettable stories collected in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? and What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. She examines the dissolution of his first marriage and his partnership with poet Tess Gallagher, who helped him enjoy the full measure of his success.
Carol Sklenicka draws on hundreds of interviews with people who knew Carver, prodigious research in libraries and private collections, and all of Carver’s poems and stories for Raymond Carver. Her portrait is generous and wise without swerving from discordant issues in Carver’s private affairs. Above all Sklenicka shows how Carver’s quintessentially American life fostered the stories that knowing readers have cherished from their first publication until the present day.
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About the Author
Carol Sklenicka is the author of Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, which was named of one of the 10 Best Books of 2009 by The New York Times Book Review, and Alice Adams: Portrait of a Writer. She lives with poet and novelist R.M. Ryan in northern California.
Read an Excerpt
We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives nor perfect it in our lives to come.
epigraph to Raymond Carver's Where I'm Calling From,
quoted from Milan Kundera's The Unbearable
Lightness of Being
Few American short story writers have been celebrated as Raymond Carver was in the 1980s. Because his spare, colloquial prose hints at something absent and mysterious, critics called him the father of minimalist fiction. Writers and writing teachers revered and imitated his style. Readers loved his grim, often funny, sometimes transcendent stories about the lives of the working poor. He wrote about their money problems, alcoholism, embittered marriages, and disaffected children; about muted, interior crises brought on by bad luck or neglect rather than intent. Carver knew that territory because he lived in it for much of his life.
Carver paid a high price for the experiences that served his art.
When printer's galleys arrived for his first book of short stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, Carver and his wife, who was a schoolteacher, had just been released from their debts by a federal bankruptcy court. Carver drank vodka while he corrected the pages at his dining room table in Cupertino, California.
On the day after the book's publication in March 1976, two of Carver's friends arrived at his house early in the morning. They didn't come to celebrate the book that would become a National Book Award finalist. They came to drive him and his wife to his trial at the county courthouse; he had been charged with lying to obtain unemployment payments. As they all departed, Maryann Carver took a shiny, white book from a stack on their table. The book was dedicated to her, a fruit of their nineteen married years. She would show it to the judge as evidence that her husband was still a man with prospects. She hoped to be able to keep him out of jail. She would explain that he was the victim of unfulfilled dreams and alcoholism.
Indeed, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? was a career-launching book. Carver, then thirty-eight, had published in literary magazines plus two stories in Esquire but this first book had been a long time coming.
It came almost too late.
Alcohol had ruled Carver's life for longer than he cared to admit. Lying to the state of California was hardly the worst offense Carver had committed as he capitulated to late-stage alcoholism. "Everything," he wrote later, that he and Maryann "held sacred, every spiritual value, [had] crumbled away."
Carver's fate had closed in on him when he suffered an alcoholic withdrawal seizure in the lobby of a clinic where he'd just been detoxified. A doctor told him then that he'd risk irreversible brain damage if he drank again; that first book could be his last. Despite the dire warning, Carver continued to drink, detox, and relapse for another two years. As he became sicker and sicker, he hid the severity of his problem more cunningly from everyone but his family and close friends. These people worried, but they couldn't influence him.
Yet Carver finally turned his life around, becoming one of the rare exceptions in a long line of hopelessly alcoholic American authors. When he finally quit drinking, he made the decision alone. That day of his last drink was the natal day of his new life, the beginning of the decade he described as "gravy" the sauce that enriches an ordinary meal.
In his eleven sober years, Carver made difficult decisions that changed his work and his circumstances. He relished the rewards, affection, and freedom that came his way. When he died in 1988, Where I'm Calling From, a selection of his short stories that the New York Times named a favorite book of the late twentieth century, had just been published; he had just completed his third collection of poetry in five years. His work appeared in twenty-two languages and the Times of London called him "the American Chekhov." He was a full-time writer, acclaimed by the press and supported by royalties from his books and a generous five-year grant from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
In the end, though, Carver measured his own success by what he'd come through and by the work that he believed would survive him. He wasn't a saint, and his sobriety wasn't perfect he remained a nervous, obsessive, and lovably boyish man addicted to cigarettes and reliant on marijuana. But he credited his productive final years to not drinking: "I'm prouder of that, that I've quit drinking, than I am of anything in my life."
Carver liked to say he had two lives, and sometimes he spoke of two people, Bad Ray and Good Ray, viewing himself with the bemused, kindly detachment he held for his fictional characters. Of course, he was one man with one life. Bad Ray and Good Ray together were messier and more human than his dichotomy supposed.
Carver acknowledged the irrevocable singleness of his life when he selected as an epigraph to his final volume of stories a quotation from Milan Kundera that speaks of the impossibility of knowing "what to want" or of perfecting oneself within one lifetime. Carver became a more confident and luckier man when he stopped drinking, but he didn't become a different man. In recovery, he accepted himself and marveled at his own achievements. His intention to write well remained his true north.
Copyright © 2009 by Carol Sklenicka
Table of Contents
Part I Beginnings
1 Raymond Junior 3
2 Yakima Valley 10
3 Vocation 21
4 Cigarettes, Beer, Jazz 34
5 Crazy in Love 43
6 Furious Years 60
7 A Story of He and She 74
8 The Athens of the Midwest 87
Part II Search
9 Grinding and Sharpening 109
10 Were Those Actual Miles" 122
11 Luck 137
12 Reading Mark Twain in Tel Aviv 153
13 The Sixties End 166
14 A Friend in New York 179
Part III Success And Discontent
15 A Story in Esquire 201
16 The Illusion of Freedom 218
17 Astounding and Amazing Times 233
18 Drowning 250
19 Will You Please Be Quiet, Please" 268
Part IV Recovery
20 Celebrated and Homeless 293
21 Sobriety 311
22 Separation 323
23 Beginning, Again 336
24 What We Talk About When We Talk About Love 352
25 Fires 376
Part V Triumph
26 Cathedral 397
27 Where Water Comes Together with Other Water 413
28 Ultramarine 432
29 Where I'm Calling From 447
30 A New Path to the Waterfall 460
Acknowledgments and Sources 491
Works by Raymond Carver 495
Notes on Sources 501
Insert Photograph Credits 549
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
One of the loveliest things about this bio is the fact that chapter headings are snippets from what Carver himself was reading at the time the chapter covers. I'm not a biography fan (and even less of a 'writers I love' biography fan, but this one was superb. Glad I gave it to myself for my birthday, despite the outrageous $45 price.