Carver Was the Rage

Brad Gooch on Raymond Carver’s messy, brutal life, groundbreaking fiction, and the controversy over his editor’s influence—all detailed in Carol Sklenicka’s definitive new biography.

Klaas Koppe / Newscom

Anatole Broyard once titled a memoir of the Greenwich Village lost of the 1940s Kafka Was the Rage. Replace “Kafka” with “Raymond Carver” and you could just as sharply nail the literary Village of the '70s and early '80s, not to mention its twisted Western sisters in Berkeley and Seattle, and lots of haute bohemian spots in-between (Iowa City, Yaddo). The official date for the ascendance of Carver’s taut poetic prose—termed “dirty realism” by Granta at the time—was March 1976, publication date of his first book of stories ( Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?) kicking off with “Fat,” told in the smoky voice of a lunch-counter waitress: “God, Rita, but those were fingers.” Yet as Carol Sklenicka reveals in her riveting new biography, Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life, all those stories had been completed five years earlier, and since then their struggling author had been, as one chapter title puts it, “Drowning.”

Yet the book’s just through-line remains Good Ray, this Genet-like figure of American letters—as a friend of his remarks, “close to a low-rent criminal,” at once trickster and fine imaginative intelligence.

The real action for young poets and fiction writers—Carver once insisted to a writing seminar, “I’m a poet first”—had begun in 1971, with Gordon Lish’s takeover of the Esquire fiction franchise. First meeting Carver in Palo Alto and going on to play Max Perkins to his Fitzgerald, Lish later mythologized matters by claiming to have discovered the stories in a “slush” pile. Carver and Lish’s debut—“Neighbors,” told in spare, bonehead prose, a tale of suburban kink—showed the door to the more whimsical, experimental, '60s stories of Barthelme and Barth. Like Flannery O’Connor bristling under the label “Southern Gothic,” Carver had to contend from then on with being the mejor of “minimalism.” (It even popped up as a Jeopardy! clue: “The stories of Raymond Carver typified this style whose name indicates it does the most with the least.”) As his New Yorker editor Charles McGrath accurately recalls, Carver became “a bellwether for a whole generation, the most widely imitated writer I ever saw.”

Literary biographies rise and fall on the relation of a writer’s life and work. Luckily for first-time biographer Carol Sklenicka, her subject, a full-blown and later recovering alcoholic, had plenty of issues with “boundaries.” So the line between Carver’s life and his both repressed and transgressive stories is often blurred. Sklenicka does due diligence filling in the backstory of an impoverished childhood: Born in 1938, to migrant Arkie parents in Clatskanie, Oregon, Raymond was a fat, inept kid; his dad was the town drunk, demoted from saw filer to dishwasher. The narrative truly catches fire though with the entrance of Maryann Elsie Burke, Carver’s teenage sweetheart, who becomes his first wife, at a shotgun wedding in 1957, and the mother of his two children, Vance and Christine—he later unappealingly tars both in the essay “Fires” as “heavy and often baleful influences” on his writing life. Supporting her genius husband as a cocktail waitress, Maryann takes on the dual role of family breadwinner and demon muse—continuing as the latter long after they separate and divorce.

In treating a series of harrowing scenes from their marriage, Sklenicka leaves the undying impression of Carver as a true shit; though a complex true shit. Maryann is responsible for much of the dysfunctional drama. With peroxide hair, dressing in white go-go boots at a Berkeley faculty tea, she seemed unable to resist seducing strangers in front of her husband. We’d have to surmise Carver got off on the triangulation. Cuckoldry and rage certainly motor many of his finest works from “What Is It?” (Toni pimps herself to sell her bankrupt husband’s convertible) to “Why Don’t You Dance?” Yet no amount of cleverness dulls the pain of having to witness bare-knuckled Carver—nickname, Dirty Dog—as he bangs Maryann’s head against the pavement, gives her the black eyes that prevent her getting to her job teaching school, and slices her neck with a broken wine bottle. As one eyewitness to his hurling a heavy glass at her face testifies, “I think he loved her almost to the point of obsession.”

A weirdly parallel codependent relationship takes place between Carver and his storied editor. First at Esquire and then as Carver’s book editor at Knopf, Lish treated editing as an extreme sport: changing titles, X’ing out entire pages, adding his own original sentences. Portrayed as having a good degree of street smarts, cunning Carver seems to have played along in the interest of getting ahead. When Maryann accused him of “being a whore” for changing the title of “Are These Actual Miles?” to the flatter “What Is It?” Carver argued back in a poem: “starving is more of a cop-out.” By the time of his second collection edited by Lish, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Carver was feeling powerful enough to fight back, and their tugs over drafts A, B, C, are the stuff of much hot literary debate. Although the tide has gone strongly against Lish lately, anyone who first fell in love with Carver in the “original” versions—those urgent telegrams—must have some ambivalence on the topic. (Unedited manuscripts of early stories are reprinted in the canonic Library of America Carver.)

Carver blessedly had a second act, taking his last drink at the Jambalya bar in Arcata, California, on June 2, 1977. When the fog lifted, he discovered that there was nothing left in his marriage. At a reading in Dallas that fall, he met the poet Tess Gallagher. Reunited a second time in El Paso months later, she said he “hugged me like a man sinking.” Maryann agreed to “step aside” and eventually accept a dicey divorce settlement, allowing for “voluntary” support from Carver. Her lawyer warned that her life was “like a bag of doorknobs that wouldn’t open any doors.” Carver’s time with Gallagher was sunnier, while they lived together in a contemporary home on the slopes of the Olympic Mountains, in Port Angeles, Washington. He completed three books of fiction (including Cathedral), and two of poetry, all dedicated to her. Yet in a post-modern epithalamion, he could still inscribe a copy of Where I’m Calling From, in 1988, “To Maryann, my oldest friend…this book is a token of love, and some have claimed obsession…this is with love always, no one knows, do they, just absolutely no one. Yours, Ray.”

A new standard feature in biographies of successful artists of the 20th century has been a ticking Law & Order “Epilogue,” set in courtrooms and lawyers’ offices. (See DeKooning by Stevens & Swan.) Raymond Carver likewise winds up to a litigious struggle between the two Mrs. Carvers over rights and permissions, following his death, at age 50, from lung cancer, in 1988, and exacerbated by Robert Altman’s interest in making Short Cuts, a smash-cut of nine stories and a poem. The snubbing of Carver’s mother, first wife, and children in his will reminds of the insensitive—or at least inscrutable—Bad Ray. (Missing is crucial testimony from an evidently uncooperative Tess Gallagher.) Yet the book’s just through-line remains Good Ray, this Genet-like figure of American letters—as a friend of his remarks, “close to a low-rent criminal,” at once trickster and fine imaginative intelligence. A blunt angel with greasy hair and sideburns, Carver seduces us for one last time in the plangent pang of a late diary entry, artfully included by Sklenicka: “Whatever this was all about this was not a vain attempt—journey.”

Editor’s Note: We have corrected the publication year of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? The reviewer received that incorrect date from Ms. Sklenicka’s own book, which on page 295 gives March 9, 1977 as the date of publication.

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Brad Gooch is a professor of English at William Paterson University in New Jersey. His latest book is Flannery: A Life of Flannery O'Connor