Biographers of iconic authors have long considered their creative gifts alongside a destructiveness in their natures, and Carol Sklenicka’s new biography, Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life, is another offering in that vein. So don’t look to it for happy insights into his dark if masterful tales of blue-collar losers. Don’t read it for peace; there’s none to be found in its prolonged stare at the alcoholism and violence in his early first marriage. As Carver gained renown, he seemed to push off from the shores of his youth as the son of an impoverished mother and alcoholic father – but emotionally, he couldn’t profit. If writing was the raft that kept him afloat, it did so barely. For years, he looked to his craft to buoy him amid the waves caused by his drinking, bankruptcy, infidelity, and depression. As art, it succeeded. As a flotation device, it failed.
This was the case, at least, until Carver quit booze at 39. From then until his death at 50 from cancer, he wrote and published the tales, poems, and essays that secured his literary reputation. Still, the damage done to his family and finances by those decades as a drunk is a far lengthier focus of "Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life" than the stories for which he’s best known. Considered by many to be the master of 20th century realistic short fiction, Carver was – as this book extensively shows – belatedly master of himself.
The conflicts that his stories showcased paralleled his own. His characters, drawn from his working-class origins in the Pacific Northwest, often stand helpless in the face of thwarted hopes. Stymied by money woes, passivity, and the limits of their social class, they hit the bottle, hit women, and leave their children to fend for themselves. Carver used all these escapes. Not surprisingly, he sympathized with his characters. “I never felt the people I was writing about were so bad off,” he said, adding, “The waitress, the bus driver, the mechanic, the hotel keeper. God, the country is filled with these people. They’re good people. People doing the best they could.”
Sklenicka never weighs in on whether Carver did the best he could. Still, she makes clear that his needs superseded those of his first wife, Maryann, and their children. The former put aside her ambitions for his; the latter he cruelly called in a famous essay, “Fires,” a “heavy and often baleful influence.”
Sklenicka does make a case for such behavior being a hallmark of the times. So far as destructiveness by 1970s writers goes, Carver’s was commonplace. Infidelity, addiction, selfishness: all were calling cards of such literary stars as novelist John Gardner and confessional poet Anne Sexton. Unable to meet the needs of others, they nevertheless possessed the allure of dramatic personalities. Sexton’s biographer Diane Middlebrook, especially – in her defining look at the emotionally parasitic yet charismatic poet – shows how the high-wattage light that Sexton gave off drew others like a moth-killing bulb. But by featuring stunning samples of her verses, she also reveals her immense talent.
By contrast, this massive biography of Carver – it runs 578 pages – offers limited excerpts from his work. This makes it hard for readers unfamiliar with his writing to see his appeal as an artist (or a person).
In his storyline, at least, Carver embodied the antiheroes of his fiction. As a young man, he got his girlfriend pregnant, got married, and had children, all without having an education or marketable skills. Alternately, he ran toward the warmth of his family, and away from responsibility. Forever quitting or refusing jobs, he relied on the financial support provided by Maryann, even as he increasingly wished to be free to drink and write. (Given his record, it’s hard to fathom why so many – including poet Tess Gallagher, his second wife – loaned him money and trust, despite the odds that neither would be repaid.)
But Gallagher, like Maryann, was knocked out by his talent. Notwithstanding her own achievements, she took over the role of his caretaker: “[H]e was so amazing; how was he going to keep going if he didn’t have someone to shelter him a bit?”
Not everyone was so enamored. His onetime editor, Gordon Lish, sought credit for having reshaped his work, saying, “Carver was an alcoholic whose work required such rewriting.” Most famously, Lish pared down tales that today comprise one of the signature story collections in the Carver cannon, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Carver was devastated – “He had urged Lish to take a pencil to the stories,” Skelnicka writes, not “a meat cleaver” – but the book, as printed, won him kudos from many in the literary establishment.
However he got there, Carver, by the time of his death, was a celebrated author, holder of a coveted first-time reading contract with The New Yorker magazine, and recipient of a lucrative five-year grant from the American Institute of Arts and Letters. “We’re out there in history, Babe,” he and Gallagher would remark happily to one another.
But in getting there, he shed those once closest to him. Poignantly, some tried to hold on. Even after they divorced, Maryann – begrudged alimony by Ray and eligible for food stamps – saw his success as her own. “Besides our children, that was the important thing. His work,” she said, adding painfully, “with all the emotional scars, his work justified what we’d put ourselves through.”
Susan Comninos is a writer in New York.