Friday, March 19

Considering Raymond Carver's “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love”

“That morning she pours Teacher's over my belly and licks it off. That afternoon she tries to jump out the window.”

“I'll tell you what did my father in. The third thing was Dummy, that Dummy died. The first thing was Pearl Harbor. And the second thing was moving to my grandfather's farm near Wenatchee. That's where my father finished out his days, except that they were probably finished before that.”

“My friend Mel McGinnis was talking. Mel McGinnis is a cardiologist, and sometimes that gives him the right.”

I only wish that I could write opening lines like these. They're unique. They're striking. They have more voice and character in these sentences than bottles in Happy Harry's. I wish this talent even more so since I have received to date, not including the first book of the ill-considered Rocko and Rockie trilogy during the elementary years, six rejection letters, set to become eight by the end of the month, for my short stories. It's all the crueler when “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” the title story, is everything that my “The Third Place” wants to be done better.


These opening lines are fairly good representations of the Raymond Carver's language as a whole. His sentences are simple and direct: subject, verb, object and an absolute minimum of adjectives, adverbs, clauses and metaphors to get in the way.

It's appropriate. His themes are similarly direct and brutal. Make no mistake. It may say “love” on the cover, but these stories are not romances. Demetra's mom made that mistake. I had my books delivered to her house, so Demetra could bring them back with her, and her mother may have waggled her eyebrows while handing this one over.

More often than not, Carver's stories are about the ends of relationships. Sometimes it's death, mostly it's infidelity. The men don't understand why they do it. They still care for their wives and girlfriends. They don't want them to get hurt. Like the father says in “Sacks,” “A man can go along obeying all the rules and then it don't matter a damn anymore. His luck just goes, you know?” Carver's characters are caught in situations beyond their control, subjects fully to their impulses and obsessions.

And everyone gets wasted in the meantime. Whiskey, gin, vodka, beer, they drink it all. Of the seventeen stories in this volume, only four make no mention whatsoever of getting blasted or starting on the way. One of those is about a man having a picture taken of his house. The next is about a retired couple at bingo night. Another is about a family friend raising trout in his ponds. The fourth is about a couple fighting over who gets the baby.

Carver's genius, I believe, lies in that despite how miserable the vast majority of his characters are, how big of jerks they are, he is still able to inspire more than a fleeting moment of pity for his characters. Sympathy might be a better word to describe it. It has a connotation of understanding, rather than simply feeling sad for them. They are remembering, they are living some of the oddest and the worst times in their life. The bleakness make not make sense, and it still may not all the years later, but there is a certain dignity in trying to understand it, to make sense of it and make it matter, even if they get smashed along the way and make things worse for it.

Take “Why Don't You Dance?” one of my favorites. A man, widowed, is selling his furniture. It's all crummy, and the only ones to stop for the whole day are a young couple. He shares his beer and whiskey with them and lets them take the bed and TV and everything else for whatever price they offer without a fight. The boy passes out on the bed in the yard, and the man and girl dance to an old record he lays down. The days and weeks after “She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.”

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