Danny Rhodes writes fiction for children and adults and is an English teacher. He has published short stories in various magazines, and his debut novel Asboville was a Waterstone's 'Paperback of the Year' and one of Scott Pack's top ten novels for 2006. Below Danny discusses Raymond Carver's stories in Where I'm Calling From.
Danny Rhodes on Where I'm Calling From by Raymond Carver
I can still remember the night as a 15-year-old that I first listened to Bruce Springsteen. I took an old tape player to bed with me, pressed play in the dark of my room and found myself transported to the streets and shoreline of New Jersey. I've never looked back. Springsteen and his music remain my inspiration and motivation to this day. It was because of Springsteen's music that I selected 'The American Short Story' as a module for my degree at the University of Kent some 10 years later and it was there that I discovered some of the writers that have shaped the very essence of my writing: Hemingway, Steinbeck and a whole host of others, some criminally undervalued in the UK like William Maxwell, Richard Bausch and Rick Bass. I might have been writing about Maxwell's Time Will Darken It here if it wasn't for Adèle Geras beating me to it, but in all honesty I didn't come to Maxwell until later. At university (my wife's father calls it 'unreversity') the writer that stood out amongst all of them was Raymond Carver.
I was short of money as a student and usually tried to get hold of reading books for courses by any means other than actually paying for them. But it only took one brief glance at Carver's collection in the university bookshop to convince me that it was special. I read one story in the shop before paying for it and then another two or three that same evening. Here was a writer that did it simply, who could say things in one careful sentence where others required a paragraph. I liked most of the writers on the 'American Short Story' course for that very reason - so many other (mainly British) writers I'd come across seemed to be far too present in their writing. I stand by that to this day. I like the author to have a voice but I hate to hear it. Carver tells his stories so that you feel you are sitting in the same room as his characters, or even in the same lives. In short, there is hardly a trace of the writer there at all. That was his gift.
This selection (composed of works taken from other collections with some original stories included) demonstrates the full expanse of Carver's short story 'career', from the early stories taken from Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? (1976) to Elephant (1988).
Carver's work is much like Springsteen's. They both focus on small things that touch small lives or large things that touch small lives, sometimes with minor consequences, other times at a much greater cost. It is these 'small things' that cause a reader to finish a story and then, as Carver wished, 'sit for a minute, quietly' pondering what they have experienced.
What we experience are snippets of existences that we recognize, dilemmas, situations, tensions that we've experienced for ourselves, or feel we've experienced. In the story 'So Much Water So Close To Home' a wife tries to make sense of her husband's decision to continue a fishing trip rather than cut it short to report the discovery of a dead teenage girl. I may have never reached that level of selfish insensitivity but some would argue I've come close over the years! In 'A Small Good Thing' a couple trying to come to terms with their son's death are harassed by the baker who is waiting for them to collect their son's birthday cake. In 'Neighbours' a couple look after their neighbours' apartment and gradually begin to live their neighbours' lives.
Carver, like Springsteen, seems to understand what Henry David Thoreau meant when he said, 'The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation'. It's evident in many of the songs on Springsteen's Tunnel Of Love album, 'Brilliant Disguise' and 'Cautious Man' being just two examples, and it's evident in many of Carver's stories in this collection, especially in 'Menudo', where the principal character, unable to sleep and on the verge perhaps of some major relapse, ruminates about his affairs and relationships, only too aware of his own failings but too weak and perhaps too selfish to change.
I feel wild from lack of sleep. I'd give anything, just about, to be able to go to sleep, and sleep the sleep of an honest man.Another memorable story is 'Feathers', in which a couple are so hypnotized by their experience of another family during a dinner date they wind up making commitments on that very evening that they later regret. So their marriage moves rapidly from...
That evening at Bud and Olla's was special. I knew it was special. That evening I felt good about almost everything in my life......to...
Fran doesn't work at the creamery anymore, and she cut her hair a long time ago. She's gotten fat on me too. We don't talk about it. What's to say?Carver was a blue-collar worker who took his time when it came to writing, largely because life got in the way. It wasn't until the mid-1980s that he was able to dedicate the sort of time to his writing his craft truly deserved. He described himself as a poet first and foremost. His collection All Of Us is equally rewarding. A recovering alcoholic and a prolific smoker, he died of lung cancer in 1988 at just 50 years old.
I'll leave Raymond to have the last word on it all:
I was trying to learn my craft as a writer, how to be as subtle as a river current when very little else in my life was subtle.Ditto.