‘I don’t know what I want, but I want it now.’ Raymond Carver copied this quote into his notebook just after the mid-point of his truncated life and it hints at the internal divisions that tore him apart. In one sense, it was a lie, because what Carver always wanted, from adolescence, was to be a writer. As a working class boy whose family slaved in the saw mills of Oregon, he could never see how you became one and spent the rest of his life trying to work it out. Even when he finally made it, he could never reconcile how it felt with how he’d imagined it might be. Most of the time he felt a fraud.
This big, compendious biography illuminates the division between the strict, controlled form of his fiction, and the unstructured, chaotic sprawl of the life he mined for its content. Married with a child while still a teenager, his 17 year old schoolgirl wife pregnant again six weeks after giving birth to the first baby, they both worked full time as they struggled to get educated, pay the bills and be happy in a welter of family crises, exhaustion and debt. Carver’s father had been a depressive alcoholic and Carver too began to take refuge in the bottle, consuming vodka in industrial quantities, in common with writer friends who believed in the mythology of drink and creativity. He and his friends had mammoth drinking sessions in bars, were sometimes too inebriated to give readings, or lectures (Carver had to be removed from the stage on one occasion) and fell in and out of rehab. It was the era of Hemingway, Brendan Behan and Dylan Thomas. Carver was violent towards his wife and neglected his children.
But in the face of the enormous personal challenges that he had to meet, you can’t help but forgive him. He was a vulnerable human being, born on the wrong side of the American tracks, who surmounted huge obstacles to become a writer at all. You can’t help but realise in this book, that if Carver had been born Ivy League, there would have been no struggle and his career would have been stratospheric. But, on the other hand, he might not have had so much to write about.
He was classed a ‘dirty realist’ by Granta editor Bill Buford, a ‘minimalist’ and ‘the American Chekhov’ by others. His stories are 20th century masterpieces of form as well as brilliant vignettes of human life at the bottom edge of the American Dream.
When his 24 year old marriage collapsed under the pressure of drink-related violence and bankruptcy, Carver abruptly went on the wagon and found another woman - the poet Tess Gallagher - to take care of him for the last ten years of his life. The only thing that sours the happy ending is the fact that he failed to provide for his children and the ex-wife who had sacrificed her own prospects to support him. Though his income was by then enormous, and he had considerable assets, he left them only $5,000 in his will and wrote, in an essay, that having children had ruined his life. The people who had suffered most to ensure his success, were prevented from sharing the benefits of it.
A few lines of poetry, just titled 'Late Fragment', jotted in his notebook hint at the relative serenity he eventually achieved.
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
This is an excellent biography, written in the traditional style of literary biographies. There are some very careful chapters at the end, where you can sense the lawyer’s pencil in action. It is very marked that the only person not thanked in the acknowledgements is Carver’s second wife. She was never interviewed and is only quoted from work in the public domain. The omissions hint at another story I’d love to hear.