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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Raymond Carver

At a glance
Cathedral
by Raymond Carver

Vintage
228 pages, $12.95
paperback

There are names that immediately summon up literary images.

Vladimir Nabokov, for example, can be equated with a teenage beauty whose name - Lolita - has crossed over into the general language to represent exactly what Nabokov created her to be a nymph temptress.

William Faulkner brings forth dark images of a once-proud, now-humbled South, summoned up in language as dense as the humidity and as deep as the Mississippi is long.

Sylvia Plath evokes the dangers of a walking dream state, her whip-sharp metaphors and similes as capable of capturing emotional turmoil as a gas oven is of stopping breath.

And Raymond Carver? His is a prose as bare as the landscape between Yakima and Ellensburg, themes as familiar as your face in a mirror, emotions as turbulent as two six-packs on an empty stomach.

If you've never read Carver, now's your chance. "Cathedral," Carver's 1983 collection of stories, is the March reading selection of The Spokesman-Review Book Group.

No Northwest writer earned more attention, and respect, over the last decades of the 20th century than Carver. As a short-story writer, he embodied a style that came to be known by a single word: minimalism.

Yet it wasn't a label he embraced. As he told literary critic Cynthia Whitney Hallett, "There's something about 'minimalist' that smacks of smallness of vision and execution that I don't like."

Even so, his sleek prose style was more Ernest Hemingway than Faulkner, more Chevhov than Nabokov. And thematically, he wrote stories of the life that knew well - that of the working poor, mill workers and waitresses, janitors and salesmen.

Born in 1938 in Clatskanie, Ore., Carver married young, had children and struggled to get a college education, which he earned in 1963. After attending a creative writing course taught by the novelist John Gardener, he started to write.

Carver's first published story, "Pastoral," appeared while he was still in college. But over the next few years he labored to write while helping his wife support family. It wasn't until 1974 that his first collection of short stories, "Put Yourself in My Shoes," saw print.

By the time his second collection - "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" - was published two years later, he'd established a voice that was as distinctive as it was eventually influential.

As Michael Wood wrote in The New York Times Book Review section, Carver "has done what many of the most gifted writers fail to do. He has invented a country of his own, like no other except that very world, as Wordsworth said, which is the world to all of us."

"Cathedral" is Carver's fifth story collection. By 1983 he had survived divorce, hard drinking and the kind of success that doesn't always mean money in the bank. It's no wonder that, as critic Petri Liukkonen wrote, Carver's stories are studies of "the quiet desperation of the white- and blue-collar workers, salesmen, waitresses, and their sense of betrayal and unableness to express themselves."

The story "A Small, Good Thing," for example, tells the story of a couple trying to cope both with loss and the badgering of a baker to whom they owe money. Included in Robert Altman's filmed version of Carver's work, 1993's "Short Cuts," the story climaxes with a confrontation that is as poignant as it is painful:

"It was warm inside the bakery. Howard stood up from the table and took off his coat. He helped Ann from her coat. The baker looked at them for a minute and then nodded and got up from the table. He went to the oven and turned off some switches. He found cups and poured coffee from an electric coffee-maker. He put a carton of coffee of cream on the table, and a bowl of sugar.

" 'You probably need to eat something,' the baker said. 'I hope you'll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this,' he said."

"The Compartment" is about a man on a train in France, bound to Germany where he plans to connect with the son he lost during a difficult divorce. But a series of events causes the man, who is more of an observer than an actual occupant of his own life, to rethink the scheduled meeting.

"Vitamins" involves a man working at a nothing job, the woman he lives with who struggles to sell vitamins, and the woman's employee, for whom the man has "the hots." The randomness of the potential affair gets interrupted by the even more random nature of a drunk Vietnam veteran's intervention.

And so on.

"Carver is showing us at least part of the truth about a segment of American experience few of our writers trouble to notice," wrote Irving Howe in the New York Times. "(A)t his best he is probing, as many American writers have done before, the waste and destructiveness that prevail beneath the affluence of American life."

Washington post book critic Jonathan Yardley was, if anything, even more effusive: "Cathedral" is a "dozen stories that overflow with the danger, excitement, mystery and possibility of life," he wrote. "Carver is a writer of astonishing compassion and honesty ... his eye set only on describing and revealing the world as he sees it. His eye is so clear, it almost breaks your heart."

Carver died in 1988 in Port Angeles, Wash. At the end, married to Tess Gallagher, established as a professor of writing at Syracuse University and universally accepted as a modern master of the short story, he'd found a measure of peace.

The characters in his stories, though, trudge on. They drink, love and fight, trying to make their way in a threatening world that, at least on occasion, is filled with the kinds of small joys - hot rolls, maybe - that keep them hoping that something better is just over the next rise in the road.

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