Review: Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life

Issue #112
Fall 2010

Three distinct periods divide the historiography—some might argue hagiography—of short story impresario Raymond Carver. During the early phase of Carver’s career, when he enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with editor Gordon Lish, Lish downplayed the idiosyncratic aspects of Carver’s biography in favor of a “Carver-as-Everyman” representation that mirrored Lish’s efforts to edit the “defining personal history” out of Carver’s fiction. Many of Carver’s early publications contain no jacket photo. In the case of one anthology, The Secret Lives of Our Times: New Fiction from Esquire, Lish entirely omitted biographical material about his authors. Stories, as Lish saw it, had to stand on their own. A second phase in the creation of Carver’s legacy began in the late 1970s, as the author embraced sobriety and broke free of his editorial mentor. Carver generated (and often fictionalized) his own biography, which featured an attempt to distinguish between the “Bad Ray” of his drinking years and the “Good Ray” who held literary court as an “American Chekhov” until his premature death in 1988. The publication of Carol Sklenicka’s insightful and engaging biography of Carver likely marks the launch of a third phase of assessment, and a more candid one, which cuts through much of the Carver mythology to the core of its subject’s deeply troubled being. At the same time, Sklenicka provides an essential context that lends overdue clarity to Carver’s writing.

Carver, as presented by Sklenicka, is a man of profound moral shortcomings. The drinking Carver of the 1960s and 1970s physically abuses his spouse, neglects his children, and cheats the state of California out of unemployment payments. He makes a pastime of stiffing waitresses on restaurant tabs. While it is clear that Sklenicka is rooting for her subject—as is the reader, under her compelling sway—the facts are damning. Unlike the benevolent-and-romantic drunk Donald Barthelme depicted in Tracy Daugherty’s Hiding Man or the ethically  conflicted but fundamentally decent drunk John Cheever of Blake Bailey’s Cheever: A Life, Sklenicka’s Carver is a depressive and unscrupulous drunk. However, the sober Carver of the 1980s remains a figure capable of cheating his agent, Liz Darhansoff, out of a $500 commission and buying a new Mercedes in cash while his own children and widowed mother desperately need money. Carver persisted in falsely claiming an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop throughout his career, an offense for which any lesser literary figure would no doubt have been dispatched to intellectual Coventry. In one glaring lapse, Carver allowed The Paris Review to print excerpts of Lewis Buzbee’s interview with him under Mona Simpson’s byline and then telegrammed Buzbee that he would not discuss the matter.

Sklenicka’s genius lies in her ability to connect the events of Carver’s turbulent life to the incidents depicted in his stories. Sometimes, this background proves indispensable.The story “Harry’s Death,” for instance, feels slight unless one knows that it is based upon the involvement of Carver’s sister-in-law, Amy Burk, in a highly publicized murder trial. Carver’s early “he-she” tales (e.g., “What Is It?”; “Will You Please Be Quiet Please?”) benefit significantly from an understanding of the author’s codependent relationship with his first wife, Maryann. One of his most inscrutable pieces, “Vitamins,” about a door-to-door vitamin saleswoman, makes far more sense when one learns the details of Maryann’s experiences selling encyclopedias. As Sklenicka weaves her perceptive analysis of Carver’s stories into her narrative of his life, she reveals herself to be among the most astute literary critics of our time. Her even-handed presentation of the leading controversies in Carver scholarship, such as the extent of Lish’s editorial role and the legal dispute surrounding Carver’s estate, deserve particular praise.

By creating a biographical context for Carver’s work, Sklenicka delivers an answer to Irving Howe’s observation that Carver’s fictional universe is “without religion or politics or culture, without the shelter of class or ethnicity, without the support of strong folkways or conscious rebellion.”Carver’s work does derive from a distinctive American culture, albeit a dreary culture of the generic and the rootless, a world that his biographer recreates vividly in all of its itinérance and inebriation and dishevelment. The grandeur of Sklenicka’s biography—and its irony, considering Lish’s efforts to downplay the personal—is that the volume genuinely augments the meaning of Carver’s stories, providing a necessary companion to his work. Once one reads Sklenicka’s unflinching account, one cannot imagine appreciating or understanding Carver’s prose without having done so. Any teacher who assigns Carver’s fiction should assign Sklenicka’s biography alongside it.