Raymond Carver’s way
Some years ago, Jim Young and other friends of the writer Raymond Carver from the crucible of his formative Sacramento years, urged local officials to name a street in honor of Carver and the creative output that reflects his time here. Not only, they argued, are many of his early stories and poems located in identifiable Sacramento sites, and not only did CSU-Sacramento publish his first book of poems; but Carver also forged an original literary terrain that portrayed honestly the lives and struggles of the rootless residents of the cheap suburban tracts of the late ’60s, and their often failing struggles for dignity. So far, the efforts have fallen on deaf ears. But the latest collection of his uncollected prose represents one more powerful argument for a local commemoration of this great writer.
Call If You Need Me brings together five stories culled from his papers after his death in 1988, along with other prose. While none of them appear to be Sacramento-specific, they all contain moments of that revelatory, unarticulated tension of daily life that became a signature of Carver’s stories, wherein a flat description of the simplest interchange between two people over the most trivial of matters stabs the heart even as it enlightens the mind. His stories can leave you bleeding and breathless, unable to read more than one without taking a severe rest.
“It was the middle of August and Myers was between lives,” reads the first line of the first story, providing the theme for the best of these. Here, as elsewhere, Carver’s characters are living in someone else’s house or room, trying to put a marriage back together, or else end one; trying to stay sober and find a job; appreciating the surface stability of other lives, even as they observe the deadliness and delusion inherent in their neighbors’ constancy. “Between lives” is where life is most fully revealed.
While several stories, including the title one, are almost as good as anything Carver has written, a couple of them show an unfinished quality. Both have houses burning down, and the reader gets the feeling that Carver began with this image and then tried to build a story around it.
That’s not simply a guess, but it’s speculation based on Carver’s own discussion of his creativity in a section of essays in this book, the best known of which, “On Writing” and “Fires,” are reprinted from his earlier anthology, Fires. These are among the finest reflections on a writer’s life and process ever penned, for both the inspiration and the personal pain they so honestly depict. “We dreamt when we had time for it,” Carver writes of his and his first wife’s attempts to make the writing life theirs. “But, eventually, we realized that hard work and dreams were not enough. Somewhere, in Iowa City maybe, or shortly afterwards, in Sacramento, the dreams began to go bust.”
This section also thankfully reprints his essay on his father’s difficult life and his appreciation of his Chico State creative writing teacher, John Gardener. These four essays alone make the book worth reading for anyone who cares about writers, writing and life. The remainder of this anthology is a reprint (minus the poems) of the contents of the 1992 collection of uncollected writing, No Heroics, Please, including his earliest stories (first published at CSU- Chico and Humboldt); the fragment of a novel; various introductions and commentary on his writings and those of others; and book reviews. In all of these, one experiences Carver’s great generosity in sharing what he has learned, and his great compassion for anyone undergoing the travails of learning.
Call If You Need Me is one more reminder of why Carver will last. And one more reason to begin the discussion about which street in Sacramento is most deserving of the moniker, Raymond Carver Way. My nomination is one of those anonymous avenues of apartment houses with plentiful signs worthy of the title of a Carver story: “First Two Months’ Rent Free.”