A rich portrait of a master of the American short story.
The life of Raymond Carver (1938–1988) hews closely to a heroic arc: a hardscrabble childhood, a noble struggle for success, a fall from grace and ultimate redemption. But Sklenicka wisely avoids hagiography, sticking to the facts while astutely connecting real-life details to Carver’s stories and poems. Born in Oregon, Carver began his writing career in earnest in the early 1960s at Chico State University under the tutelage of novelist John Gardner, earning publications in small literary magazines. He traveled often during his early years with his first wife, Maryann, and two children, as he scrounged for whatever academic appointments might enable him to write his ironic, pointed stories about working-class lives. By the early ’70s those stories caught the attention of Esquire fiction editor Gordon Lish, but Carver’s finances were in a shambles—he would declare bankruptcy twice in his lifetime—and his alcoholism had deepened. Sklenicka captures many heartbreaking moments from that period—never more harrowing than when he smashed a wine bottle against Maryann’s head, nearly killing her. Carver stopped drinking in 1977, and in his final years he wrote many of the stories that his towering reputation is now built on. The “Good Ray” that replaced the “Bad Ray” of the alcoholic years was a gentle man who too often acceded to the demands of people like Lish, who invented much of Carver’s “minimalist” reputation by aggressively editing and rewriting his stories. In his final years, though, he earned enough clout and confidence to be nobody’s pushover. Sklenicka spoke with nearly everyone in Carver’s orbit, making the book a kind of history of American fiction in the ’70s and ’80s, capturing the crucial writers (Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, John Cheever) and sea changes in the publishing industry that made Carver such a powerful influence on writers today.
The epic biography that Carver deserves.