I am not a huge fan of short stories – not that I have read a lot of them, to be honest. There is Edgar Allen Poe, whom I fervently detested. There is Chekhov, whom I as fervently loved (but that is only because I love almost any Russian literature there is out there). And there is Alexander Shpatov, from whom I have read only one collection, and yet I fervently defend him as if I have read his entire works. This marks the end of my experience with short stories, excluding the occasional ones I read but I have forgotten. As I am writing this, I realize I must like short stories, because I liked two out of the three collections I read. According to the law of statistics, I must love them. And yet when I picked up Raymond Carver’s last collection of short stories Where I’m Calling From I was sure I would not enjoy it. I even looked forward to finishing it before I even began, just to have the pleasure of reading something else.
I must admit I am a late adopter. Before actually seeing Where I’m Calling From I had never heard of Raymond Carver. I decided to leave it that way – usually I dig out a lot of information before welcoming yet another author in my already crowded list of favorites – but this time I decided to leave myself in the dark. Just enjoy the short stories, I said.
And Gosh, I did! I must admit, the first couple of them seemed suspiciously similar. Raymond describes the working class – regular, average people with their regular, average problems. His language is simple – short sentences, familiar words, everyday settings. He is an easy author to read – you feel as if in the company of a friend or relative of yours, telling you about his daily struggles. Raymond Carver’s characters are not happy, but they are not sad either. Most of them are just disillusioned, disappointed with life and bored with the routine. One can feel the frustration they feel, a frustration nearly all of them kill with alcohol. It is quite noticeable that almost every other story features a recovering alcoholic, a not-so-recovering one, or simply someone affected by alcoholism in one way or another. And they smoke, oh boy, do they smoke a lot!
Carver’s characters seem to long always for something else – whether this is that other couple’s house, their ex-wife, a better job, different relatives, or a different life. And yet routine somehow overwhelms them – they remain in the same place, wishing, longing, dreaming. The short stories give a sense of melancholy – I wouldn’t call it sadness, but rather acceptance that after all, life is just like that. Simple, slow, unfulfilling.
Rarely does a character have a happy marriage. There is always the ex-wife or the ex-husband with the kids. Love in Carver’s world seems fleeting – it doesn’t last no matter how hard we try to preserve it. And yet there is always hope. Love is not a one-off event that passes irrevocably. No, it’s a repetitive process and the next time it might be better or worse, but it is never ever the same.
There are a total of 30 stories plus 7 additional ones, published after the author’s death, but in my mind exactly four stand out. Cathedral is a story about a skeptical superficial man, who doesn’t see the world and a blind man, who teaches him to see it…by drawing a cathedral. There is something so touching and simple about the story – the protagonist’s wife brings home an old friend of hers, a blind man. The protagonist is resentful and suspicious – he doesn’t like or welcome the intruder. And yet the two of them form a bond while building a cathedral right in the middle of the living room.
A Small Good Thing is a family tragedy – a man and a wife lose their son on his birthday. However, someone keeps calling them, reminding them of their son. When the parents seek out the source of their torture, they find compassion and understanding in the most unexpected place – in a man who had never felt the joy of being a father.
Where I’m Calling From, the story that gives the collection its name, is about battle with alcoholism. By exploring the life of several men, trying to stay sober, Carver portrays the devastating effects of alcohol – on marriage, on relationships and on life. He draws a distinct contrast – life before, during and after the addiction. And yet the author doesn’t judge – every battle with addiction is harder than it looks to the outside world and every day is yet another victory.
Feathers is probably the most disturbing short story of all. Jack and Fran are a happily married couple that doesn’t want to have kids. Yet, when they visit a colleague of Jack’s, who has it all – a wife, a (very ugly) child, and even a peacock, their perceptions seem to change. Now they want a proper family, they want a child, and they make one. And yet for Jack and Fran the happy ending seems vague and unattainable.
Where I’m Calling From is an outstanding piece of work, one I wouldn’t get tired of recommending. Whether it’s because of my low expectations, or because of Carver’s astonishing talent, this collection of short stories easily makes it to one of the best things I have ever read. After finishing, I read Carver’s biography. Indeed, most of the events he describes are based on his own experiences – he used to live in logging communities, he separated from his wife, with whom he had two children, and he was a heavy alcoholic, eventually dying of lung cancer.
I started with Chekhov and Where I’m Calling From finishes with him. The last short story, called Errand is about Chekhov’s death from tuberculosis. I am only sharing this, because I was quite astonished – I never expected to see such a short story in there. It is worth mentioning though, that Carver is indeed often compared to Chekhov.