Ron Hansen reviews the biography and short stories of Raymond Carver

By Ron Hansen
Sunday, December 13, 2009


A Writer's Life

By Carol Sklenicka

Scribner. 578 pp. $35


Collected Stories

Library of America. 1,019 pp. $40

A friend of mine was at a dinner party at which Raymond Carver talked about a surprising experience he'd had: He was taking a walk one afternoon when a fish fell out of the sky. Another diner there was stunned, exclaiming that the same extraordinary thing had happened to him. And Carver innocently replied, "Oh, is that your story? I guess it must be, because I don't take walks."

That was Raymond Carver: funny, ingratiating, self-effacing, a trickster with a flexible attitude to the truth when it was in service to a great story.

Carol Sklenicka's superb biography of the late 20th century's most famous and imitated short story writer points out that Carver evaluated his chaotic life by whether his actions were carried out by the "good Ray" or the "bad Ray." And until he gave up alcohol at 40, the shiftless "bad Ray" was increasingly overruling the good.

Raymond Clevie Carver was born on May 25, 1938, the son of Arkansans who'd migrated to Oregon so the father could find work in a sawmill. The family was fairly happy despite living from hand to mouth, but Carver's father felt he'd settled for less by giving up the railroad job he had loved, "bequeathing his sons the muted dreams and finely honed resentments of a disappointed man."

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