Raymond Carver was only 50 when he died, in 1988, of lung cancer. Those who knew him personally mourned, and continue to mourn, the loss of a warm and generous friend, a man whose hard early life—periods of dead-end jobs and poverty, severe alcoholism—had somehow made him gentle. Readers aware of him only from his books have missed him too, for Carver had, during the 12 years preceding his death, virtually reinvented the American short story.
His acclaim stemmed from four collections: "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" (1976); "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love" (1981); "Cathedral" (1983); and "Where I’m Calling From" (1988). Carver’s stories also became a staple in Esquire during the 1970s and the New Yorker in the ’80s. His voice—spare, understated, unsentimental—and his typical subject matter—moments of truth in the lives of hard-luck men and women who know they are failing in a country consecrated to success—became immediately recognizable. Carver resisted the trend toward gentrification in U.S. fiction, the Jamesian notion that only those with fine-tuned sensibilities and no money worries have the leisure to mess up their lives in interesting ways. Carver could write about life’s losers without any condescension because he had often felt he was one of them.
His stories appeared so simple and effortless that many aspiring writers decided to turn them out themselves. These admirers might get the props right—say, a mobile home with linoleum on the floor and an opened bottle of gin on the kitchen table—but not the magic that Carver could work with such material, not the sense of enormous import lurking in the pauses of desultory conversations.
Reviewers and critics dubbed Carver and his epigones Minimalists, a term the author disliked. His reasons for doing so extended beyond the normal artistic resentment at being pigeonholed. Carver knew, as others have discovered in the past few years, that heavy excisions were performed on his early stories by Gordon Lish, a fiction editor at Esquire in the ’70s and then at Knopf during the preparation of "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." That book, with 17 terse stories crammed into 159 pages, solidified Carver’s reputation but left him feeling that he had ceded too much control to his editor. (He later restored Lish’s cuts to two of the stories and included them in "Where I’m Calling From.") Carver devotees portray Lish as the villain of this piece, an overreaching editor who bullied an uncertain beginning writer. Lish’s defenders argue that he did for Carver’s fiction what Ezra Pound did for T.S. Eliot’s "The Waste Land," i.e., cut out the fat to expose the essential genius within the work.
That opinion rests on the premise that the stories Carver published without Lish’s oversight were inferior to the radically trimmed ones, and not many people believe that. Fresh evidence to the contrary can now be found in "Call If You Need Me" (Vintage; 300 pages; $13), a gathering of the author’s previously uncollected nonfiction, plus five unpublished short stories. Three of them were found by the poet Tess Gallagher, Carver’s companion for the last decade of his life and wife for his last few months, in the home they shared at Port Angeles, Wash.; the other two turned up among Carver’s papers at Ohio State University. In a foreword, Gallagher notes that she had reservations about making public stories that her late husband had not finished to his satisfaction: “Ray would sometimes take a story through 30 rewrites. These stories had been put aside well before that.”
But she decided that the discovered works were good enough to publish, and she was right. Even though they were not polished to the extent the author probably intended, these five stories are set unmistakably in Carver country and populated by Carver people. The heroes have quit drinking, as Carver did in 1977. Marriages are tense or broken. In "Kindling," a man named Myers has just gotten out of an alcohol rehab center and can’t go home again because his wife “had a lawyer and a restraining order.” So he rents a room in another town and winds up voluntarily chopping a load of firewood for his landlord. In "What Would You Like to See?," a married couple have agreed to split up. Before they vacate the house they have rented all summer, they are invited to a farewell dinner by their landlord and his wife, who believe they are moving on together. After the meal, the host and hostess show slides from their travels. Summaries of these and the other three stories would suggest that nothing much happens. Yet to read the works themselves is to experience vividly the tectonic shiftings and rumblings and reknittings that go on beneath the surface of everyday lives. There was truly nothing minimal about the reach and grasp of Carver’s art.