A few pages from George Packer’s The Unwinding, a nonfiction work that plumbs the dissolution of American lives over the past thirty years and the gradual decline of what Charles Krauthammer calls the social compact of family, Church, and community – be it the schools, the Boy Scouts, the Lions Club, the Grange, whatever: neighbors-helping-neighbors. There has been nothing left in the ravaged remains of secular America except the government. Raymond Carver was the chronicler of much of that in his short stories of people set adrift. One of my most popular posts on payingattentiontothesky was a retelling of his short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
Ray was a drinker. He picked it up from C.R., his father. C.R. was a saw filer at a lumber mill in the Yakima Valley and a good storyteller. Ray picked that up, too. C.R. could go for months without sipping a beer, then he would disappear from home for a while, and Ray and his mother and younger brother would sit down to dinner with a sense of doom. That was how Ray drank: once he started, he couldn’t stop.
Ray grew up in the 1940s and ’50s. He was a tall, fat boy. He stood hunched over, with an arm or leg bent at a bad angle, and his eyes had a fat boy’s hooded squint even after he lost the weight. His pants and shirts looked like gabardine, what an unemployed forty-year-old would wear. He spoke in a faint mumble so you had to listen close, but it often turned out that he had said something funny or sharp.
The Carvers lived in four rooms in a seven-hundred-square-foot box of a house on a concrete slab. There was nowhere to be alone and they lived together like strangers.
Ray loved to shoot geese and fish for trout along the Columbia River. He liked to read the pulps and outdoor magazines. One day, he told the man who took him along hunting that he had sent a story to one of the magazines and it had come back. That was why Ray had looked nervous all morning.
“Well, what did you write?” the man said.
“I wrote a story about this wild country,” Ray said, “the flight of the wild geese and hunting the geese and everything in this remote country down here. It’s not what appeals to the public, they said.”
But he didn’t give up.
Ray saw an ad in Writer’s Digest for the Palmer Institute of Authorship in Hollywood. It was a correspondence course. C.R. paid the twenty-five-dollar enrollment fee and Ray started doing the sixteen installments, but he ran out of money for the monthly payments. After he received his high school diploma, his parents expected him to go to work in the sawmill. That wasn’t how things went.
Ray got a pretty girl named Maryann pregnant. She was going to study at the University of Washington, but Ray and Maryann were crazy about each other, so they got married instead. In 1957 their daughter was born in a hospital two floors below the psychiatric ward where C.R. was being treated for a nervous breakdown. A year later a baby boy arrived. Ray was twenty and Maryann was eighteen, and that was their youth.
They began to wander. They had great dreams and believed that hard work would make those dreams come true. Ray was going to be a writer. Everything else would come after that.
They moved around the West and they never stopped. They lived in Chico and Paradise and Eureka and Arcata and Sacramento and Palo Alto and Missoula and Santa Cruz and Cupertino. Every time they started to settle in, Ray would get restless and they would move on to somewhere else. The family’s main support was Maryann. She packed fruit, waited tables, sold encyclopedias door-to-door. Ray worked at a drugstore, a sawmill, a service station, and a stockroom, and as a night janitor at a hospital. The work was not ennobling. He would come home too wiped out to do anything.
Ray wanted to write a novel. But a man who was trying to wash six loads of clothes in a Laundromat while his wife was serving food somewhere and the kids were waiting for him to come pick them up somewhere else and it was getting late and the woman ahead of him kept putting more dimes in her dryer — that man could never write a novel. To do that, he would need to be living in a world that made sense, a world that stayed fixed in one place so that he could describe it accurately. That wasn’t Ray’s world.
In Ray’s world the rules changed every day, and he couldn’t see past the first of next month, when he would have to find money for rent and school clothes. The most important fact of his life was that he had two children, and he would never get out from under the baleful responsibility of having them. Hard work, good intentions, doing the right things — these would not be enough, things would not get better. He and Maryann would never get their reward. That was the other thing he understood in the Laundromat. And somewhere along the way, his dreams started to go bust.
Without the heart to write anything long, which might have brought in real money, and with the deep frustration of seeing no way out, he could write only poems, and very short stories. Then he rewrote them again and again, sometimes over many years.
The stories were about people who did not succeed. That had been Ray’s experience, and those were his people. His characters were unemployed salesmen, waitresses, mill hands. They lived nowhere in particular, in bedrooms and living rooms and front yards where they couldn’t get away from one another or themselves and everyone was alone and adrift.
Their names weren’t fancy — Earl, Arlene, L.D., Rae — and they seldom had more than one, if that. Nothing like religion or politics or community surrounded them, except the Safeway and the bingo hall. Nothing happening anywhere in the world, there was only a boy fighting a fish, a wife selling a used car, two couples talking themselves into paralysis. Ray left almost everything out.
In one story, a wife learns that her husband, just back from a fish trip with his buddies, left the brutalized corpse of a girl lying in the river for three days before reporting it.
My husband eats with good appetite but he seems tired, edgy. He chews slowly, arms on the table, and stares at something across the room. He looks at me and looks away again. He wipes his mouth on the napkin. He shrugs and goes on eating. Something has come between us though he would like me to believe otherwise.
“What are you staring at me for?” he asks. “What is it?” he says and puts his fork down.
“Was I staring?” I say and shake my head stupidly, stupidly.
His characters spoke a language that sounded ordinary, except that every word echoed with the strange, and in the silences between words a kind of panic rose. These lives were trembling over a void.
“Most of my characters would like their actions to count for something,” Ray once said. “But at the same time they’ve reached the point — many people do — that they know it isn’t so. It doesn’t add up any longer The things you once thought important or even worth dying for aren’t worth a nickel now. It’s their lives they’ve become uncomfortable with, lives they see breaking down. They’d like to set things right, but they can’t.
Ray was doing things the long, hard way, going against every trend of the period. In those years, the short story was a minor literary form. Realism seemed played out. The writer Ray brought most quickly to mind, Hemingway, was at the start of a posthumous eclipse. In the sixties and seventies, the most discussed writers — Mailer, Bellow, Roth, Updike, Barth, Wolfe, Pynchon — reached for overstatement, not restraint, writing sprawling novels of intellectual, linguistic, or erotic excess, and high-octane journalism. There was a kind of competition to swallow American life whole — to mirror and distort in prose the social facts of a country that had a limitless capacity for flux and shock.
Ray, whose hero was Chekhov, moved in the opposite direction from literary trends and kept faith with a quieter task, following Ezra Pound’s maxim that “fundamental accuracy of statement is the one sole morality of writing.” By paying close attention to the lives of marginal, lost people, people who scarcely figured and were rarely taken seriously in contemporary American fiction (if they appeared anywhere, it was in the paintings of Edward Hopper), Ray had his fingers on the pulse of a deeper loneliness. He seemed to know, in the unintentional way of a fiction writer, that the country’s future would be most unnerving in its very ordinariness, in the late-night trip to the supermarket, the yard sale at the end of the line. He sensed that beneath the surface of life there was nothing to stand on.
In the early seventies, Maryann got her degree and began to teach high school English. That freed Ray to put his effort into writing and finding a college teaching job. He began publishing stories in big East Coast magazines. The Carvers bought their first house, in the future Silicon Valley. There was a nonstop party scene with other working-class writers and their wives in the area. Things were looking up for the Carvers. That was when everything went to pieces.
The children became teenagers, and Ray felt that they now held the reins. Ray and Maryann each had an affair. They went into bankruptcy twice. He was convicted of lying to the state of California on his unemployment claim and almost sent to prison. Instead, he went in and out of detox. His drinking turned poisonous, with long blackouts. Maryann tried to keep up in order not to lose him. Ray was a quiet, spooked-looking man, but with the scotch he grew menacing, and one night, after Maryann flirted with a friend, Ray hit her with a wine bottle. She lost 60 percent of her blood from the severed artery by her ear and was taken to the emergency room while Ray hid in the kitchen.
A few months later, in 1976, his first book of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? — written over nearly two decades — was published in New York. The dedication page said: THIS BOOK IS FOR MARYANN.
Ray was a drinker and a writer. The two had always gone along separate tracks. What the first self fled or wrecked or rued or resented, the second stared into high art. But now his writing dwindled to nothing.
“The time came and went when everything my wife and I held sacred or considered worthy of respect, every spiritual value, crumbled away,” he later wrote. “Something terrible had happened to us.” He never intended to become an alcoholic, a bankrupt, a cheat, a thief, and a liar. But he was all those. It was the 1970s, and a lot of people were having a good time, but Ray knew ahead of the years that the life of partying and drinking poor was a road into darkness.
In the middle of 1977 he went to live by himself on the remote California coast near Oregon. It was fear for his writing, not for his own life or the life of his family that made him take his last drink there. Sober, he began to write again. In 1978 he and Maryann split.
That was the end of Bad Ray and the beginning of Good Raymond. He had ten more years before a lifetime of smoking finally caught up with him and he died at fifty, in 1988. During that decade he found happiness with a poet. He wrote some of his best stories and escaped the trap of self-parody that had begun to be called minimalism, turning to more fullness of expression in the service of a more generous vision. He became famous and entered the middle class. He received prestigious appointments and won major prizes, a literary hero redeemed from hell. He walked with the happy carefulness of someone pardoned on the verge of execution.
The turn to flash and glitz in the eighties worked in his favor. During the Reagan years he was named the chronicler of blue-collar despair. The less articulate his characters, the more his many new readers loved the creator. If the sinking working class fascinated and frightened them, they could imagine that they knew its spirit through his stories, and so they fetishized him.
The New York literary scene, hot and flush again, took him to its heart. He became a Vintage Contemporary alongside writers in their twenties who had learned to mimic the austere prose without having first forged it in personal fires. He posed for jacket portraits with some of the old menace, like a man who had wandered into a book party from the scary part of town.
“They sold his stories of inadequate, failed, embarrassed and embarrassing men, many of them drunkards, all of them losers, to yuppies,” one of his old friends said. “His people confirmed the yuppies in their sense of superiority.”
But every morning, Good Raymond got up, made coffee, sat at his desk, and did exactly what Bad Ray had always done. After all, they were the same craftsman. The distractions were different now, but he was still trying to set down what he saw and felt with utmost accuracy, and in the American din, that small thing was everything.