February 21, 2018

Raymond Carver's Two Lives

Raymond Carver's widow, the American poet and short story writer Tess Gallagher, tells the story of going through Carver's clothes shortly after he died and finding a folded piece of paper in one of the pockets. On it Carver had written his last "errand list":

peanut butter
hot choc

Whether a personal note or a planning fragment for one of his stories, this is classic Carver. He grew up in the 1940s and 50s among the unemployed and working poor of the Pacific Northwest. He was married while still a teenager, and had two kids by the time he was twenty. A dozen years of part-time jobs, part-time school, part-time writing and full-time parenting eventually took their toll: two bankruptcies, a marriage breaking up, and a doomed feeling of "unrelieved responsibility and permanent distraction" from which there seemed no escape.

Out of such lives and such feelings -- with, as one critic puts it, "an eye so clear it almost breaks your heart" -- Carver was eventually to craft stories which are now placed among the masterpieces of American short fiction. But at the time, in the 1960s and early 70s, the chronic burdens of poverty and parenting were so acute that, he said later, he'd "rather take poison than go through it all again."

What he did take was alcohol, and plenty of it. His father had too, and by gene or example the son seemed bound to the path. In Carver's poem "Luck" we witness a 9-year-old waking up to the aftermath of his parents' party -- a house empty of people and full of opportunity:
    . . . Indoors, someone
    had put out a cigarette
    in a jar of mustard.
    I had a straight shot
    from the bottle, then
    a drink of warm collins mix,
    then another whiskey.
    And though I went from room
    to room, no one was home.
    What luck, I thought.
    Years later,
    I still wanted to give up
    friends, love, starry skies,
    for a house where no one
    was home, no one coming back,
    and all I could drink.
By 1977 -- the same year that his short story collection Will You Please Be Quiet, Please received a National Book Award nomination and his years as a struggling writer must have seemed over -- he had lost his teaching job, his house, his wife, and his interest in writing. So bad were the seizures and blackouts that, in a 5-month span, he was hospitalized 4 times and given 6 months to live.

But then, somehow, yet another attempt to quit seemed to stick. In his poem "Rogue River Jet-Boat Trip, Gold Beach, Oregon, July 4, 1977" -- written after a month without a drink -- Carver seems to ask for this new luck to last:
    They promised an unforgettable trip,
    deer, marten, osprey, the site
    of the Mick Smith massacre --
    a man who slaughtered his family,
    who burnt his house down around his ears --
    a fried chicken dinner.
    I am not drinking. For this
    you have put on your wedding ring and driven
    500 miles to see for yourself.
    This light dazzles. I fill my lungs
    as if these last years
    were nothing, a little overnight portage.
    We sit in the bow of the jet-boat
    and you make small talk with the guide.
    He asks where we're from, but seeing
    our confusion, becomes
    confused himself and tells us
    he has a glass eye and we
    should try to guess which is which.
    His good eye, the left, is brown, is
    steady of purpose, and doesn't
    miss a thing. Not long past
    I would have snagged it out
    just for its warmth, youth and purpose,
    and because it lingers on your breasts.
    Now, I no longer know what's mine, what
    isn't. I no longer know anything except
    I am not drinking -- though I'm still weak
    and sick from it. The engine starts.
    The guide attends the wheel.
    Spray rises and falls on all sides
    as we head upriver.
He lost the wife, but he beat the alcohol, and over the next decade, in his "miraculous second life" with Gallagher, Carver returned to writing. When he died of lung cancer in 1988 -- he once described himself as "a cigarette with a life attached"-- he had wealth, magazine-cover fame and, say the critics, a place alongside of Chekhov and Hemingway as one of the three most important and influential writers in the history of the short story.

"Late Fragment," his last-written poem, shows him grateful for the double-life that he knew was over:
    And did you get what
    you wanted from this life, even so?
    I did.
    And what did you want?
    To call myself beloved, to feel myself
    beloved on the earth.

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