Book: Where I'm Calling From

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Book:

Where I'm Calling From: Selected Stories

Author: Raymond Carver
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Publisher: Vintage

The last story collection published during Carver’s life (he died in 1988) contains most of his greatest hits from his earlier books, as well as seven stories that hadn’t been collected up to that point. The breadth of the collection makes these 37 stories an extremely complete map of Carver territory, of a particular area of America and of the specific texture of the people Carver writes about—their difficult attempts at survival in a world where happiness does not arrive wrapped up in neat packages but comes in far more peculiar parcels, if it comes at all.

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The last story collection published during Carver’s life (he died in 1988) contains most of his greatest hits from his earlier books, as well as seven stories that hadn’t been collected up to that point. The breadth of the collection makes these 37 stories an extremely complete map of Carver territory, of a particular area of America and of the specific texture of the people Carver writes about—their difficult attempts at survival in a world where happiness does not arrive wrapped up in neat packages but comes in far more peculiar parcels, if it comes at all.

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A writer was coming to campus. He was supposedly an important writer, but he was nobody I knew. None of his books had become movies. He was a professor at another university, and I figured he was just a friend of my professor. This was when I was a junior in college, taking my first fiction workshop. This writer was giving a reading, and our professor canceled class that week and required us to go to the reading instead. I’d been to readings. They were painless. No one sipped tea with their pinkies up. No one chanted or sang, like at coffeehouse open-mike nights. Root canal, coffeehouse open-mike night. Root canal, open-mike night. You can go back and forth on that one for a long time, but I say they’re about tied.

Our professor had also set up an invitation-only, two-day workshop with the writer. Everyone in our class was invited, but it was optional. The writer’s newest book was on our syllabus, but I hadn’t read it yet. I was not being tested on it. I was supposed to write about it in a journal, but I had until the end of the semester for that.

And so I did what was required. The minimum. I went to the reading. It was at night in a lecture hall. I came there straight from a happy-hour situation. The writer turned out to be a really good reader, I knew that much. He was a big, bearish, clean-shaven man, with an oddly gentle-sounding voice. He looked like a regular guy, which made me think that he could not be much of a writer, seeing as how he did not have a beard and was not properly dead. But that was crazy. I wanted to be a great writer, too. If I ever did it, I would have to write all my books while still living. How else?

The story the writer read was about some men who went fishing and saw a naked dead girl in the river. They didn’t want to hike back out of the woods and report it, so they kept fishing for a few days and then reported it upon their return. All this had already happened when the story starts. When the story starts, the incident is in all the newspapers. The story is told from the perspective of the wife of one of the men. She can’t believe what happened. She can’t believe what her husband was capable of. Really, it’s just unbelievable.

It was an awfully good story, I thought, as things like that go. But I was kind of out of it. Afterward, I did not get my copy of the writer’s book signed. Afterward, there was a party at my professor’s house, which I caught wind of and could have gone to. But I didn’t.

The writer was Raymond Carver.

This all happened right after I thought I’d become serious about being a writer, but it just goes to show you how serious I wasn’t.

Later in the semester, during finals week, I read Carver’s book What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I read that story he had read, “So Much Water So Close to Home,” and I was so stunned sweat popped out on my temples. The whole book! Great.

Stories about the sort of well-meaning blue-collar people I had come from, who hunt and fish and drink too much and can get into bad marriages and also into money problems. I didn’t really know you could write stories like this. Also there was this language of Carver’s. One of my professors had told us that there was nothing so complicated as Hemingway’s simple sentences. I didn’t understand that. Now, reading Carver, I did. He could make a character say a thing at the end of a story like, “It’s really something,” and you just want to die, it’s so beautiful. You can’t say why these people who can’t find the words for what they want to say end up saying so much.

No book came along during those years when I was struggling to grow up and become a writer that helped me do more of both—to grow up and to become a writer. Like Holden Caulfield, I got done with that book and I wished that the author who wrote it was a terrific friend of mine and I could call him up on the phone whenever I felt like it. Only I had already had the chance, kind of, to talk to Raymond Carver and even to get him to read one of my clumsy, well-meaning attempts to be a writer. There was no getting around it. I blew it. I blew it royally.

I look back on this and I want to knock myself cold. What could I have been thinking?

A few years after that came another great book of stories, Cathedral, my favorite of all Carver’s collections.

By that time I was in graduate school, and I was teaching Raymond Carver. No writer I’d read had ever taught me more. I did not write like him. It scared me. (It scares me now too. There are few good American writers under the age of 40 who do not owe a lot to Raymond Carver. But it turns out that like Hemingway, it looks like he would be easy to imitate, but he’s not. So okay. I’m trying, is all. This essay is just me trying.)

I tried not to think about how I could have met him and didn’t. My writing professors told me that writing is a small world and that eventually if you keep writing you will meet everyone else who is writing. Mostly this is true.

And so: Seven years after I could have but did not meet Raymond Carver, through some twisted miracle I wrote a book and it got accepted for publication. Which was the best part, but only barely, because it also turned out that my new editor was also the editor for Where I’m Calling From: New and Selected Stories by none other than Raymond Carver. I had the same editor as Raymond Carver!

Before I could work up the nerve to ask if my editor would somehow introduce us, Carver died.

Lung cancer. Age 50. When he died people knew he was great, but as with Flannery O’Connor, he died young and so it took a little while for people to realize how great. Other writers knew it. I knew it. But too late. It’s hard for me not to hate the kid I was.

The last thing his wife, the poet Tess Gallagher, said to Raymond Carver was this: “You’re out there now, Ray,” she said. “In literature.” —Mark Winegardner

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