RAYMOND CARVER, who has written with exceptional clarity about the various processes by which literature is created, has this to say in the "Afterword" to a collection of his work called Fires: "I like to mess around with my stories. I'd rather tinker with a story after writing it, and then tinker some more, changing this, changing that, than have to write the story in the first place. That initial writing just seems to me the hard place I have to get to in order to go on and have fun with the story. Rewriting for me is not a chore--it's something I like to do. I think by nature I'm more deliberate and careful than I am spontaneous, and maybe that explains something. Maybe not. Maybe there's no connection except the one I'm making. But I do know that revising the work once it's done is something that comes naturally to me and is something I take pleasure in doing. Maybe I revise because it gradually takes me into the heart of what the story is about. I have to keep trying to see if I can find that out. It's a process more than a fixed position."
Consider, by way of example, a most startling and revealing case in point. In Carver's previous story collection, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which was published two years ago, there appears a story called "The Bath." A young mother orders a birthday cake for her son, Scotty; on his birthday the boy is hit a glancing blow by a car and taken to the hospital; later, while in his bath, the boy's worried father receives an unsettling call from an unidentified man about "a cake that wasn't picked up"; the boy goes into a coma; at the end his mother, at home for a brief rest, receives an anonymous call from a man who confirms that his message "has to do with Scotty, yes." Like all the stories in this collection, "The Bath" is short, spare, "minimalist"; the note of tension on which it concludes arises from the mystery about whether the call is from the baker, nagging the family about the unclaimed cake, or from the hospital, bringing dire news about the boy.
And now consider a story called "A Small, Good Thing," from Carver's new collection, Cathedral. It follows, up to the point at which the wife receives the mysterious call, exactly the same plot as that of "The Bath," though there is considerable revision and expansion in the telling of it. But having reached that point, the story continues in an entirely new direction. There is now no question about the identity of the caller: it is the baker, who hovers in the background as a dark, uncaring presence. Then the boy dies. In their grief and anger, the parents go to the bakery and confront their tormentor. But in a conclusion of extraordinary gentleness, confrontation turns into conciliation. The baker offers them coffee and fresh rolls, because "eating is a small, good thing in a time like this," and they sit at his table:
"They ate rolls and drank coffee. Ann was suddenly hungry, and the rolls were warm and sweet. She ate three of them, which pleased the baker. Then he began to talk. They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty. The party food, the celebrations he'd worked over. Icing knuckle-deep. The tiny wedding couples stuck into cakes. Hundreds of them, no, thousands by now. Birthdays. Just imagine all those candles burning. He had a necessary trade. He was a baker. He was glad he wasn't a florist. It was better to be feeding people. This was a better smell anytime than flowers."
In revising "The Bath" into "A Small, Good Thing," Carver has indeed gone into "the heart of what the story is about," and in the process has written an entirely new story--has created, if you will, a completely new world. The first version is beautifully crafted and admirably concise, but lacking in genuine compassion; the mysterious caller is not so much a human being as a mere voice, malign and characterless. But in the second version that voice becomes a person, one whose own losses are, in different ways, as crippling and heartbreaking as the one suffered by the grieving parents. Carver, like all accomplished writers of short stories, understands the importance of leaving things out; but here he demonstrates that he also understands the importance of putting things in, of exploring a story to the fullest. "The Bath" is a good short story; "A Small, Good Thing" comes breathtakingly close to perfection.
I go on at length about this for several reasons. First, because the contrast between the two stories provides a striking example of the process by which art takes shape. Second, because "A Small, Good Thing" is a story of such importance that it deserves detailed consideration. Third, because the evolution of this story epitomizes a broader evolution in Carver's writing. The stories in Cathedral leave no doubt that he has moved away from the "minimalist" style into one that is more expansive, inclusive and generous. He has been for some time a darling of the experimentalist and avant-garde critics, but here he repudiates their chilly narcissism.
In so doing he follows his own counsel. In his splendid essay, "On Writing," Carver wrote: "Too often 'experimentation' is a license to be careless, silly or imitative in the writing. Even worse, a license to try to brutalize or alienate the reader. Too often such writing gives us no news of the world, or else describes a desert landscape and that's all--a few dunes and lizards here and there, but no people; a place uninhabited by anything recognizably human, a place of interest only to a few scientific specialists." There are no arid places in Cathedral. Instead there are a dozen stories that overflow with the danger, excitement, mystery and possibility of life.
The best of these stories, along with "A Small, Good Thing," are "Peacock," in which a married couple discovers that one family's happiness can be another's suffocation; "Preservation," about a wife who resists succumbing to her unemployed husband's malaise; "Where I'm Calling From," which like most of Carver's stories ponders the mystery of "why we do what we do"; "Fever," about a husband who is trying to hold his household together in the wake of his wife's desertion; and the title story, which demonstrates the home truth that life is nothing if not surprising.
In all of these stories, people are confronted with the unexpected. The husband in "Fever" can't believe what's happening to him: "You hear about stuff like this happening to other people." "A Small, Good Thing" involves a happy couple who "had kept away from any real harm, from those forces he knew existed and that could cripple or bring down a man if the luck went bad, if things suddenly turned" and who suddenly find "that they were into something now, something hard." Caught in hard times, these people turn to each other: for aid, for comfort, for support, for talk. Life, Carver would have us know, is strange and inexplicable; but people find ways to help each other, to come through.
They are ordinary people: hairdressers, motelkeepers, blue-collar workers, schoolteachers, housewives. Carver is a man of the academy, albeit a self-educated latecomer, but its rarified air is nowhere to be found in the real- life world about which he writes. He is a writer of astonishing compassion and honesty, utterly free of pretense and affection, his eye set only on describing and revealing the world as he sees it. His eye is so clear, it almost breaks your heart. CAPTION: Picture, Raymond Carver (c) by Kelly Wise.