IMAGINE John Gardner and Raymond Carver, constrained to silence while seated at the same long library table, each frowning over the other's story collection, and as they read each throwing the other an occasional glance prickly with unspoken argument.
Gardner, the more agitated, is the one who finally will stand, perhaps just after finishing Carver's "Tell the Women We're Going," in which bored husband Jerry, trying with his old friend to pick up and seduce two girl cyclists, suddenly beats them to death with a rock.
Carver is too cool to rise and argue over fictions, so he sits on at the table making marginal notes as he finishes Gardner's "The Music Lover," in which at an ultra-contemporary music concert the cellist plays -- not with a bow but a real saw until he halves the instrument, while Professor Klingman is moaning, "Insane! . . . Monstrous! Blasphemous!" Carver is also put off by tales of queens and dogs which live in castles, the tendency to transitional device between stories (or is it redundancy?) and a putter-inner's prose which he, a taker-outer, itches to blue-pencil.
Both story writers are too civilized to quarrel, but a reader can picture their adjourning to a nearby bar to argue literary esthetics, for they represent contrary views of fiction. Gardner's have been made almost tediously clear in On Moral Fiction (1978), in which he criticized some of the very writers quick to speak praise on Carver's book jacket, and where he wrote, "Structuralists, formalists, linguistic philosophers who tell us that works of art are like trees -- simply objects for perception -- all avoid on principle the humanistic questions: Who will this work of art help? What baby is it squashing?"
(To which one imagines Carver responding in favor of tree-perception, also suggesting that Gardner stop the theatrics of dragging in babies.)
Even their two book titles are definitive and contrasting. Behind Gardner's the poetics reach back to Aristotle. His title story presents a chef who is (naturally) an "artist" with food, a man who argues in his kitchen that all artists are models for humanity, and who will cook magnificently a stolen dog in honor of ancient Asian tradition and in memory of a son who died in Vietnam. Carver's title echoes the method of most of his stories, for his characters usually talk out rather than enact plots, and the chief event becomes their analysis of it over whiskey. The conversation in his title story is between two married couples citing examples of true love they have observed between others. Steadily their talk betrays how temporary their own marriages will prove as it ends on the preception which serves as Carver's climax: "I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark."
At the center of many of Carver's stories is a vacuum, the absence of and homesickness for love, the very "love" which Gardner has called the single quality without which true art cannot exist. If he found such love in the fiction of John Irving and Toni Morrison, for example, he will find only amor absconditus in Carver's dreary but deft vignettes. Here are some samples: A divorced father tries in an airport lounge to explain his infidelity to a grown son whose own marriage has turned bleak. A stranger wearing hooks where his amputated hands used to be makes and sells Polaroid snapshots of homes; one owner wants to pose on his own roof while throwing rocks, perhaps toward the family which has abandoned him. Good neighbors build not one fence but two, and an insomniac watches the insomniac next door poison snails through the long, dark night. A birthday boy goes into a coma and dies without seeing his spaceship cake, or a woman playing bingo finds that the cancer she hoped to deny is spotting her underwear again. Fishermen discover a drowned woman in the river, but decide to rope her corpse to a tree until they have finished their weekend, then are puzzled by their wives' reaction.
Readers will become grateful for Carver's spare prose style, the thin slices-of-life which go under his microscope and quickly out again, and the receipt of the bad news at remove and secondhand. The despair is so quickly sketched that we, like his characters, move aside, catch the next plane, change the subject.
Gardner's stories also contain grim situations. A boy drives a tractor over his brother and flattens his skull. A famous conductor, one of the elect who "sailed through the world like a white yacht jubilant with flags," finds himself comforting a terminally ill girl who fears air travel. The situations are persuasive; Gardner's tendency to carry each human moment into the temple of art and purify it there is not. "Blemk the Box-Painter," a long parable about art and life, would be stronger if less prolix. "The Joy of the Just" reads like Eudora Welty on a bad day. "The Problems of Art" is expository, sophomoric.
But when Gardner does what he advocates instead of continuing testily to advocate it in the costume of fiction, his stories thicken with vitality, a stew as opposed to Carver's cooling consomme. What Gardner has advocated is that a writer not be satisfied with transcribing the mood of his time -- Carver's transcriptions are skillful -- but that he pierce that mood to clarify human action and values, to hold up models of decent behavior while seeking truth and avoiding sermons.
"Come on Back," presents Welsh singers in Remsen, New York, who, when they have finished mourning the suicide of Uncle Charley, begin tentatively to sing and tap their feet. "The Music Lover," a story indebted to Mann, ends with a widower's effort to explain his grief in words he finds inadequate, and to speak those words to a scornful musician already convinced that words are "extravagantly rich compared with the poverty of actual life." The title of "Stillness" refers to that magic moment when a dancer freezes to immobility; it becomes a metaphor for Joan Orrick's coming death. "Redemption" is another case of an art (music) redeeming a boy's guilt for his brother's death, though he will never be a great artist, a second loss. "Nimram," dedicated to William Gass whom Gardner has called "a friend with whom I usually disagree," allows the sick girl who feared a plane crash to hear in Mahler's Fifth Symphony a greater engine and, without sentimentalizing her coming death, to lift and soar on the music.
Most of Carver's stories do what they set out to do without a wasted word. They are like frozen sections, made with a scalpel and stored until one glance at their cells will diagnose the whole sick organism. Gardner's are clumsier; they talk too much and go on too long. After 17 of Carver's stories, the reader will remember the author's qualities: his verbal skill, the distilled pungency, the laser focus of his implacable vision; but from Gardner's 10 stories, he will remember six of the stories themselves and the people living and dying there.