Friday, July 31, 2009

Raymond Carver, where are you calling from?

You may be familiar with Raymond Carver, even if you don't recognize the name. Years ago acclaimed director Robert Altman made a rather forgettable movie titled Short Cuts based (loosely?) upon Carver short stories. A grand hotel of a film, I don't remember anyone being able to pull off a short sketch of character the way Carver did.

Or did he? Rumors have long circulated about the brilliance of Carver's first editor, Gordon Lish, and now, thanks to Carver's second wife Tess Gallagher and cohorts, we can assess that influence ourselves.

I must admit a limited familiarity with Carver. I own a copy of Cathedrals, Carver's first post-Lish venture. I'm unfamiliar with Lish's purported influence, but it's not hard to see where Carver may have needed a firm editorial hand.

Mind you, all of this is said with completely grudging admiration. No doubt exists that Carver was an extraordinarily gifted writer. A Simple, Good Thing stands as one of my favorite short stories, even though there are places where it is positively clunky:

"We've been waiting with him until he died. But, of course, you couldn't be expected to know that, could you? Bakers can't know everything--can they, Mr. Baker? But he's dead. He's dead, you bastard!"

The funny thing about this passage is that, in context, it is not a sore thumb. People say nonsensical things in the middle of immense grief. Still, it does not lend itself to multiple readings (I readily admit this may be because of the strong South Park flavor--"You killed Kenny! You bastard!").

Just a page later, however, you get a full dose of Carver's skill as he delineates the baker's response--

"'Now I'm just a baker. That don't excuse doing what I did, I know. But I'm deeply sorry.' [. . . ]He spread his hands out on the table, and turned them over to reveal his palms.[. . .]"I don't know how to act anymore, it would seem.'"

The way this scene is written is masterful, even with its stumbling. Something about its imperfection rings, if not exactly true, fictionally substantial. In short stories, where each word must advance the story unlike the novel's sprawling grasp, fictionally substantial can work, but a good editor can turn that into a more graceful bridge to suspension of disbelief.

So what to think of these percolating revelations? Frankly, the headline smacks of an editor's heavy, sensationalizing hand. The author manages to strike a balance, if leaning toward Carver. This is ever the highwire act in which writers engage one another, and it is to Carver's credit that he recognized Gish's talent, as well as his own.

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