AJ gave me this book for Christmas with a note about Carvers’ influence on his writing. So with that loving gesture, my first book was selected for 2019. Where I’m Calling From was Raymond Carver’s first published book (1976). It is a collection of 37 short stories.
After reading the first few stories and I didn’t get. What did he love? Each page shrouded in a veil of sadness, more like hopelessness and uninspired living. This writing style was different than anything in my past year. Yet, since AJ was mused by this, I must be missing something.
I called him and asked what he loved about the collection. He gave me a beautiful explanation and a summation, “Carver tells it real.” So before I continued reading, I did some additional research to enlighten my experience.
Carver helped launch a writer’s movement called dirty realism. “Dirty Realism is the fiction of a new generation of American authors. They write about the belly-side of contemporary life – a deserted husband, an unwed mother, a car thief, a pickpocket, a drug addict – but they write about it with a disturbing detachment, at times verging on comedy. Understated, ironic, sometimes savage, but insistently compassionate, these stories constitute a new voice in fiction.”
Wiki continues: “Dirty realism is characterized by an economy with words and a focus on surface description. Writers working within the genre tend to avoid adverbs, extended metaphors and internal monologs instead allowing objects and context to dictate meaning. Characters are shown in ordinary, unremarkable occupations, and often a lack of resources and money that creates an internal desperation.”
Carver was the pioneer of dirty realism. The New York Times called him surely the most influential writer of American short stories”.
So with this new lens, I began to read again. When I stopped hoping for a happy ending to each story, I could relax and appreciate the honest view into another human’s life. The words painted real life.
You get the sense Carver knew every person he wrote about or maybe every story had a fragment of the real person or moment of life within it. I envisioned Carver sitting at a park or cafe, watching people and their stories come alive in his mind, as he scribbled notes in a Moleskine or on a napkin more likely.
Carver focuses on sadness and loss in the everyday lives of ordinary people. He can tell a piece of their story in just 10 to 20 pages, and you understand them. The often lower-middle class or isolated and marginalized people had their stories told by Carver in words so exacting that you could see their life – their grey lives in black and white.
Carver was an alcoholic until 1977. He speaks of his “first life” and his “second life,” the second being sorority – which lasted 11 years until his death. He was not a kind man in his first life. Alcohol was a character in many of the stories I assume because it was an ever-present being in his own.
What to appreciate about Carver – as it says on the back of the book “his astonishing honesty, with an eye set on describing and revealing the world as he sees it. His eye is so clear, it almost breaks your heart” (Washington Post).
I think you need to gather with a group of thinkers, and really crack open some of the 526 pages – because just reading the book thru does not do it justice. I re-read a couple of my favorite stories a few times: Neighbors and Why Don’t You Dance. I saw them new with each re-read, richer – and I was eager to talk to AJ about his favorites and why.
The Joy In This Book: There is beauty in the real and unvarnished, it is called life.
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