Review

Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life

by Carol Sklenicka

Raymond Carver was called “the Chekhov of middle
America” by The Times of London. His writing,
especially his short stories, has influenced countless writers and
even helped to revitalize the short story as a popular format in
the mid-1980s. And his reach even extended to film: a compilation
of his stories formed the basis for the Robert Altman feature,
Short Cuts. But despite his skill and mastery of the form,
very little is known about the man.

Perhaps this is because his stories and poems felt so raw, so
real. The reader would assume “this must be what the writer
has experienced. He had to go through this himself --- no
one’s that good a writer.” Well, yes and no. Yes,
Carver experienced a lot of what he wrote about --- the desperate
lives of blue-collar men, the recriminations of an angry spouse ---
and no, he actually is that good. Carver’s own
formula for writing was fairly simple: “….a little
autobiography and a lot of imagination are best” for writing
fiction. His early life in hardscrabble Washington state mill towns
formed the spine for most of his stories and memorable characters.
Carol Sklenicka’s exhaustively researched biography presents
a striking portrait of Carver as a man as well as the talented
writer.

Carver was born in Oregon in 1938 and then raised mostly in
Washington state. His father, C.R. Carver, a hard drinking mill
worker, “bequeathed his two sons the muted dreams and finely
honed resentments of a disappointed man.” Right out of the
gate, Carver was given inspiration for his stories, which were
sometimes called “dirty realism,” but the muse was
hard-won. His father’s job at the Cascade Mill, where most of
the population of the area worked, provided grist for his writing.
Carver often stated that the Mill was “my entire frame of
reference when I was a kid.” His mother was more of a
romantic figure. As later described by Maryann Burk Carver, his
first wife, Carver’s mother, Ella, “was straight out of
Gone with the Wind.

After living with the Carver family early on in their marriage,
she could see “how the characters of his parents were
manifested in Ray…because the son got the sweetness and
primary qualities from his dad, but he got...determination and
arrogance, a kind of pride or self-possession from his
mother.” Life in those times, in those towns, was tough, and
C.R. was often gone on epic benders. Later in life, Carver
recalled, “I still remember the sense of doom and
hopelessness that hung over the supper table when my mother and I
and my kid brother sat down to eat.” It forever edified in
him a sense of division between mother and father, between love and
hate, between success and failure. This theme of the “divided
self” fascinated Carver, and his story, “Nobody Said
Anything,” reflects this vividly.

At 18, he married Maryann Burk, then 16, and the couple welcomed
their first daughter a few months later. Another child, a son named
Vance, followed a year later. By age 20, Carver was already a
married man with two children. Maryann always promised him that he
would never have to give up his writing, and, determined to achieve
that dream, both worked hard at a number of menial jobs. After
following his family to northern California, Carver enrolled in a
fiction course taught by the novelist John Gardner, who became a
profound influence on his career for the rest of his life. After
stints at Chico State and Humboldt State, he earned his degree and,
shortly thereafter, moved to Iowa City to attend the prestigious
Iowa Writer’s Workshop. (He would later return as a teacher
in the early 1970s along with John Cheever, but from his own
admission, the two spent more time drinking than writing.)

Despite growing up in a house steeped in alcohol abuse --- or
perhaps because of it --- Carver himself was a heavy drinker, well
on the road to severe alcoholism. Because of his drinking, his
marriage to Maryann often mirrored his parents’ own troubled
union: “When his parents were unhappy with each other
‘their misery inundated the family, gouging channels that
would influence Ray’s own marriage and shape his
writing.’” These issues found their way into his
stories and poems, his tales of blue-collar workers and their
strained relationships.

Carver sold a story here and there until he came to the
attention of Esquire magazine’s fiction editor
Gordon Lish in the 1960s, which gave Carver his first major
placement in an esteemed national magazine. (Recently,
Carver’s second wife, Tess Gallagher, conducted a rather
public dispute with Lish over certain stories of Carver’s
that she claimed he over-edited, and some claim Lish ghost-wrote.
Gallagher was adamant that the stories be reprinted in their
original form --- the way Carver intended them.) He enjoyed more
frequent publication as the 1970s became the ’80s and
continued speaking at literary festivals and took teaching
positions throughout the country. He finally quit drinking in 1977,
and so began his “second life.” After the demise of his
first marriage, Carver met the poet Tess Gallagher at a
writer’s conference, and the two were together until his
death from lung cancer at age 50 in 1988.

Despite his early passing, Carver made his mark on writing and
on writers in general as evidenced by the warm friendships he
shared with fellow writers Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff and Richard
Cortez Day. His upbringing made an indelible imprint on him, and
his stories, in turn, inspired others. He often said “the
best art has its reference points in real life,” and this
enlightening and very readable biography by Carol Skelnicka, an
essayist and short story writer herself, helps to illuminate the
man and his work, and just how intertwined the two are.

Reviewed by Bronwyn Miller on January 23, 2011

Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life
by Carol Sklenicka

  • Publication Date: November 1, 2010
  • Genres: Biography, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner
  • ISBN-10: 0743262468
  • ISBN-13: 9780743262460