Wired for Books: Community Reconsidered

On May 25, 1997 professors of literature at Ohio University, Marilyn Atlas and Edgar Whan, came to Studio B in the Ohio University Telecommunications Center to record a discussion about the short stories of Raymond Carver. They were joined by guest scholar Daniel Born of Marietta College. Here are the transcripts of the conversation.

Edgar Whan - I'm pleased to be here with these two young scholars. I'm not an American literature scholar myself, but I'll learn from them today, I presume. I thought we'd have professor Born talk first and give some of the background he has, then Marilyn will do something and then I will do 5 or 10 minutes and then we'll get together and talk about it. What we're trying to do is find out what Raymond Carver can teach us about community which is a concept everyone talks about. We talk about it because we don't have it anymore. Because if we had it we wouldn't know the word. Okay.

Daniel Born - Thank you for inviting me. Let me first say a few words about Raymond Carver's background. In an interview published in the summer 1983 issue of Paris Review, Mona Simpson asked Raymond Carver point-blank the question, "Are you religious?" That sounds like a question from one of Carver's own stories.

You'll recall the blind man, Robert, who interrogates the narrator of "Cathedral." Two men nicely prepped on several rounds of scotch and not a few tokes of marijuana have crossed into that territory where they can properly talk to one another about things of the heart. They're watching a PBS special on the building of medieval cathedrals.

"Let me ask you a simple question, yes or no," says Robert, "I'm just curious and there's no offense. You're my host, but let me ask if you are in any way religious?"

The narrator at first shakes his head. This is a nice touch, because earlier, just to irritate his wife, he had suggested taking the blind man bowling. But now things have turned more serious. He realizes Robert won't understand the head shake, so he says, "I guess I don't believe in it, in anything. Sometimes it's hard, you know what I'm saying?" And Robert responds, "Sure, I do."

Now Carver's answer to Simpson's question is more interesting, I think , and provides a gloss on the ending of this short story. Carver said, "No, but I have to believe in miracles and the possibility of resurrection. No question about that. Every day that I wake up, I'm glad to wake up. In my drinking days I would sleep until noon or whatever and I would usually wake up with the shakes." This is an interesting response, to say the least, from a writer known for his bleak minimalist style who acknowledged in 1988 that conservative critics accused him, and I quote, "of painting too dark a picture of American life, of not putting a happy face on America."

The thematic material for most of Carver's stories includes divorce, separation, alcoholism, misogyny, sex without love, sexual abuse, murder and the inarticulate rage of the working class who hate their jobs. It is not a landscape in which Norman Rockwell would feel at home.

When he died nearly ten years ago of lung cancer at the youthful age of fifty, Carver had already made his reputation as one of the most important American short story writers of his generation. He made out of the material of ordinary lives and speech a tapestry of glowing moments that transcend the ordinary. And I think we may call these moments epiphanies without being vulgar.

I want to say, though, that these epiphanies are not those where recognition comes of potential or possibility, but most of the time they have to do with loss or of failure. I think much of his final collection, entitled, "Where I'm Calling From.," indicates very clearly that sense of loss. If Carver helps us in any way, reconsider or reflect on the meaning of community, which is the topic today, I think he usually does so more by negative than positive example.

The subject matter of too many of his stories is downright depressing, and registers not the potential of building community, but the reality of communities and particularly, families that have fallen apart, that have come unglued, are fraying, are beyond repair.

In some of his stories this shades into the gothic, but it's not the gothic of special effects, but of familial disintegration. In his most terrifying story, "So Much Water So Close to Home," Carver’s narrator Claire sums up the essence of much of Carver’s world when she observes, quote, " two things are certain, people no longer care what happens to other people, and two, nothing makes any real difference any longer."

Maybe most poignant though are the characters who cannot articulate their feelings and whose aspirations and loves and fears go unexpressed. One such character, Burt, in the story "A Serious Talk," is frustrated in his attempt to speak with his ex-wife and so, as a substitute, he tries to incinerate her home by stacking the fireplace full of pressed logs, throwing in a match, and walking out on Christmas Eve.

More often characters just put up, and shut up, and tolerate their situation, such as the narrator of the comic story, "Feathers." New York critic, Morris Dickstein*** likens Carver’s stories to paintings by Edward Hopper. The mood is stark, the sensibility one of isolation, all the non-essentials get pared away.

Carver told Simpson in the same interview that I spoke of earlier, "In some lives people always succeed and I think it’s grand when that happens. In other lives, people don’t succeed at what they try to do, at the things they want most to do, the large or small things that support their life.

These lives are, of course, valid to write about, the lives that don’t succeed. Most of my own experience has to do with the latter situation. I think most of my characters would like their actions to count for something, but at the same time, they’ve reached the point, as so many people do, that they know it isn’t so. It doesn’t add up any longer.

The things you once thought important or even worth dying for aren’t worth a nickel, now. It’s their lives they’ve become uncomfortable with, lives they see breaking down. They ‘d like to set things right, but they can’t. And usually, they do know it and after that, they just do the best they can."

Carver’s life provides us with some clues to his work and his grimly stoic philosophy. His father was a sawmill worker who read Zane Grey and drank too much.

Carver recollects, "I was eight or ten years old then. I used to wait at the bus stop for my dad to come home from work. Usually, he was as regular as clockwork, but every two weeks or so, he wouldn’t be on the bus. I’d stick around then and wait for the next bus, but I already knew he wasn’t going to be on that one either. When this happened it meant he’d gone drinking with friends of his from the sawmill. I still remember the sense of doom and hopelessness that hung over the supper table when my mother and I and my kid brother sat down to eat."

Carver married his sixteen-year-old pregnant bride when he was eighteen. By the time he was twenty, he had two children. "We didn’t have any youth," he would later reminisce. He and his wife worked lousy jobs and both wanted to go to college. Carver tried working in the sawmill and hated it. He proceeded to take classes by day and worked a variety of night jobs, delivery boy, gas station attendant, janitor.

The turning point came in 1958 when he took a fiction writing course with the writer John Gardner. He got his B.A. in 1963. In Sacramento, Carver continued to work as a night shift janitor where he began placing stories in little magazines. "Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?" his first well-known story, was included in the 1967 annual edition of Best American Short Stories.

About this time Carver got his first white-collar job as a textbook editor. "I more or less gave up, threw in the towel and took to full-time drinking as a serious pursuit," he recalled. He went through a cycle of drinking binges which nearly killed him, went through the revolving doors of alcohol rehab centers and lived in a chronic state of extremes, either alcoholic blackouts or drying-outs.

When his marriage broke up in 1977, he joined AA and stopped drinking for good. "If you want the truth," Carver told Simpson, "I’m prouder of that that I’ve quit drinking than I am of anything in my life." He spent his last years living with the poet, Tess Gallagher.

Already well-known from several collections of stories, his collection Cathedral in 1983 sold 20,000 copies in hard cover and was received not only as definitive proof of his talent, but of a revival of the short story tradition in America. The collection also shook off Carver’s early reputation of being a minimalist writer in the mode of Ann Beatty. Critics perceived a new generous spirit in his work.

During the last couple of years of his life, Carver re-read with much interest, the works of the Russians: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekov. This is significant, I think, the Russians have always seemed to me more overtly interested in matters of the soul, in matters metaphysical, than either the American or English literary tradition, at least in the last couple of hundred years.

Though it may sound a little simplistic, I would argue that his recovery from alcoholism and reading the Russians, helped account for the new tone taken in some of the stories written in the mid and late 1980s. Even though much of his fiction continues to be in the words of one critic, "bleak, spare, and unforgiving," the change nevertheless occurred, allowing Carver to write his most famous stories, such as "A Small Good Thing" and "Cathedral." These stories embody a new hopefulness. Religiosity is, perhaps, too strong a word.

It is maybe not surprising that in America where we have a national love affair with motivational and inspirational speakers, these are the stories delivering a grain of hope which have garnered the major attention. They are the rare birds in the Carver canon which make the critics sing loudest. I’m not sure that’s an altogether good thing and I think it possibly misrepresents Carver when we read the majority of his stories which are bleak, which are unforgiving stories.

Edgar Whan - That’s true, that’s true. Marilyn, would you take us for a little ride?

Marilyn Atlas - Sure, I’d love to. I really enjoyed hearing what you had to say, Daniel, and one thing I want to add is those last eleven years were years that were spent without alcohol, but they were also the years where he went to a writers’ conference, met Tess Gallagher, and for the first time, he got the kind of support that he needed, that he never got from his biological family, that he never got from his first marriage.

He was an extremely reluctant parent. He parented way too young and he saw his children, it seems, pretty much as an either / or in terms of art. It was either being a good parent or being an artist. That he was so driven to being a writer that that tended to win, with a great deal of guilt.

But I think Tess Gallagher supported him to such an extent…and he wrote most of his work, put his books together… I think he wrote two or three before she came into his life and published ten or eleven pieces afterwards. Even though they only married at the end after he knew he was going to die soon of lung cancer and brain cancer and all the complications. I think that eleven-year relationship finally gave him finally what he needed. And I think that’s what changed the tone.

You can’t be in a positive relationship and not believe, somehow, in salvation, and not believe it some way. I mean it sounds awfully romantic, but I think it’s what he longed for, through all those stories, was somebody to make it better and Tess was such a nurturer that, finally, he was able to accomplish that feeling of security.

That allowed him in his later stories to re-write them, changing them from a minimalist, existential kind of point of view to something that’s been called humanistic realism, but which seems to me much more akin to romance. That even when bad things happen, people are brought in, they can apologize, one can go on. And a whole different tone than from his early stories.

I think his re-writing of stories is extremely interesting and I hope that we’ll get a chance to talk about that later. But he was an extremely important writer after the women’s movement began, as well, yet his stories really don’t incorporate, in any way, women standing up for themselves. When they do have a positive role, it’s just a role of nurturer. It’s not the role of someone defending themselves.

We’ve chosen some stories that we really want to talk about. Let me just give the titles of those stories in case you’ve got a book in front of you, so you can kind of prepare yourselves. The first one we’re going to talk about is "Nobody Said Anything" which is the very first story in selected stories and he self-selected them, "Where I’m Calling From."

The next story, very soon afterwards, and this is Carver as a pretty young, but "made it" writer, is "They’re Not Your Husband," a pretty short story, very powerful and we’ll talk about that next.

The third one we’re going to talk about is an extremely complex story, "So Much Water So Close to Home" and I think that’s a very interesting story both from a feminist point of view, in terms of how the woman reacts to a woman her husband found, an already problematic relationship when he was going fishing, camping with his friends, who was drowned. One found out later that she had been raped and murdered.

How we reacted to that body, i.e., leaving it in the water and continuing his fun, coming home, sleeping with his wife, and telling her the news, how she reacted very viscerally to that information, how he re-wrote the story and then wrote it back again, because it couldn’t really happen as it did, if the character were to be at all true to herself, how she couldn’t live with that information.

Women in that story simply really could not survive as human beings. And by that point in his life it’s a real issue, it seems to me. Also I think probably the re-writing took place after Tess Gallagher and there was guilt making her simply accept a man who clearly wasn’t going to be there for her.

So, that’s a real interesting story. We’ll talk a little bit about "So Much Water So Close to Home" and we’ll finish, hopefully, throwing in a little bit of "Feathers" because it’s such an interesting story about parenting and how one kind of gets seduced into the role, unwillingly sometimes, by the idea in the air that parenting is a good, wonderful, nurturing thing for everybody and that, if you have children, it will help your life, enhance it in so many different ways. And that doesn’t work in that story.

And we’ll end with two of his very famous stories, "Cathedral" and "A Small Good Thing." One a very clear allegory, perhaps both clearly allegorical about the whole idea of creativity and forgiveness in community. So, that’s kind of the order we’re going to go into. Those are the last of his two old stories, the new stories in "Where I’m Calling From" are the last ones, from "Boxes" to "Errant" which is his Chekhov story, a real interesting story, too, and perhaps we can touch upon them a little bit.

But I think when he put this together, he already knew that he was dying and this is what he wanted saved. If there was only one book, so to speak, that would be able to be in this universe, this is what he wanted to be remembered by. And we’ll be talking about some of his more interesting stories. Edgar?

Edgar Whan - Well, I feel, like, in a different world. A friend of mine was studying German and he was very good at German, but he couldn’t understand jokes in German, and that’s the *** I don’t really understand the jokes in most of these. Well, let me say, I’m pretty hostile to Raymond Carver, I’m sorry to say it, which says more about me than about him.

The style says more about our time and its reaction to traditional fiction stories like Henry James and Joyce. This book is largely a bunch of downers, but so are the stories in Joyce’s "Dubliners." But the "Dubliners," I care about the people and these people don’t even exist to me.

The world he creates is shaped by a voice of a minimalist… flat, monotone voice of a middle-aged male with a tired marriage who’s in his second, no real career drive, no religious, even hedonistic interest, and no real will to choose anything new.

Flat out, "he said she said," the voice in all the stories is the same although it is usually male, "I" or "he," first-person, on occasion, he will have, once has a female narrator and it’s a good story. Give me a minute to example, here’s a story about his rendering of a death of a small child who’s hit by a car. "Without looking the birthday boy stepped off the curb and was immediately knocked down by a car. He fell on his side with his head in the gutter and his legs out in front of the road. His eyes were closed, but his legs moved back and forth, as if he were trying to climb over something." Sounds like a beetle…this child.

There’s almost a nightmare quality to this voice, the feel of an empty building, of a dream. In your dream it has this tremendous logic… It all reminds me of the photography of Diane Arbus who could take a picture and make, of the most common thing, … just call it "The Sacrament of Suicide."

The cultivated absurdity of "Pulp Fiction" or "Raising Arizona," "Slapstick," Zap Comics which I can never, I’m kind of a born-again hippie, I never got over it. I could never get it … Zap comics. It’s just not enough content for me. But, anyway, I think what it is, is the difference between a nude and naked. I think this guy has naked women and the old people had nude women.

One is a nude woman of the goddess of the dawn and the other one is of Diane Foxworthy, put her head on a nude body and she’s naked. Well, how do you like that for a critic?

If you want to have a good parlor game sometime, get a book like this and have everybody stand up taking turns reading the last four lines. And really, you say, how did he ever get there?

When Hollis Summers, of treasured memory to me, and I were doing a textbook and we were picking out stories. We’d find that things would happen at the end (of a story) when at a certain stage it would seem as if the writer got tired. He’d go out, drink a glass of orange juice, sit on the porch and hold a rubber walnut in his hand... We called these "rubber walnut stories" …

It’s kind of also the world of Laurel and Hardy with all these…where chairs collapse and umbrellas break and windows break and everything falls on him and there’s kind of a contest between the physical world, it doesn’t work for him. One of the real characters in this story is alcohol. It’s maybe the most important thing. It’s almost a caricature.

In one story, called "What We Talk about When We Talk about Love" there’s so much gin in it, I couldn’t drive afterwards. A friend wrote me a nice article last week ago how the movie "Casablanca" is really about smoking and if everything was said by a cigarette. And I saw the movie and my eyes smarted.

Once you’re on to that, you say, well here’s where: "gin’s gone, Mil" said Terry, "now what?" "I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making. Not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark." That’s the way the story ends. And in that story, he must have gone through twelve bottles of gin, wouldn’t you say?

Well, William James, whom I love, said that "drunkenness says ‘yes, sobriety says ‘no.’" And when you’re sober you think of what you can’t do when you’re reasonable, but drunkenness gives you that sense you can whip anybody in the bar and it makes you think, "yes." It’s the poor man’s mysticism. It’s a shame ..it tells a measure and I think this is probably what he sees. It tells the measure of where we have come to that we have to make our interests, our community, what he calls "a degrading poison." That’s where I’m coming from.

Daniel Born - But that tradition of alcohol runs so deeply through 20th century American fiction. Faulkner, Hemingway, Cheever, I think the major literary predecessors to Carver make it a central character as well and one of the interesting things about Carver is that he seems to announce to the world that "I’ve beaten it. Unlike my predecessors, I got the best of it" and that becomes the material of several of his stories, the struggle to overcome it and then the actual triumph over it. I think he’s very conscience of this tradition in American literature.

Edgar Whan - Hemingway makes you want to get a drink, this guy doesn’t.

Marilyn Atlas - Right, ultimately, he (Carver) doesn’t idealize it.

Daniel Born - Exactly, and I think that’s one of his strengths as a writer.

Edgar Whan - English professors aren’t noted for their sobriety and, of course, I understand all of this, but, go ahead.

Daniel Born - That’s okay. I want to respond to one of the implications you raise about Carver as a minimalist writer. I think that the tag minimalist has become a kind of curse word for American writers and I believe Carver worked very hard at escaping from that label.

But I want to make a little bit of a case for minimalism here. It goes back to Hemingway and even further back to Kipling, great craftsmen, great writers, who believed to be a minimalist writer is not necessarily to purge a story of its emotion. But it means to understate, rather than to overstate, in a kind of romantic fashion.

And I think that the first story that we want to talk about, "Nobody Said Anything" is a perfect example of a story which is minimalist, but still delivers, I think, a pretty overwhelming emotional impact, at the end of the story where we have a young boy who’s brought back his version of Leviathan. This is a big fish story in the tradition of "Old Man and the Sea" maybe even "Moby Dick."

He brings back this fish he’s caught and wants some validation from his father, and comes in, the fish is grotesque, it’s in a pail and the narrator says,

"I said, ‘But look, Dad, look what it is.’

"He said, ‘I don’t want to look.’

"I said, ‘It’s a gigantic summer steelhead from Birch Creek. Look! Isn’t he something? It’s a monster!

I chased him up and down the creek like a madman!’

"He looked in to the creel and his mouth fell open.

"He screamed, "Take that goddamn thing out of here! What in the hell is the matter with you? Take it the hell out of the kitchen and throw it in the goddamn garbage.’

"I went back outside. I looked into the creel. What was there looked silver under the porch light. What was there filled the creel."

And then the famous three last sentences of this story which are as minimalist as you get in any Carver story,

"I lifted him out. I held him. I held that half of him."

Now, I think it’s fair to call this minimalist, but to say that it denies emotion, or to say that it makes us not care about the characters, I just have to disagree with you, I have to disagree with you about that point.

Edgar Whan - It’s like the ending of "Araby." Joyce’s "Araby."

Marilyn Atlas - Right, I think the best of minimalism tries to give some of the emotions, not by overtly stating them, not by coloring them in, but by looking at the empty spaces, by being very, very conscious of form. And I think this is a wonderful example, too, of a minimalist story filled with emotion and filled with an interesting kind of imagery that leads you in different directions.

There’re two fish that are caught that day, both grotesque. One is a green trout. Not green, i.e. nature, green sick, a sickly green, and this trout is traded for half of the steelhead because this young boy who’s obviously pubescent, doesn’t really know what to do with his life.

He ends up not going to school because his parent’s relationships, they’re fighting, so depresses him. And his brother is not a friend. He goes on his journey, a woman gives him a ride because he’s so safe looking, he’s a kid. And all he thinks about is sexuality, how to be sexual with her. Partially, it’s hormonal, partially, he doesn’t know what to do with his emotions, it seems to me.

He ends up going fishing, trying to get back to nature, to water, to something that’s fluid, that’s functional.

Daniel Born - A little like Nick Adams here.

Marilyn Atlas - Right, it, but it’s extremely sullied water, everything that comes out of that water is very, very sick. And different critics have responded differently to the steelhead that gets cut in half, some see it as a phallic image, some see it as a more maternal, sexual image.

Edgar Whan - Might even be a fish.

Marilyn Atlas - Might even be a fish. Even if you just see it as a fish, even if you just see it as a steelhead, I think the fact that it’s rejected, that’s what he trades for, it’s what he takes home. That he can’t fix his family, that he can’t get his father’s attention, that he can’t make it okay for his mom, and that all he’s got is a half of a fish to hold. I think the ending really shows the depths of his isolation.

Daniel Born - The ending is so terrifying because when he gets home he observes his parents fighting. He’s looking through the window, I believe there’s some cookware that’s being thrown around the kitchen and the question for the boy is "how do I make my entrance?" Perhaps it is "if I distract them with the fish, they’ll be happy with one another again. Maybe I can be the glue."

And the timing is absolutely wrong, it’s absolutely wrong and both of his parents are horrified by this fish and there’s utter rejection at the end. And yet, there’s a sense of the boy blessing himself at the end of this story, which I find remarkable. Now, maybe I’m being hopeful here.

Marilyn Atlas - Boy, are you being hopeful here.

Daniel Born - I mean there’s almost a liturgical sense to this, "I lifted him out. I held him. I held that half of him."

Edgar Whan - Well, we spend all our lives, don’t we, playing show and tell, and nobody cares.

Daniel Born - Right and so we have to figure out how to go on. The boy is trying to figure that out. He’s his only audience.

Edgar Whan - Kids go running to mother, "I got all A’s" and she says "Did you close the door?"

Marilyn Atlas - I think another way you can look at the story is in terms of inside / outside imagery. It’s a very inside story, but what’s happening inside is bad stuff. The pots aren’t being used to cook a nice meal. The sounds are not sounds of communion, of communication, and I think that if we’re left hugging that half fish and if that’s a kind of salvation, God is certainly dead.

I mean if this is salvation, this is not much of a salvation. It’s an ersatz kind of salvation. I don’t see it as a hopeful story, but the idea that the boy, at least for momentarily is comforting himself, is the only good that we’re left with. Otherwise things are pretty sickly.

Daniel Born - that was a story from the early sixties, I believe it was published in 1963.

Marilyn Atlas - I wanted to respond to something that Edgar said, in terms of these stories are downers. I think that Carver and Tess Gallagher when she entered that last stage of his life, went to parties and heard that a lot. "You know, I love your writing, could you, kind of, make it a little bit more uplifting? Lighten up." And I think that he was writing, to a great extent, particularly in those early years, from such a need for some beauty. Separate from the fact that it wasn’t really going to necessarily fix things.

I think he used a phrase in one of his interviews that at least with art there was some kind of glow, some kind of light, somewhere, even if it weren’t the light of salvation. And again you were talking about his early religious sense. It was hard for him to come by that. His early life was not what he wanted at all.

Edgar Whan - You seem to be so academic and all this is, I’m not for Pollyanna, but in "Dubliners" everybody is trapped in it. That’s how I feel for it. I understand he saying, "we’ve got to get over this old kind of stuff." I understand that.

Marilyn Atlas - I think for him this was realism. This was his existential realism. He was kind of working through certain issues.

Edgar Whan - …that’s what makes the world go and I think that’s fine, but I think somehow he wrote this at a writers’ workshop and I can see him planning the images… There are stories in there that are very good. I’m not saying they’re not… in the later ones.

Sometimes when you go to a movie you can see the director shouting "move over here, do that" I can see the wires on these puppets. I don’t think this one about the kid is a downer. Everybody’s child has had somebody say, "get out of here with that thing." That’s part of growing up because it prepares you for life.

Daniel Born - … I’m intrigued that you think he writes downers. It seems to me what 20th century writing is about. Show me a writer that gives us a happy tale. I think it’s tough to find. I think he’s up a piece with his time, with his century.

Edgar Whan - I didn’t say living wasn’t a downer. That’s another story. I’m not Robin Hood.

Daniel Born - Right.

Marilyn Atlas - And his stories do tend to change. I don’t think there’s a consistent piece in all of them.

Edgar Whan - I guess I’m saying that habit of coming in and snapping and digging out the rubber walnut and then moving on. Everybody’s afraid…

Marilyn Atlas - It’s interesting that you saw ambivalence in the ending. Because I did see this more negative than you do.

Daniel Born - I see it as very negative. There’s not much hope, but there’s a little fragment. The thing about this story, "They’re Not Your Husband.," maybe my response is different from yours, in spite of its subject matter which is extremely, at one level degrading, it’s about degradation, it’s about the degradation of the marketplace, about body images. I found myself laughing throughout this story, at some points laughing with a guilty conscience.

Edgar Whan - I hope so.

Daniel Born - But we have, I think, one of the greatest losers in the Carver canon. He writes very well about losers and I think Earl Ober is a loser. Earl Ober calls himself a closer which is a salesman’s…

Edgar Whan - Tell our people out there in radio land what happens in the story.

Daniel Born - Let’s listen to the beginning of the story.

"Earl Ober was between jobs as a salesman. But Doreen, his wife, had gone to work nights at a 24-hour coffee shop at the edge of town. One night when he was drinking. Earl decided to stop by the coffee shop and have something to eat. He wanted to see where Doreen worked and he wanted to see if he could order something on the house.

"He sat at the counter and studied the menu.

" ‘What are you doing here?’ Doreen said when she saw him sitting there. She handed over an order to the cook. ‘What are you going to order, Earl?’ she said. ‘The kids okay?’

" ‘They’re fine,’ Earl said, ‘I’ll have coffee and one of those Number Two sandwiches.’ Doreen wrote it down.

" ‘Any chance of, you know?’ he said to her and winked.

" ‘No,’ she said, ‘Don’t talk to me now, I’m busy.’

What transpires shortly thereafter is two men in business suits sit down at the counter and begin to look at Doreen and begin to comment on her physiognomy. Earl Ober overhears this and subsequently becomes upset with her weight and puts her on a diet at home, so that she’ll lose some pounds and the rest of the story discusses this diet plan, essentially, it’s very morbid

Edgar Whan - It’s like Hawthorn, Hester has the birthmark and he has to change somebody.

Daniel Born - He has to alter her because the public opinion of her has shaped his value of her.

Marilyn Atlas - It’s easier for him, it seems, to alter her because she’s so compliant. At least, on the surface level, she agrees she needs to lose weight, she agrees that if she doesn’t lose weight, it is because she has no self control and no pride and no sense of self and, indeed, she has a very bad sense of self, but as not as bad as he thinks he is, to control her.

And the ending is not really surprising, but one breathes a sigh of relief. It seems she’s lost her twenty pounds and when he totally deals with her as an object. Actually, the early stories are very circular and he ends up going to the same place, sits down again and tries to elicit a conversation again about his woman’s posterior.

But this time he’s got a different audience. He’s eliciting the conversation, but the audience isn’t particularly interested in this waitress’s rear end and he really becomes the "fat ass" so to speak.

Let me read you the ending of the story since we’re reading. Let’s see if I can get to the place where he refers to his wife not even as a human being, but kind of… here it is:

" ‘What do you think of that?’ Earl said to the man, nodding at Doreen as she moved down the counter.

‘Don’t you think that’s something special?’

Marilyn Atlas - not even "she’s something special…"

"The man looked up, he looked at Doreen and then at Earl, and then went back to his newspaper."

"Well, what do you think?" Earl said. "I’m asking. Does it look good or not? Tell me."

"The man rattled the newspaper.

"When Doreen started down the counter again Earl nudged the man’s shoulder and said, ‘I’m telling you something. Listen. Look at the ass on her. Now you watch this now. Could I have a chocolate sundae?" Earl called to Doreen."

Marilyn Atlas - He absolutely does not see himself, but the waitresses see him and the man with the newspaper sees him. And this is the very small paragraph of the story:

"But the other waitress just studied him, and Doreen began to shake her head slowly. The man had put some change beside his cup and stood up, but he too waited to hear the answer. They all stared at Earl."

Marilyn Atlas - The question was "Who is this joker, anyway?"

" ‘He’s a salesman. He’s my husband,’ " Doreen said at last, shrugging. Then she put the unfinished chocolate sundae in front of him and went to total up his check."

Marilyn Atlas - And one gets the sense that she is going to total up his check. She’s just finally seen her husband and herself vis-à-vis his observations, seen that particular male gaze and she doesn’t have to deal with that and it seems she won’t. And that starts us moving toward a woman who’s abused who won’t necessarily, simply accept it. And one kind of sighs with relief that (Carver’s) choosing, if he’s going to create this scenario, he’s not going to make it okay for a man.

Daniel Born - You’re talking about Claire in "So Much Water So Close to Home?"

Marilyn Atlas - Right, absolutely. That women do walk out. If men are abusive and they’re only working out their own sense of angst, that does not make for a good relationship, and women will, ultimately, in (Carver) stop it.

Daniel Born - Why does Doreen say, "He’s a salesman. He’s my husband?" It’s interesting, the emphasis on being "He’s a salesman." Is it a sense in the story that the marketplace rules? The last transaction between them is at the cash register and the whole story is about Earl appraising the value of his wife’s body. Based on popular opinion, it’s like the stock market. These two guys in business suits make the initial assessment and he goes along with it. There’s really no room for human relations, whatsoever, in the story. And she’s being put on the scales each morning. Those are the words of the story, to check her weight. And she goes passively.

Marilyn Atlas - But ultimately she’s not the bovine sacrifice.

Edgar Whan - There’s no character there, it’s simply moving, shadows. It’s action, there’s no character. I don’t know either one of them. I met them on the street.

Daniel Born - Right, I think that’s why the comparison to Hopper is so apt. Hopper’s portraits of people immobile, sitting in hotel rooms, you know. There’s not a sense of movement and I think that’s true for many of these minimalist stories as well…paralysis.

Edgar Whan - There’s "Mother" the same thing you know. Nobody’s moving much in a painting.

Daniel Born - Right.

Marilyn Atlas - If there’s a marketplace and I think there absolutely is in this story, she is no longer for sale. And that’s kind of where you feel good. Should we move on, since we’re going to run out of time, I think…

Daniel Born - We’re covering these bleak stories, I think it’s only fair to show the brighter side of Raymond, so we don’t leave the wrong impression.

Edgar Whan - We’d better move ahead.

Marilyn Atlas - Absolutely, shall we do "So Much Water So Close to Home?" It’s an absolutely wonderful story.

Daniel Born - Do you see that as a bright story? I see that as the biggest gothic horror piece in his…

Edgar Whan - It is except it has a wonderful male/female analysis.

Daniel Born - Absolutely.

Marilyn Atlas - I see it as a bright story within his re-writing it, in the sense that this woman’s having a breakdown. In women’s literature, having a breakdown is one of the steps toward healing. She see her husband as someone who doesn’t care. She has to make some choices, in terms of if,… she identifies with this victim who’s been raped and murdered, she can handle being in this totally troublesome relationship and she chooses "no." She says "she was only a girl." She feels pity for the victim. And that, I think, makes her feel pity for herself. In that way it’s a bright story. It’s not a good story in terms of the family; it’s a good story in terms of herself.

Daniel Born - Let’s back up a little bit. Claire’s husband Stuart goes on a weekend camping trip. It reminds me a little bit of "Deliverance," the James Dickey story. Goes on a camping trip with his buddies and as Claire puts it, these are all good family men. Hard-working family men that go on a trip, a fishing trip, and while fishing they discover a body floating in the water, in the river, of a young woman.

And rather than interrupt their weekend reviles, they tie the body to a tree in the river, keep fishing, and then report the body later. And they come under question.

Edgar Whan - They eat dinner, talk, smoke.

Daniel Born - Eat their dinner, keep drinking, there are 26 references to drinking in this. It’s unbelievable.

Edgar Whan - Who could take that straight?

Daniel Born - And of course the question for Claire is, "How could you do this? How could you be fishing and talking and drinking with the body in the river?" And then the more obvious question, "Did you do it?"

Edgar Whan - Could you do it? It’s a five-mile walk.

Daniel Born - I think if a group of guys is drunk enough, I think they can do virtually anything.

Edgar Whan - But they weren’t drunk when it started.

Daniel Born - That’s hard to tell.

Edgar Whan - It’s kind of a head trip, you know.

Marilyn Atlas - I agree, these are numb men and these are men who are not in touch couldn’t do it. They couldn’t simply accept death, look it in the face and go have a party. One does that after the Holocaust when there is no hope. And I think when he goes home, the fact that he sleeps with his wife, shows that sexuality means nothing to him, that other people mean nothing. There’s no relationship in this story.

And what she’s doing, that she’s fighting through, too, is that will she live with that fact and go on or will she, too, if not in the form of alcohol, in some other way, hide from the reality of this rape and this death and she doesn’t. She say "she was only a girl."

Daniel Born - She increasingly identifies with the victim of this story, to the point of driving to the funeral.

Edgar Whan - She sees herself.

Daniel Born - Yes, I think that’s a very powerful part of the story. And in the end makes a clear statement to Stuart. "How could you do it?" And we’re not sure what "it" means. It ‘s that Hemingway it. Does it refer to doing the crime or does it refer to being so insensitive. So inhumane.

Edgar Whan - He provoked her when he wouldn’t talk to her.

Daniel Born - Or any number of things and she doesn’t get the last word.

Edgar Whan - He was so insistent, trying to get back with her, obviously guilty.

Daniel Born - He’s a real troglodyte. I mean, as so many of these men are in Carver’s stories, pernicious.

Marilyn Atlas - And I think it almost doesn’t matter whether he did it. I think it’s the whole idea of there’s complicity in silence, there’s complicity in going on, there’s complicity in inattention. And I think this is a real turning point. Carver tried to write this story in many different ways, trying to save the family, but I think he came to the conclusion that all families are not to be saved. It’s not always good to save that union that is not a union. I think it’s a very powerful story.

Daniel Born - There’s also an interesting commentary in this story, if we’re on the topic of community, certainly these men, on their weekend getaway, they’re not pounding drums in the forest or anything, but they’re certainly a commentary on pathological forms of community. Community is not a panacea and there are forms of community that should be avoided at all costs. And we have an example of that in this story.

Edgar Whan - How different would the story have been a boy they had found in the water? How important is it? Do you think the sex part is very important?

Daniel Born - I think it’s essential that Claire identify with another woman and of course Claire’s own history includes some mental illness. There are interesting echoes of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s story, "The Yellow Wallpaper" in this story. Where you don’t know, Claire with this history, what is she accurately telling in this story? But she is the truth-teller in the story because she’s been harmed so much.

Edgar Whan - Or the false story.

Marilyn Atlas - I think for me if you’re going to look at turn of the century American modernism, it’s perhaps in some ways closer to "The Awakening." That we have a woman who’s on the brink of a nervous breakdown, but hasn’t crossed over, isn’t crawling around, isn’t ripping paper off the wall, and isn’t even necessarily finding, but maybe she is, finding a community with the dead girl. She’s simply does not want to be living with a man who can be who it is whom she’s obviously married to.

Edgar Whan - I think the grossest thing is when he says, "I know what’s wrong with you. All you need is a good roll on the hay." That is almost so bad you almost think he tacked it in.

Marilyn Atlas - I think he wants you to, with many of the men characters, if these stories are autobiographical, and I think that at 37% they probably are. I think he’s creating a male character he wants to be rejected. There are no redeeming features of this man. The way he’s having relationships, are not relationships.

Edgar Whan - He’s trying to touch her in the way he’s been taught to do. He says, "Can I help you with this?" He doesn’t beat her or anything. That makes the story more poignant because he is bad, but he does all these right things. He helps around the house, he sends flowers.

Daniel Born - And of course, his assertion is that if you love me, you’ll trust my word. It’s about trust, but ultimately that means obedience for Stuart. She can no longer give that kind of obedience which is a step forward.

Edgar Whan - All of a sudden she saw something that was already there, that just made her see it. If we knew them would we know this?

Marilyn Atlas - He’s totally a control freak. What he wants is what he’s planned for good or evil.

Daniel Born - As much as Earl Ober wanting to control the wife’s…

Edgar Whan - Do you know anybody who isn’t?

Marilyn Atlas - Yes.

Daniel Born - Well, do you want us get confessional here?

Marilyn Atlas - I think as we move to "Cathedral" we have someone who changes, who is a control freak and who decides "maybe I can learn, even from a blind man, by having my hand on top of his, and letting him, even with his lack of sight, lead the way so I can create the cathedral. So I can go back to it in a Henry Adams sort of way.

Daniel Born - How do you explain this story’s popularity? "Cathedral," of all of the stories we’ve talked about, this has become the Raymond Carver story. It’s anthologized in dozens, if not hundreds of anthologies. Why is that? Why this story?

Edgar Whan - It’s kind of simplistic, that’s what I think.

Daniel Born - It fascinates me. Is it because it’s a conversion story that the American audience loves it? I have some real problems with this story. One of them goes back to a comment you just made, Marilyn, about a control freak who learns to let go, but it seems to me that this blind man, Robert, is the true control freak.

I think there’s a very dark side to Robert that many readers want to overlook and want to think "here’s a blind man who teaches us how to see." I mean it’s that cliché, it’s that simplistic truth. Many of my students think they’ve grasped the essence of this story when they give me that one-liner: "here’s a blind man that teaches the narrator how to see."

Marilyn Atlas - I think it’s a romantic story. I think the way you’re looking at it is a wonderful way to look at it and I think it adds a depth that I’m not sure, at this point of his life, that Raymond Carver wrote the story. I think that in all its positive aspects, we’ve got a blind man who teaches a seeing man to see and he’s not looking at it from the point of view of "By the way, this is a blind man."

I think he’s looking at it as a man who’s doesn’t have all his senses, but some of them are, because of that, made so powerful and so wonderful that he becomes someone who can share a different angle toward wisdom, a different entrance toward knowledge. I think your point is excellent and it certainly changes the story.

Daniel Born - Of course, the blind man, Robert, has known the wife longer than the narrator, too. Has shared emotional intimacies with her that the narrator never has. She writes poems for Robert. She doesn’t write poems for her husband. All he can say is, " I must admit, poetry is not the kind of thing I’d pick up when I want to read something," which is a form of sour grapes because I think he’d love it if his wife could…

Edgar Whan - Certainly not the mark of a sensitive character.

Daniel Born - Right, the turning point of the story to me happens at the table. We’ve talked a lot about Carver and drinking. Eating becomes important in the later stories and we have this wonderful description of these three people sitting down to eat.

Edgar Whan - They’re all sweating after it.

Daniel Born - Yes, it’s a very funny scene:

"When we sat down at the table for dinner, we had another drink. . My wife heaped Robert’s plate with cube steak, scalloped potatoes, green beans, I buttered him up two slices of bread. I said, "Here’s bread and butter for you." I swallowed some of my drink. "Now let us pray," I said, and the blind man lowered his head. My wife looked at me, her mouth agape. "Pray the phone won’t ring and the food doesn’t get cold," I said.

"We dug in. We ate everything there was to eat on the table. We ate like there was not tomorrow. We didn’t talk. We ate. We scarfed. We grazed that table. We were into serious eating. "

Daniel Born - And at the end of that description we have these lines:

"We finished everything, including half a strawberry pie. For a few moments, we sat as if stunned. Sweat beaded on our faces. Finally, we got up from the table and left the dirty plates. We didn’t look back."

Daniel Born - Seems to me a very funny passage.

Edgar Whan - In "A Small Good Thing" there’s the same thing, breaking bread with compañeros.

Marilyn Atlas - This is another story about a woman serving. Beulah is more my wife than Beulah. And Beulah is simply not a central character. It’s how the men change each other. She goes to bed. It’s how they interact. It’s what they learn. Beulah is the prize. As you said, she had a very long relationship with Robert, she’s with this other man, now. It’s a competition over the woman. She is not central to the story, at all. And I think that if Carver has a lacking for me, it’s that so often the women characters are created in this light. They’re just not central.

Daniel Born - This is another male bonding story. And I think that the shadow of Hemingway falls very heavily on…

Marilyn Atlas - The worst of Hemingway.

Daniel Born - Perhaps, I kind of love that story.

Edgar Whan - This (next) story is the only story where the woman is the narrator, isn’t that true?

Daniel Born - You’re talking about "So Much Water So Close to Home." The only woman narrator, I believe you’re right. It’s an anomaly.

Marilyn Atlas - Well, are we ready to leave "Cathedral?"

Edgar Whan - It’s not a deep story, I don’t think.

Daniel Born - I’m just fascinated that it’s become so popular.

Edgar Whan - It’s a teaching story.

Daniel Born - The image at the end of two men drawing a cathedral on a paper bag becomes some kind of spiritual, some kind of epiphany, some kind of religious experience and I think American readers crave that. It may appeal to the worst in us right now. What with Bill Bennett’s book, "The Book of Virtues" where we want to teach value, we want to teach virtue by means of fiction. I think if Carver were alive today, he would be horrified. But it’s ironic that "Cathedral" gets the spotlight.

Edgar Whan - We’re the ones that made Mickey Spillane readers into Hemingway readers…

Marilyn Atlas - Edgar, which story were you talking about in terms of first person?

Edgar Whan - I think so many of them are, that’s my impression.

Marilyn Atlas - I mean in terms of a woman being first person? "A Small Good Thing?"

Edgar Whan - Yes.

Daniel Born - "A Small Good Thing" is omniscient.

Marilyn Atlas - It’s a little more her story, but she’s not central to that story either. The baker is central to "A Small Good Thing." He’s the one who is kind of a trickster. He does wrong. He saves the couple at the end after the loss of their son which isn’t simply a Christ figure because he’s more malevolent than that. He’s a very selfish little boy. He doesn’t deserve to die obviously, but Carver could make him a lot more appealing a little boy than someone who’s just interested in opening his presents. I think it’s a pretty powerful story, probably very symbolic for Carver.

Daniel Born - The little boy, Scotty, who’s hit by the car, goes into the coma. How important is he? Once again, does Carver write about children at all? Or does he use them as occasions for something else? And I think he does the latter.

Marilyn Atlas - I agree.

Daniel Born - But the whole business of the timing in the story, I think is so wonderful in such a perverse way. Going to pick up the birthday cake for Scotty’s birthday, he’s hit by a car. The parents forget about the cake and then they start getting these calls from the baker.

"Did you forget about Scotty" He’s talking about the cake. They’ve forgotten in their shock.

Edgar Whan - He (the baker) didn’t even know about it.

Daniel Born - Right, he doesn’t know about the accident. They’ve forgotten altogether about the cake and these calls come from a very irate retailer who has a cake sitting on the shelf waiting to be picked up. And it’s this perverse kind of miscommunication which is the best of the minimalist Carver right there. The lack of human communication.

Marilyn Atlas - All of those symbolic of the importance of the birthday, as well. If they have been parents who haven’t paid enough of the right kind of attention, it’s interesting that it’s on the birthday that he also dies. And again that’s Carver’s circle.

The only difference here is the baker enters the mix and if the child is the sacrifice then we do have the parents and the baker, the grownups who are able to go on and re-plan. So the birthday becomes a birthday for something else. It’s no longer the birthday for the now dead child, but the birthday of a kind of feeling that if you do wrong and you don’t have information, you can gather that information, you can heal. You can somehow suffer what’s to be suffered and be good again. The baker’s the who changes the most.

And of course the mother and father take some kind of control, if they can’t keep their child alive, certainly, and the mother’s the instigator of this, they can go to the baker and say, "Wait a minute, you’re not being human around this very important situation that you’re not privy to, but that somehow doesn’t excuse you. Even lack of information becomes culpable.

Daniel Born - But the revision of this story which we’re talking about is so much different than the original called "The Bath" in which we never find out what happens to Scotty. We never get an encounter between Ann and Howard Weiss and the baker. In the revision, Scotty dies and we get an encounter between the parents and the baker and there’s a reconciliation scene.

Edgar Whan - These are all in the movie, too, "Short Cuts."

Daniel Born - The Robert Altman film. Yes, Lyle Lovett did a great job playing the baker.

Edgar Whan - I couldn’t watch the second reel again.

Marilyn Atlas - Thank you very much. It was fun talking to you about this very interesting and wonderful book, Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver.

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