WHAT IT USED TO BE LIKE
A Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver
By Maryann Burk Carver
St. Martin's. 356 pp. $25.95
Nearly two decades after his early death -- in 1988, after a long, painful assault by cancer in various forms -- Raymond Carver's legacy is large but ambiguous. The London Times's obituary tribute to him as "the American Chekhov" is off the mark (surely that distinction belongs to Peter Taylor), but he wrote a number of masterly short stories that will be read with admiration and pleasure for generations to come. On the other hand, the (mostly) minimalist style that was his trademark has been imitated by innumerable writing students, none of them remotely as gifted as he; the cumulative effect of all this third-rate, mannered prose has been to deaden American literary fiction and to isolate it from the non-academic readership.
To what extent Carver himself must be held responsible for this is unclear. For the last decade of his life, he was a regular on the writing-school circuit, and this memoir by his first wife leaves no doubt that he was a charismatic teacher and lecturer who delighted in the adulation of students. If some of them thought that imitation was the way to his heart, and if this sincerest form of flattery blinded him to the actual merits of the students' work, that would not be surprising. But Maryann Burk Carver also leaves no doubt that his own writing came before everything else in his order of priorities, so it is at least possible that the intensity of his self-absorption left him blind, as well, to the extent of his influence and its generally deleterious effects.
His story, as told in this strange but strangely engaging book, is interesting and instructive and in some ways quite moving. Maryann Burk Carver obviously is a person of immense intelligence and discipline, and it is rather difficult to believe that her husband could have realized his ambition to write without her support and self-sacrifice, but she is not a professional writer. At times, there's a perky, gee-whiz tone to her prose that is ill-suited to what is a cautionary tale if not a downright sad one. She occasionally sounds like a schoolgirl nattering away, blissfully unaware of the clouds gathering on the horizon. Yet her book is redeemed by a number of qualities: her bruised but unflagging love and admiration for Carver, her loyalty to him and their two children, and her refusal to succumb to the temptation to play the role of woman scorned.
To play that role certainly would have been easy and understandable. From their marriage in 1957 -- he was 19, she 16 -- to their divorce a quarter-century later, she stood by Carver through times that mostly were hard, sometimes desperate. But once he got semi-famous, he tossed her aside for several women, the last of whom was the poet Tess Gallagher, whom he married weeks before his death. Considering all that, it's remarkable how willing she is to forgive Carver his many sins -- he was a drop-dead drunk until he went off booze in 1977 and at least twice beat her severely -- and to remember, instead, the good times they had together. Perhaps this is an act designed to ingratiate the reader, but I think not. Maryann Burk Carver seems a genuinely decent person, and her refusal to lapse into self-pity seems entirely real.
Maryann Burk and Raymond Carver met in Washington State in 1955. Both were from families clinging to the lower reaches of the middle class, and both were ambitious: She wanted to go to college and become a lawyer, he wanted to be a writer. The precise source of his desire to write is a mystery, but he was a prodigious reader and presumably wanted -- as so many aspiring writers do -- to emulate those who gave him so much pleasure. In 1957 she discovered that she was pregnant, and they married soon thereafter. The first of their children, Christine, was born in December of that year; a son, Vance, was born less than a year later.
From the start, things were hard. Emotional strains within the marriage did not become evident for some time, but financial ones were there from the beginning. If, in his short stories and poems, Carver displayed a remarkable sympathy for ordinary working people, it was because from his adolescence well into his maturity he was one of them himself. He worked in a sawmill, as a janitor at a hospital and in one menial position after another, all the while trying to attend various colleges and work on his writing.
Maryann worked even harder. Mostly she worked as a waitress. She understood that "working was the one thing that forced me to use my mind and stay engaged with the greater world," and eventually she achieved considerable success as a teacher, but her attempts to get a college education repeatedly ran up against the family's harsh financial realities. That she eventually managed to get one is something of a miracle, and she can be forgiven for saying, as she does when the marriage begins to fall apart, "I had trashed my own life trying to keep Ray in it." She knows, though, what good she did, as she says in this passage about the early 1960s:
"Ray and I were survivors at heart. 'If we didn't laugh, we'd cry.' That was what we said, half in jest, half as a self-protective incantation. Oh, we both feared -- and courted -- our personal slings and arrows. Ray was only twenty-two; I wasn't yet twenty. We were still forging the values of our married life, finding a frame of reference that could give us bearings in a changeable world. It's much too pat to look back and declare, as some would have it, that Ray was already overburdened and hindered in his writing development by his family. To the contrary. Without me and Christi and Vance, without our extended families on both sides, Ray might have had more financial freedom, but at a terrible cost of lost psychological stability and support. What we gave him, for better or worse, was the place to come home to."
Cynics will insist that this is a woman trying to claim a larger role in her famous husband's life than she actually enjoyed, but the facts strongly suggest the contrary. Maryann was there when Ray needed her, often to the sacrifice of her own desires and ambitions, and she's fully entitled to claim her place in the making of Carver's career and reputation. In the good times he gave her a lot of love, which seems to have been heartfelt, and at some level he seems to have understood how indispensable she was to him. But he must have been a dreadfully difficult person to live with, not just because of the booze and the infidelities and the abuse, but because he was wholly self-absorbed. He'd been spoiled as a boy by a doting mother and ever after believed that the world owed him a living; he was scarcely the first writer to see himself in that light, but that didn't make it any easier to be his wife or his child.
When fame finally came to him -- fame, that is, in the tiny, hermetic world of American literary fiction and its great sideshow, the lecture-and-workshop circuit -- Maryann didn't much like what it turned him into: "the Important American Writer." It is easy to imagine how insufferable he must have been, with his panel discussions and his fellowships and his grants and his acolytes, but that's not why the marriage ended: "At the age of thirty-eight I left Ray because in my heart of hearts I believed that was what he truly wanted. He was too much of a gentleman ever to ask me to go. No matter what he said or did over the years, he stayed in our marriage. He never directly called it quits or asked for a divorce. It was up to me to go. It was probably the right thing to do, even though the emotional cost was incalculable."
If you think that right to the end she loyally gives Carver the benefit of the doubt, so do I. Ultimately the loyalty was all one-sided, and though she doesn't say so, Maryann Burk Carver leaves the impression that her husband was relieved, and glad, to see her go. The bright light at the end of the pier was glowing just for him, and a wife and a couple of children were too much baggage in his rush to get there. An instructive reminder that writers are rarely as nice, or as decent or as likeable as the characters whom they bring to life. ·
Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.