(1938 - 1989)

Raymond Carver was born in Clatskanie, Oregon, to a saw mill worker father and a mother who worked odd jobs. Carver graduated from high school in 1956, then married and had two children before he was twenty. He and his family experienced difficult years as Carver struggled to develop a writing career while supporting his family. When Carver was at Chico State College (now California State University at Chico), he enrolled in a creative writing course that greatly affected him. Carver earned a B.A. degree in 1963 from Humboldt State College in Eureka and spent the following year writing and studying at the University of Iowa.

As Carver became famous, he lectured on creative writing and English at different universities. He taught at Goddard College in Vermont and was a professor of English at Syracuse University from 1980 to 1983. In 1983, the earned the Mildred and Harold Straus living award, which enabled him to devote the next half-decade to writing.

Carver's first short story collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please (1976) was among the nominees for the National Book Award. His other short story collections include What We Talk about When We Talk About Love (1981) and Cathedral (1984). Carver's five volumes of poems, some of which are: Near Klamath (1968), Ultramarine (1986), and A New Path to the Waterfall (1989), his last book. During the end of his life, Carver lived with the poet and short story writer Tess Gallagher and married her shortly before his death.

My favourite Carver stories are 'A Small, Good Thing' and 'Why Don't You Dance?' Both are excellent examples of his lean, spare prose style, and seem to me to be masterpieces of the short story form. (plot spoilers coming up! don't read on if you want to go in blind! though I wouldn't worry: the beauty of Carver is in in the telling, not the tale.)

'A Small, Good Thing' is a wonderful investigation of love and grief. It tells of a couple trying to come to terms with the coma and eventual death of their young son. Like so much of Carver's work, the great poetic beauty of the tale arises out of what seems like an incidental concern: the baker who made the couple's son's birthday cake phones to try and get them to collect the cake, and becomes angrier and angrier when they fail to do so: when he finally makes an abusive call, they go to see him in rage, and tell him of their fate. The baker, a childless man, is instantly filled with remorse: he does anything he can to help them. He gives them hot rolls:

‘You have to eat and keep going,’ he says. ‘Eating is a small, good thing at a time like this.’

And they sit, and eat, and talk with him, and are comforted. We may be reminded of Levin's realisation at the end of Anna Karenina that life's meaning comes from the small moments, from the small good things, and that all we can do is deal with here and now, and that this is enough.

'Why Don't You Dance?' is a much shorter story, but no less affecting. It tells you everything with such economy and gentleness that the ordinary is made beautiful. Again, we witness a poetic moment in mundane lives. Pinteresque dialogue between nameless characters reveals far more by omission than by presence. The story details a yard sale, which provides the narrative's extraordinary central, controlling image: a bedroom and sitting room, reassembled in the front yard. We find a recently divorced man having little luck selling his possessions (and who doesn't seem to care) dances with a young woman who has come with her partner to find cheap furniture for their apartment. After the event it takes on a kind of symbolic importance for her:

She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.

This is a story about loneliness and coping and age and youth and love and loss and ordinariness. Above all, Carver understands ordinariness, understands the importance of each individual life, or story.

There is something beautiful and melancholic here, but it is difficult to say exactly what. Carver deals in moments. He is the master of the minimalist snapshot. To read one of his stories is to feel subtly but definitely changed in some way: how, exactly, may not be obvious, but that is beside the point. You have witnessed another life, at it's most poetic and important moment, and it is impossible not to feel privileged and moved.

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