Confession. The first time I read a Raymond Carver story, I didn't get it. It was so spare, so lacking epiphany. I thought: "Huh?"
But then, I read his story, A Small, Good Thing. And Cathedral and Neighbors. I read his collection, Where I'm Calling From. And then, I got it. Carver's stories are gritty, unadorned tales of ordinary people. Their very simplicity and elegance gives them a deep, emotional punch. This is why Carver has been extolled as a master of "minimalism."
Which is ironic. Because according to Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life, by Carol Sklenicka, Carver's own life wasn't minimalist at all. It was stunningly chaotic.
Ray — as he was known — was like many of the characters he wrote about. A working class boy in Yakima, Washington, he married his sweetheart, Maryann Burk at age 19. They had two children in less than two years — and lived hand-to-mouth. Maryann often waitressed and juggled jobs so Ray could study and write. And they moved around. A lot.
Until he was 41, Carver never held down a job for more than 18 months. The only constant was his writing. Rejection slips mounted, but he started to publish. He and Maryann drank and fought violently, though. And their lives spun out of control. Twice they filed for bankruptcy. At least once, Ray almost landed in jail. And at least once, Maryann was rushed to the emergency room after Ray beat her.
Unlike many famous writers, however, Carver managed to stop drinking. Although he died at age 50 in 1988, in the last decade of his life, he achieved sobriety. He enjoyed unprecedented literary success, and found a redemptive love with the poet Tess Gallagher. His own story ended with a measure of grace.
Given this, it would be easy for Sklenicka to write a dishy, sensational bio. Or, a hagiography. Thankfully, she does neither.
Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life is a sober, sensitive portrait of an often drunken and complex man. Sklenicka clearly adores Carver's work, but does a fine job of portraying all his poignant contradictions: He's funny and abusive. Insecure and dogged. Nervous and passionate. She's careful to distinguish the man from his writing. Even when she draws parallels between his life and his fiction, it's to illuminate his creative process.
She also doesn't muck-rake. For years, controversy has raged over Carver's editor, Gordon Lish — and his role in Carver's success. Sklenicka probes this even-handedly.
In her research, she interviewed legions of Carver's nearest and dearest. These include Maryann, his children, his closest and famous friends. She's also drawn from hundreds of sources — and Carver's and Gallagher's own words. The result is a rich, absorbing biography. It's also instructive — particularly for us writers.
Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life is an honest portrait of a man's messy, triumphant, literary struggle. It neither condemns nor exonerates him.
In this way, the book is an ultimate tribute to Carver. He was, after all, revered for being both "unflinching," and "tender" as a writer — and Sklenicka's biography is exactly that: unflinching — and tender. It is a big, good thing.
Susan Jane Gilman's latest book is the memoir, 'Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven'.