Review: Ray Carver: A Writer’s Life

The last few months of 2009 marked a small renaissance in the literary career of Raymond Carver. Ray Carver: The Collected Stories was released by the American Library Collection and Carol Sklenicka published her biography Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life
I received both books for Christmas, which was a delight. As part of my effort to read more this year, I’ve put them both on my fast track “reading curriculum” for 2010. I’m hoping to write reviews of each of the books I read this year, but….well, it’s taken me a month to get to this one about Sklenicka’s biography.

I’m a big fan of Carver, but my knowledge of his life was fairly limited.  I knew that his fiction drew upon a lot of life experience, and I read a great article in The New Yorker a couple of years ago about the complicated relationship between Carver and Gordon Lish, his editor.  Undoubtedly, there’s a lot of love out there for Carver among fiction lovers.  His work–described as everything from “minimalist” to “dirty realism,” helped usher in a new era in fiction writing, and his short stories remain influential, and while I’m certainly not a reader who sees every piece of fiction as a platform for psychological analysis of a writer, a working knowledge of Carver’s life, with its ups and downs, struggles with addiction, and blue collar roots, seems essential for getting his work.  It’s a tough balancing act, however.  I am a firm believer that writers are in a symbiotic relationship with their context and life circumstances–but as I alluded, it’s misguided to read literary texts as if they are simply psychological profiles of their authors.

That being said, I think Sklenicka’s book is strongest when she gathers interviews with students and colleagues of Carver (it was particularly fun to see Mary Swander and Mark Jarman’s names, as I attended a workshop with Swander at Hiram College, and I’ve been a big fan of Jarman since I discovered his work while I was at Vanderbilt), strings together events from court and other documents (of heartbreaking bankruptcies and fraud charges, for example), and relies on other research to give life to Carver’s story.

I found myself becoming annoyed at times, however; whenever Sklenicka used his fiction to draw conclusions about Carver’s state of mind, detailing an event in a short story and trying to connect how the often chaotic events in Carver’s life might have bled through his writing, it seemed presumptuous, and like a deviation from what drove her to so meticulously research the biography (whoops!  is that me doing a little armchair analysis?)

Three relationships dominated the book: Carver and Lish, Carver and his first wife Maryann, and Carver and his second wife, poet Tess Gallager.  They’re all complicated, and there are plenty of interpretations of the complications. Lish–often taking credit himself for “making Carver,” is taken to task by Sklenicka, albeit in an even-handed way.  His heavy editing of Carver’s work is evident in many of Carver’s published collections, and Carver eventually tired of Lish’s taste for harsh, staccato writing.  One can debate whether Lish’s influence helped make, solidify, or impede Carver’s career, but what Sklenicka contributes to the conversation is a careful retracing of their relationship and Carver’s declaration of independence.

While Carver’s marriages play a major role in the biography, Sklenicka is oddly detached, perhaps trying to offer a fair assesment to both Maryann Carver and Tess Gallagher.  Clearly, there are plenty of readers who will see Maryann’s financial and emotional support of Carver in the early days and subsequent lack of reciprocal financial support as Carver’s career took off as a betrayal, and there are those who regard Gallagher as the only family member with the ability and will to maintain Carver’s legacy and would justify her distrust of Ray’s children.  For Sklenicka, the presentation of the details of these details are so matter-of-fact  and dispassionate that I was left feeling that the destructive behavior–of Ray, Maryann, Tess, and other assorted family and friends–was as normal as any other interaction.  Of course, maybe when we’re talking about families in the throes of dysfunction, that’s the whole point.

Nonetheless, the recounting of events–of Ray’s life, career, and death, was enough to break my heart.  Just like his stories do.  Every time.

(Stephen King wrote a great review that goes into more depth concerning the relationship between Carver and Lish. You can read it here)


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