Saturday, April 23, 2011

Precision packets of life lessons

Somewhere around 1987 I came across a writer by the name of Raymond Carver. I'd never heard of him, but the book was published by Vintage, and I trusted them. I had a habit of going to the bookstore and just trying something. That led me to Bowles' "The Sheltering Sky", Amis' "London Fields", and Bukowski's "War All The Time" to name a few.

I'd read James Joyce in high school and he'd become my favorite author at the time. I was also very fond of Salinger and Hemingway and Steinbeck, but Joyce spoke to me (maybe partly because I'm Irish, but also maybe because I'm not truly Irish, etc. - 'exile', and so on). Amongst my friends, Joyce was a chore. But who can't understand and identify with the stories in "Dubliners", how they're just so real, if they just gave them a chance... How "Araby" touches the heart and reminds us of our youth. Or how "Two Gallants" - 'touches' - us in another way. And then there was "Ulysses": rich, complex, and filled with ancient myth. Each and every sentence was another road to go down. And then it got, well, "earthy", or shall we just say shitty. This was real life.

Then there was Raymond Carver, and he knew real life as well. His last name, Carver, couldn't have been more apropriate. Although Joyce knew life, he knew it in a different way. Carver was the antithesis of Joyce. He didn't describe the blue light on the floor of the room at dawn, or the feeling of climbing down the crooked stairs (with the one stone that you always bumped your elbow on), or the cold damp air as you went out to milk the cow, he simply slaughtered it and cut it down to the bone. He could say in a single page what some people spend a lifetime learning. Yet it all was fluid. It seemed so common and normal that I almost didn't notice it. And that's the way life is. You don't notice that quick turn on the icy road until you're just upon it - and that's the way his stories were. That's what they were about. The turning around to realize what you've just missed. That twist in life. That little piece that you didn't see because you were too busy inside of yourself. The baker. He wrote that one several times. What was it called? ... I can't remember. There's a little Hitchcock in there. Great stuff.

So here's the thing: girth or precision? Or girth and precision??? Or is it depth versus focus? (Or is it focus versus depth - a little Joycean joke). Why do people think "Moby Dick" is hard to read? Because it's long? It was a miniseries before television existed; it's easy. Sure it's allegorical, but was't "Shogun"... wasn't "Roots"? Same thing. People read those!

Perhaps all of this is about the dumbing down of the American public, except that Joyce remains "Irish" and all of these authors are still great reads - it's just that no one reads anymore. Carver as well; and now he has even more of his work coming to the big screen in "Everything Must Go" with Will Ferrel. Robert Altman did a great job with "Short Cuts", but he was just using the material to make a film. He didn't do the writing justice.

I hope Raymond Carver one day gets his due. If you can include the lyrics to "Suzanne" by Leonard Cohen in The Norton Anthology of Poetry, then Raymond Carver deserves just as much if not more.

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