1For some scholars, 1983’s Cathedral represents a major shift in Raymond Carver’s sensibility. Marc Chénetier asserts that Cathedral signals “a movement away from threatening ambiguity, a working towards hope rather than horror” (170). According to Ewing Campbell, “Truncations vanish; where once the narrative halted in emotional tumult, the story continues, and equilibrium is restored. Despair becomes redemption; the alienated are reconciled” (9). John Alton asserts that “most strikingly” the tone of Cathedral “seems much more optimistic” (167), while Arthur Brown claims that Carver “leave[s] behind the themes of dissociation and alienation” (126).
2In Technique and Sensibility in the Fiction and Poetry of Raymond Carver, I reject this interpretation as grossly overstating thematic change, agreeing with Arthur Saltzman’s observation that “the majority of the [Cathedral] stories dispute any claim to a fundamental break from the tenor” of the “preceding collections” (124). Published individually in Esquire, Granta, and Guardian in 1999 and 2000 and then collected in Call If You Need Me, an expanded edition of No Heroics, Please, Carver’s posthumously published stories are a different matter, however. Although critics such as Paul Gray see the posthumous stories “set unmistakably in Carver country and populated by Carver people,” this fiction in fact demonstrates an amazingly expanded world with characters much more economically, intellectually, psychologically, socially, and even spiritually capable than what was previously seen in Carver’s work.
3The first chapter of my monograph analyzes unreliable narration in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, a technique evident in “Dreams,” whose articulate and compassionate narrator misperceives his and his wife’s lives significantly. Eschewing Carver’s typical avoidance of the sensational, “Dreams” includes heartbreaking references to the deaths of two young children and their mother’s wild torment. That this story with a self-deceived narrator and, more significantly, overt human tragedy is not nearly as bleak as Carver’s typical work is quite telling about the attitudinal shift in the posthumous fiction.
4In “The Bridle,” dreams are pleasing but not obtainable; in the posthumous story, dreams are strange, illustrative of discontent, and menacing. The first dream positions the narrator’s wife, Dotty, as a boy who can start neither a car nor a motorboat. A dog in her second dream, from which she awakes barking, in the third dream, she is burned by cupcakes and frightened by her husband’s silence. After this nightmare, when Dotty tells him that her dreams are getting “pretty weird” (43), he replies, as he has before: “Put it in your book” (43). She thus creates a written narrative, as in the past, yet searches for no meaning, for “[s]he didn’t interpret her dreams” (38). Her next dream occurs the night Mary Rice’s children die of smoke inhalation. In the morning, her husband “didn’t ask her what she’d dreamed, and she didn’t volunteer anything” (46). All the dreams suggest that Dotty both dislikes her life and fears that she cannot improve it. In the first dream, for instance, like Bill Miller before her, she seeks escape through gender transformation, a desire extended in the second dream when she imagines herself as nonhuman. She unconsciously questions her capacity to act, however, thus imagining a failure to start vehicles. Overall, the progression is increasingly negative in its implications about her life and marriage. On a cruise trip in the third dream, unwittingly seeking a sweet escape, she fears her husband, and after the next dream, she devolves from the status of at least telling him her dreams, if not understanding them.
- 1 For more analysis of Carver's use of names, see my article “Carver's ‘Collectors’” and Technique a (...)
5Much impressed by Mary Rice’s singing to her children and by his wife’s dreams, the narrator sees himself as “a rich man” (39), but is he? To earn much needed money after their father deserts them, Mary’s children sell packets of seeds. Although he purchases some, the narrator offers this startlingly bleak description filled with symbolical implications for this childless (and symbolically infertile) man: “We didn’t have a garden, of course not – how could anything grow where we lived?” (40). When Mary finds her children dead, he describes the person who drove her as “a scared-looking kid” with “no right” to “witness Mary Rice’s grief” (45). This cannot be Raymond Carver’s opinion if the powerful theme of comfort wrought by the shared anguish of strangers in “A Small, Good Thing” means anything. In fact, the narrator tries to console Mary, yet the agonized woman snaps, “I don’t know you” and slaps his face (45). The next evening, he sees the event on TV, concluding his narrative of the TV narrative: “Then, as the stretchers are being put into the ambulance, Mary Rice whirls on somebody and screams, ‘What do you want?’” (46). The point is not merely a critique of TV journalism’s nauseating penchant for insensitive close-ups of human grief or its distortion of the reality it purports to represent. The narrator seeing “somebody” on the screen and not himself underscores his lack of self-knowledge. Indeed, his self-myopia is underscored by the tale’s never revealing his name, a point the conclusion emphasizes. Months after the tragedy, Mary accepts his dinner invitation, observing: “I don’t even know your name” (48).1
6So in this story of self-ignorance and devastating personal loss, what factors nonetheless create a reasonably hospitable environment? Cultural reference in “Dreams” is unusually broad for a Carver story, as characters not only know that classical music exists but enjoy it. After her husband deserts her, Mary enrolls in two university correspondence courses to expand her intellectual horizons. Indeed, the posthumous fiction seems to refer more frequently to higher education than all of Carver’s previously published stories combined. For Christmas presents, the narrator receives “a globe” and “a subscription to Smithsonian magazine”(43). Although his voyeuristic tendencies speak to dissatisfaction or yearnings that he does not grasp – a subject analyzed by David Boxer and Cassandra Phillips regarding Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? – at least his bills appear paid and he has a wife to sleep with, if not a soul mate. What is missing is the passionate love that Mary shows her children, whom she typically greeted, “Good morning, children. Good morning, my loved ones” (39). Her howls of anguish upon witnessing their lifeless bodies reinforce not just the tragedy of their deaths but also the depth of their mother’s love. All the children in the posthumous stories are loved, a fact constituting a remarkable change in Carver Country. To a great extent, the stronger, loving bonds between parents and their children explain why this fictive universe is much more generous.
- 2 My article “Raymond Carver’s ‘Wes Hardin: From a Photograph’ and ‘A Small, Good Thing’” addresses (...)
7In its affirmative implications, rivaling the vastly improved familial relations is the posthumous stories’ inclusion of God. “Dreams” is about not only death but also resurrection, perhaps even in a Christian or eternal sense. The mother of the dead children shares the name of Jesus’ mother, while her last name links her with a crop that, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, approximately “one-half of the world population” is “wholly dependent upon”: both literally and symbolically, rice is life. The text refers to the Russian mystical composer Scriabin (42), who, while not Christian, believed in the human return to the Divine. As in several other posthumous stories, the Divine’s aid is consciously sought. Dotty says, “God, that poor, unfortunate woman. God help her. And us, too” (46). Furthermore, Carver again refers conspicuously to three, a number associable with the Holy Trinity and the three-day period involving Christ’s death and resurrection: the Rices moved into the neighborhood “three years ago”; Dotty notices that Mary’s deserting husband has not been home “in three days” (41); three “kids” are in the house when the fire starts, only the babysitter escaping (44); most conspicuously, because the detail is so odd, Mary “always picked” up the phone “on the third ring” (40). Although Carver’s numerical references frequently suggest the Divine’s absence even while elevating human worth2, what is different about “Dreams” is his greater sympathy to a religious sensibility. The deaths’ timing and the story’s closing imagery are clearly associable with resurrection. The narrative refers to Christmas, the mythological birthday of Jesus, whose promise is the gift of eternal life, and then to the children’s deaths, which occur on New Year’s Eve. Correlating the year’s last day to their corporeal death, we are encouraged to associate New Year’s Day with the beginning of their everlasting life – especially when they have a mother named Mary Rice who listens to audio books like Great Expectations. Finally, in the beginning of spring, the season of rebirth, Mary speaks of planting the seeds her children sold the previous year. She may in fact plant them and is, in any event, rebuilding her life; she is one of Carver’s survivors. The conclusion is ambiguous, though, for the narrator speaks of Mary “trying to spade some dirt” (48), never actually says that she plants the seeds, and finishes his tale emphasizing absence: “The next time I looked out, Mary Rice had gone in from her garden” (48).
8After “Dreams” suggests the possibility of renewal, both human and eternal, rising from the ashes of the most devastating of losses, the story immediately following it, “Vandals,” likewise threatens children. The story is strongly comparable to “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (“WWTA”). Both tales position couples talking, one in Albuquerque, the posthumous story in Aberdeen; each story has a central image – the movement from light to darkness in “WWTA” and fire in “Vandals”; an ex-lover not in the present story factors significantly, as do the subjects of love and alcoholism. “Vandals” proves both more menacing and more affirmative of human potential than the titular story of Carver’s earlier, breakthrough collection.
9The key number in “Vandals” is not three but four. Nick – this repeats the name of one of the four onstage characters in “WWTA” – says of salmon fishing: “[I]f you’re lucky, you’ll land one out of every four fish” (50). This is an apt detail from an apt teller, as Nick is the proverbial odd man out. His wife (Joanne) and the other married couple (Roger and Carol) lived together as graduate students years earlier with Joanne’s husband at that time, Bill Daly, a figurative ghost comparable to Ed in “WWTA.” The second group of four has been getting together every six months for years “never, not once, talk[ing] about Bill Daly in Nick’s presence” (52). The story implicates four vandals: most obviously, unnamed and unseen characters who burn down a house in Nick and Joanne’s neighborhood; terrorists in the Middle East, the paradox of reference to what is societally or globally harmful affirming the positive fact that the posthumous figures live in an expanded world; alcoholism, which in Nick’s case helped to destroy a familial relationship; and Nick himself, who feels accused of vandalizing Joanne’s first marriage.
10In “WWTA,” Mel ponders the change of his feelings for his ex-wife, whom he loved passionately but grew to hate to the point of fantasizing about murdering her. “Vandals” likewise shows that love can change, but here the emotion becomes saner:
Once [Nick] would have killed for her. He loved her still, and she loved him, but he didn’t feel that obsessive now. No, he wouldn’t kill for her now, and he had a hard time understanding how he’d ever felt that way in the first place. He didn’t think that she – or anybody, for that matter – could ever be worth killing somebody for. (54)
11In conjunction with the story’s emphasis on terrorism, Carver implies that terrorists are motivated by excessive love.
12“Vandals” might be Carver’s scariest story. Although “WWTA” references domestic abuse and death in the past, its present action consists of nothing more than couples getting drunk and talking. The posthumous story, conversely, intertwines reference to prior deaths, accidents, or images associable with danger, implicating in the present an immediate threat to life. The tension begins with an edgy discussion of terrorism, with Nick referring to “all those bodies lying in pools of blood in the airports” (53). Jenny (Roger and Carol’s daughter) and a friend say that a neighborhood house is burning, a statement that seems curious, for Nick sees nothing out the window and hears no warning bells or sirens. In response to Nick’s tale of alcohol abuse, Robert observes that his “kid brother” was “nearly killed by a drunk driver” (57), a detail paralleling the old couple in “WWTA” hospitalized by a drunk driver. Nick sees cars passing outside and people hurrying, recalling what the girls had “said about a fire, but for God’s sake, if there were a fire there’d be sirens and engines, right?” (58). If there is no fire, what’s wrong? Nick tells a story involving an alcoholic seizure that left him wearing a “big bandage round [his] head” like “a turban” (58). The reference to “turban” skillfully links alcoholism and Nick’s alcohol-related injury to terrorism, which the American mind strongly associates with turban-wearing Arabs. The next story regarding alcoholism illustrates a familial relationship’s demise. Nick asked to use his brother’s spare house “for a week or two” to sober up, yet the brother refused because an alcohol-related accident “might burn the place down,” and the men “haven’t seen each other in about five years” (60). Immediately after this admission, Joanne asks: “Where are all these people coming from?” still finding the idea of a fire “silly” (60). With fire seemingly ruled out but a problem nevertheless implicated, a post 9-11 American audience petrified by tales of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction cannot help but fear that terrorists are attacking Aberdeen, and maybe with chemical or biological weapons.
- 3 Jesus is associated with the profession of carpentry, while the fire at the Carpenter house is ind (...)
13The narrative reverses, for, when the couples step outside, they indeed see a fire at the Carpenter house.3 “Why didn’t we hear anything?” Joanne asks. Just as the couples ignored the fire, they have closed their eyes to the problems associable with Nick’s usurpation of Bill’s position. Tension is still great, moreover, because Carol fears that Jenny and her friend “might get too close” to the fire and that “[a]nything could happen” (60). Because the story immediately preceding “Vandals” involves the death of two children, the menace could scarcely be greater.
14In fact, the girls are not harmed, but damage has been revealed, and not just to a vacant house. Much more aware than the typical Carver figure, Nick senses “that Robert, if not Carol, still blamed him for breaking up Joanne’s marriage with Bill and ending their happy foursome” (51). He associates the fire with Robert accusing him: “Robert’s face was flushed, his expression stern, as if everything that had happened – arson, jail, betrayal, and adultery, the overturning of the established order – was Nick’s fault” (62). Unquestionably linked in Nick’s mind with the collapse of Bill and Joanne’s relationship, the burning house does not necessarily adumbrate, however, the eventual failure of his marriage. In a story in which four is so important, the final four paragraphs deserve full quotation, as they illustrate, even while imaging destruction, that Bill and Joanne’s marriage is strong:
“What are you thinking about?” he asked her.
“I was thinking about Bill,” she said.
He went on holding her. She didn’t say any more for a minute, and then she said, “I think about him every now and then, you know. After all, he was the first man I ever loved.”
He kept holding her. She let her head rest on his shoulder and went on staring at the burning house. (62)
15Undoubtedly Joanne feels sorrow over her lost love, yet she is physically connected to her husband, and, more importantly, communicatively connected. Bill Daly had been a taboo subject, but they are now discussing it, while in the gloomier “WWTA,” discussion of Teri’s former loves widens the emotional divide between her and Mel. The burning house seems less correlated to Nick and Joanne’s marriage than to Daly’s figurative ghost, which, though the process is painful, is being exorcised.
16Strongly evocative of “What’s in Alaska?,” “Preservation,” and, to a lesser extent, “A Student’s Wife,” as well as several Where Water Comes Together with Other Water poems, “What Would You Like to See?” is probably the darkest posthumous tale, yet a contrast with the aforementioned works and a few others indicates that, however troubled the lives in this story, Carver Country has illustrated far worse. All the posthumous couples are well above the poverty line; indeed, many are white-collar figures. This story has Phil, the narrator, a college teacher, and Sarah, his wife, a secretary for a university History department. After renting a house for almost a year, they are now splitting, Phil heading east to teach in Vermont, as Raymond Carver himself did at Goddard College in 1978. Like the couples in Where Water’s “Anathema,” “Next Year,” and “Our First House in Sacramento,” Phil and Sarah have “left too many houses in a hurry,” “left them damaged or in shambles,” “left owing rent,” and left “in the middle of the night” (23). Typically, Carver’s fiction suggests a present manifesting decay from a happier past. This story, however, reverses the trend. “[T]his is a switch, isn’t it?” observes Sarah. “Getting invited to dinner instead of having to skip town and hide out somewhere” (25).
17In multiple instances, the posthumous stories refer to actual tragedies that, however terrible, expand the world in which the characters live, preventing the claustrophobic atmosphere often created by Carver’s fiction. With a daughter living on a commune, Phil and Sarah were terrified by the Jonestown massacre, not knowing if she had been there. In fact, she had not but some of her friends were; altogether, this incident, occurring before the story’s present, brought daughter and parents closer through collective sorrow. The story subsequently refers to the Lebanon War. These characters do not live in the typical Carveresque intellectual and cultural enclosure. Although the Lebanese carnage was horrible – for Americans, most notably the loss of 241 Marines in a suicide bombing – Phil at least knows that Lebanon was once “the most beautiful country in the Middle East” (32).
18Pete shows slides of an Alaskan vacation he took with Evelyn, his first, now deceased wife, while Sarah indicates that she and Phil “were all set to go to Alaska” but did not “at the last minute” (33); in “What’s in Alaska?,” Mary has been offered a job located in Fairbanks. In the Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? story, Mary is sleeping with her husband’s best friend; in the posthumous tale, details intimate that Betty and Pete may have had an affair while Evelyn was alive. Betty’s conspicuous blushing reveals her discomfort (24, 25, 31, 32). Although she feels socially inferior to Sarah and Phil, this explanation does not adequately explain why she feels the need to insinuate that her relationship with Pete began after Evelyn’s death. Betty waitressed in Pete’s restaurant while Evelyn was alive and married him only a “few months” after Evelyn’s premature death from heart stoppage (24). Is the manner of death symbolic of a broken heart caused by adultery? The issue of an affair is indeterminate, unlike the certain affair in “What’s in Alaska?”; nevertheless, the vacuity of Pete and Betty’s marriage, despite Phil’s claim that “they were happy” (24), is pronounced. Like Bill Daly, Evelyn is an omnipresent ghost, her presence repeatedly acknowledged by awkward, unintentionally comedic remarks: “That’s Evelyn again”(33); “That’s Evelyn again” (34); “These were taken before Evelyn died” (34). At the very least, the slideshow indicates that, despite their world travels, Betty and Pete live banal lives. At worst, they are uncomfortable because Evelyn’s image rouses guilt for having betrayed her.
19Sarah and Phil “had talked and talked and talked” (27) about their troubled relationship and the sagacity of his solo move East, and while this detail hits a more optimistic note than “A Serious Talk” and its complete absence of serious talk, the discussion does not help much, or enough. Sarah’s drinking after having avoided alcohol “for nearly a year, almost the amount of time” she and Phil “had been living in Pete’s house together” is a menacing turn of events (23). Sarah drinks throughout the evening, first wine and then brandy, Phil doubtlessly worrying even while he suppresses his concerns: “Sarah said she’d have a glass of white wine. I looked at her. I asked for a Coke” (28). As if readers of Raymond Carver needed reminding that alcohol can destroy, Pete observes that both Evelyn’s father and brother died from alcoholism. After dinner, having returned to spend the last evening in the rented house, Sarah invokes the aid of the divine for her daughter, her husband, and herself. She also asks Phil to hold her until she falls asleep, a detail harkening back to the early story “A Student’s Wife” in which Nan asks for similar assistance from her husband and concludes the tale, insomniac, alone, and desperate, imploring the aid of a deity that is, in that story at least, absent. Sarah is so much better off than Nan. Unlike the earlier boor, Phil is compassionate and helpful. More significantly, as in “Dreams,” God seems a possibility with Betty also requesting divine assistance (for her departing tenants) and Pete’s recovery from alcoholism self-characterized as miraculous. Nevertheless, Phil and Sarah’s marriage seems doomed. Natural imagery, which so powerfully adumbrates an improved future for the protagonist of “Kindling,” is quietly ominous here. A threat to life or a harbinger of death in “After the Denim” and the poems “A Squall” and “Late Afternoon, April 8, 1984,” repeated references to wind suggest that danger approaches. In the conclusion, repeating the technique of “Preservation,” a mechanical failure underscores human failure: Pete’s generator breaks, his freezer “shut[s] down,” and much of his meat is “spoiled” (37). Sarah having taken off her wedding ring “in sadness” (26) and resumed drinking, she and Phil associated with leftovers (a doggy bag of fish) and a menacing wind, it seems inescapable that their marriage is shut down and spoiled too.
20Like the couple in “What Would You Like To See?” Nancy and Dan in “Call If You Need Me” are trying to revive a shaky marriage. They have been having affairs, though unlike Eileen of “Fever,” Nancy has not run off with her paramour, one of her husband’s colleagues. After sending their son to his grandmother for the summer and leaving their house with another couple, like Edna and Wes of “Chef’s House,” they drive to a rented house in Eureka to revitalize their relationship. On the way, they see a car whose damaged muffler sparks, scraping against the pavement. A dominant motif in the posthumous stories, here the reference to fire signifies ambiguously: the sparks symbolically parallel the couple’s effort to rekindle their love, yet their relationship, like the car ahead, is damaged. After several weeks of effort, Nancy declares the endeavor a failure. Before she leaves, however, the couple plays with horses on the front lawn (an image clearly evocative of Where I’m Calling From’s “Blackbird Pie”), listens to music, and has sex.
21Despite the marriage’s collapse, in several ways “Call If You Need Me” is more life affirming than the many Carver stories it echoes. In What We TalkAbout’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” a middle-aged man, numbed by the destruction of his marriage and alcoholism, fails to connect with a young couple, the girl with whom he dances considering his gift of records – a symbol of his past and better times – “shit” (WICF 161). The posthumous story has a young couple house-sitting for the protagonists; they are graduate students in math, presumably much more capable of communicating, connecting meaningfully with others, and making sense of their world. Another positive aspect is a grandmother who cares for Nancy and Dan’s college-age son offstage. This loving grandmother is a unique character in Carver’s fiction.
22Dan’s relationship with his son harkens back to the loving bond in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please’s “Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarets,” but neither relationship is typical in Carver. More representative is Cathedral’s “The Compartment,” in which father and son brawl with a knife, sundering their relationship forever, or the poem “On an Old Photograph of My Son,” whose speaker admits that he once desired his son “dead” (All 276). The posthumous story, conversely, has an exceptionally close father-son relationship. Dan communicates honestly and sensitively about the state of his marriage, and then he “embraced” his son and “kissed him on the cheek” (64). In “Bicycles,” the son is a young child; the kiss between men is both more conspicuous and more powerfully suggestive of love.
- 4 “Call If You Need Me” was apparently written before “Blackbird Pie”; in this essay’s conclusion, I (...)
23A contrast of the horse and fog imagery and related character actions and thoughts in “Blackbird Pie” and “Call If You Need Me” further demonstrates the latter’s far greater affirmation of human potential.4 In the formerstory, fog parallels the narrator’s questionable mental state and his obsession with facts yet inability to create out of them a larger, sustaining vision. He describes the horses as if they leap suddenly out of fog and later compares their trailer to “a big portable oven” (WICF 503). Indeed, the horses initially appear to be a hallucination. The encounter with the horses and fog, if it accomplishes anything, helps the narrator see his wife’s importance, yet he realizes this too late to save his marriage, and at least one critic thinks that he might commit suicide (Matsuoka 432, 436). In the posthumous story, their reality never in doubt, the horses are linked both to Nancy’s emotional vulnerability, wounded by her husband’s adultery (“I don’t want to get bitten,” she says ), and to the significant damage created in the wake of their marriage’s dissolution (“There were deep impressions in the grass, and gashes, and there were piles of dung” ). When Nancy overcomes her fear to pet the horses, this act symbolizes her capacity to love again. Fog correlates neither with confusion nor insanity but with a protective barrier that helps the couple to suspend their problems temporarily and “make love” one more time as sunrise nears (73). This phrasing to describe sex occurs repeatedly in the posthumous stories, yet other Carver fiction mentions it only once – in a disturbing juxtaposition to voiding bodily wastes in “Neighbors” (WICF 89). While Arlene Miller is desperately afraid at the end of that squalid tale, Nancy announces: “I’m glad for last night…. Those horses. Our talk. Everything. It helps. We won’t forget that” (74). Sex is part of healing, not violation, a theme Carver had not used in his fiction since the mid-1960’s in “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”
24In “Cathedral,” Carver’s narrator quips atheistically at the dinner table, “Pray the phone won’t ring and the food doesn’t get cold” (WICF 364). While the fiction published during Carver’s life suggests an agnostic or atheistic vision, the narrator of “Call If You Need Me,” like so many of the posthumous characters, is a man of faith. Moreover, he recognizes the moral squalor of his and his wife’s lives, understanding their affairs are “tacky”(65) and lamenting that he had rented the house while traveling with his paramour: “I even used the phrase “second honeymoon” to the realtor, God forgive me, while Susan smoked a cigarette and read tourist brochures out in the car” (66). When Nancy boards her plane, Dan thinks: “Go, dearest one,and God be with you” (74). None of the major characters in the fiction published in Carver’s lifetime expresses a religious belief so confidently; the posthumous stories, conversely, repeatedly manifest sincere religious conviction. Undoubtedly, this motif helps to account for why critics such as Toby Mundy see “the possibility of redemption” so conspicuous in these stories.
25“Call If You Need Me” ends ambiguously, the narrator, “without even taking off [his] coat,” dialing his girlfriend’s number (74). Not waiting to remove his coat possibly conveys his eagerness to call Susan and his love for her, or wearing a coat indoors might image constriction suggesting an inability to connect passionately with another. He calls, though; he acts. In the ending of “Where I’m Calling From,” a less decisive narrator wonders whether he should call his wife or paramour. Hopefulness resonates in details as small as Dan’s call or his vision of Nancy’s departing plane as a “speck” (74), which echoes an earlier Nancy and what she thinks people in a passing airplane would see on the ground, only “I Could See the Smallest Things” is a squalid story in which slugs symbolically assess human value.
26Positioned first and the most affirmative of the stories in the posthumous collection, “Kindling” will remind Carver aficionados of “Put Yourself in My Shoes,” one of the more affirmative Will You Please? stories in which Myers overcomes writer’s block through an encounter with a strange academic couple, the Morgans. The Myers of “Shoes” is “between stories” (WICF 96); according to the posthumous story’s first line, Myers is “between lives” (7). If he is the same character, he has degenerated into alcoholism and split with his wife nastily; she “wouldn’t even talk to him, let alone have him anywhere near the house” (7). Ultramarine’s “The Phone Booth” adds likely details omitted:
[…] the phone
begins to shout, “I told you it’s over!
Finished! You can go
to hell as far as I’m concerned!” (All 214)
27Like Myrna in “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit,” the estranged wife has taken up with another drunk. Fresh out of rehab, Myers is struggling with his writing, for in his first night in the room he rents from Sol and Bonnie “he wrote the words Emptiness is the beginning of all things. He stared at this, and then he laughed. Jesus, what rubbish!” (10). The sentence is rubbish because it sentimentalizes; emptiness is emptiness, a fact that Myers tacitly admits with his next entry: “Nothing” (13). One of the affirmative themes for Carver’s fiction here is writing’s therapeutic value. Myers improves himself by writing – or, at the very least, writing illustrates his emotional revival, Carver’s technique and theme, in a vastly more condensed form, reminiscent of Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” in which a writer’s honest mental narratives are rewarded with the illusion of flying to Heaven.
28Precision, honesty, and concreteness in expression are the key values associable with Myers’s better writing. Here are the remaining passages of his writing as they occur in the text:
I would get down on my knees and ask forgiveness if that would help. (15)
I have sawdust in my shirtsleeves tonight.... It’s a sweet smell. (18)
The country I’m in is very exotic. It reminds of someplace I’ve read about but never traveled to before now. Outside my window I can hear a river and in the valley behind the house there is a forest and precipices and mountain peaks covered with snow. Today I saw a wild eagle, and a deer, and I cut and chopped two cords of wood. (20)
29The first passage evokes Where I’m Calling From’s “Intimacy” in which a Raymond-Carver-like narrator kneels in front of his ex-wife, a figure clearly comparable to the author’s first wife, Maryann. Indeed, Myers of “Kindling” is physically similar to Carver: “tall, stooped,…curly headed” with “sad eyes” (11). Although the wife in “Intimacy” experiences a cathartic release, the story’s narrator is not similarly freed, with the closing images of leaves, symbolic of memories, clinging everywhere in the conclusion. More evidence of the posthumous stories’ greater hopefulness is Myers’s clear gain from his experience. The story’s penultimate paragraph, the third and final passage quoted above, is by far the longest of his writings, its very length concretizing a renewal of his writing that is itself a synecdoche illustrating a larger renewal. This passage’s imagery, too, speaks to newness (a place Myers has “never traveled to before”), freedom (“wild eagle”), and great possibilities (“mountain peaks covered with snow”). Echoing a persistent motif, the sound of water, the passage impresses with its vigor and life, while the previously published What We Talk About’s“So Much Water So Close to Home” relentlessly associates water with rape, death, and madness.
- 5 Bonnie’s poor writing describing Myers’s arrival on “onefateful night” (11) echoes Mrs. Morgan’s i (...)
- 6 For more on Carver’s treatment of insomnia, see Ernest Fontana’s “Insomnia in Raymond Carver’s Fic (...)
30Elements of the grotesque in “Kindling” invite comparison to Cathedral’s “Feathers” in which a decidedly odd family thrives, if anything, because of its strangeness. A key point about “Feathers” is that the encounter with the odd family helps the narrator and his wife only temporarily, their marriage degenerating, after their son’s birth, into a loveless stasis. The odd couple in “Kindling” is Myers’s landlords, Bonnie and Sol. As the names imply – bonny with its association with fairness, fineness, and excellence; Sol, a Roman sun god – this is not our typical Carver pair, though to be sure, they have their limitations. A blasting accident in Sol’s youth severed “nerves and cause[d]” his “arm and fingers to wither” (12). A “fat girl,” “fat all over,” “huff[ing] when she breathed” (8), Bonnie reminds us of the obese restaurant patron in “Fat.” In his wedding picture, “Sol’s good strong left arm reached around Bonnie’s waist asfar as it would go” (8; emphasis added), a phrasing tacitly recognizing larger limitations. He might be an insomniac, she can be as trite as Mrs. Morgan,5 and they are childless, a fact Bonnie regrets. Indeed, she is anything but bonny or fair when, despite the hours and hours of free manual labor that Myers performs, she insists, “No refunds on the rent” when he is leaving weeks before the month is up (20). Nevertheless, she is not enslaved like the fat man compelled to eat, while Sol is spared the mental terrors plaguing prior Carver insomniacs such as the narrator of “The Idea,” the cuckolded husband in “What’s in Alaska?,” or Hughes in “Menudo,”6 and they are vastly more alive than the impotent, caricatured academic couple that Myers faces in “Shoes.” Sol explicitly declares his love for Bonnie and that same night “loved her up” and she “loved him back” (12). Although the sexual encounter is not ideal – for instance, Bonnie worries about Myers walking in on them – it is just that, a love encounter exceedingly more affirmative of human potential than, say, the quasi marital rape in “Fat” or a similar misdeed about to occur as the What We Talk About version of “So Much Water So Close to Home” ends.
31Myers has been in a bad way. Evoking the poem “Yesterday, Snow,” he wakes up sweating after a nightmare in which he was about to resume drinking. Just watching Bonnie prepare his bed “almost caused Myers to weep” (9) presumably because of a connection to his own, irretrievably lost marriage. Yet his capacity for feeling and determination to stay sober elevate him above a character like the man in “Why Don’t You Dance?” who lives in an alcoholic-numbed world after his wife’s departure. What is most distinctive in regards to Myers’s optimistic future is that “Kindling” shows him benefiting from manual labor. As Bill Mullen observes, Carver’s fiction rarely refers to characters in the workplace and never creates the impression of them gaining emotionally or psychologically, to say nothing about financially, from labor, this absence or disconnect underscoring their generally disconnected lives. Although the early story “What Do You Do in San Francisco?” mentions work emphatically, Robinson the narrator used work to deaden the pain caused by a Dear John letter, uses it in the present to avoid recognizing his life’s vacuity, and encourages another character, deserted by his life partner, to similarly anesthetize himself. In a much later story, “Menudo,” the insomniac narrator, his life in disarray because of his adultery, is obsessed with raking his neighbors’ lawn, an act symbolizing his desire to order his life. By no means, however, is it clear that Hughes will succeed, since the story defines him as one who will never eat menudo, a Mexican dish associable with restorative powers. In “Kindling,” Myers likewise feels obsessed with a task symbolic of creating order: “He decided that he would cut this wood and split it and stack it before sunset, and that it was a matter of life and death that he do so” (19). What is absurd in “Jerry and Molly and Sam,” Al’s sudden belief that he must find the dog he deserted or his life is ruined, is very earnest here. Al is not rewarded, while Hughes nearly breaks down in front of his neighbors. Conversely, when Bonnie and Sol watch Myers work, all three feel joy: “[Myers] felt good suddenly, and he grinned. Sol and Bonnie were taken by surprise at first. Sol grinned back, and then Bonnie” (18). They are surprised because they have seen their tenant smile for the first time.
- 7 Consider “two sawhorses” (17); repeated references to two pieces of wood after an act of sawing or (...)
32In splitting the wood, Myers is subconsciously coming to terms with an infinitely more important split, his marital separation. By repeatedly referencing two,7 the text links Myers’s labor to his marriage now severed irrevocably. Besides Myers’s assertion that he feels “okay” and the story’s reiteration of this word in the final line (20) – “okay” is, Kirk Nesset has cleverly observed, Carver’s downsizing of Hemingway’s “good” place (35) – natural imagery and an image of openness powerfully intimate that the labor will help. After the first day of cutting, “sweet, cool air poured in” Myers’s room (18), and then, on the second day, having finished the job, he sees “no clouds now, just the moon, and the snowcapped mountains” (20) which are earlier associated with the majesty and freedom of “an eagle soaring” (15). In “Chef’s House,” gathering clouds foreshadow Wes’s recapitulation to his alcoholic demons; in “Kindling,” conversely, the clear view of the mountain speaks to Myers’s much more optimistic prospects. The posthumous story ends, moreover, with a sense of openness, as Myers leaves “the window open” (20), an image reversing the symbolic enclosure evidenced in previously published, far more pessimistic stories such as “Careful” and “Collectors.”
33Raymond Carver’s fiction has so many breakups, which are normally devastating. Each posthumous story, conversely, has at least one functioning marriage, while the breakups (with the exception of “Kindling”) avoid the evisceration of warm feeling. Despite their problems – and in some cases such as Mary Rice’s, the hardships are extreme – the characters are not nearly as pressured, a point neatly illustrated by a contrast of structure. The radical minimalist version of “So Much Water So Close to Home” is shorter than any posthumous story, yet its contents are divided and squeezed into nine terse sections, structure underscoring disconnection and incompletion. “Kindling,” the much longer tale so insistent in reference to water, has only four sections; indeed, the posthumous collection averages just fewer than three sections per story, a structure girding the greater cohesiveness within the minds and hearts of the characters and their greater connectedness to others.
34In his review of Kirk Nesset’s short monograph, Marshall Gentry observes that Nesset “is careful not to claim that the final stories reveal Carver” to be “an optimist” (134), “final stories” encompassing the last seven tales in Where I’m CallingFrom, which was published more than a decade before Call IfYou Need Me. Although I too reject the label “optimist” for Carver, in contrast to his previous collections, the posthumous fiction cogently affirms human capacity for endurance, for friendship, for love, for redemption; indeed, they frequently manifest intellectual and spiritual dimensions rarely seen in his prior books. While the posthumous stories’ quality seems undeniable – Daniel Garret describes them as “mature,” the “work of a man in command of his talent and in touch with his emotions” – they do not prove that Carver was moving toward optimism in his very last years. The distinguished poet Tess Gallagher, Carver’s second wife, reveals in the foreword to Call If You Need Me that the titular story and “What Do You Want To See?” were written in the early 1980s (XII); thus Carver wrote the more affirmative “Call If You Need Me” before the gloomier, related tale “Blackbird Pie.” The compositional time of the other stories is not indicated, and Gallagher clearly insinuates that only some stories in manuscript were published (XI). Besides making money, the posthumous collection seems designed to direct critical attention to that part of Carver’s work more greatly affirming human potential. I believe that Carver stories from both the pool of optimistic tales and the ocean of despair will survive, that future readers will treasure “Cathedral” as well “Why Don’t You Dance?” The stories of Call If You Need Me add silver and gold, emphasizing again that American letters lost a giant far too early.