A presumably final gathering of work left behind by the writer (1938–88) many considered the American Chekhov: a compassionate and artful chronicler of “ordinary” lives.
In her warmhearted foreword, Carver’s widow, Tess Gallagher, describes the discovery and preparation for publication of the five stories that are the real raison d’etre of this otherwise patchy volume (most of whose other contents appeared in the miscellanies Fires, 1989, and No Heroics, Please, 1992). “Vandals” and “Call If You Need Me” employ carefully developed images of separation and conflagration to depict relationships unraveling and children afflicted by their parents’ instability (though the title story does contain the marvelous, and perhaps prophetic, image of horses appearing mysteriously in its protagonists’ front yard). “What Would You Like to See?,” a rigorously understated portrayal of a couple whose closeness is threatened by drinking, is a comparatively shapeless and repetitive version of several earlier, superior stories (surely Carver wasn’t done with it). The old magic resurfaces in “Kindling,” a subtle look at an alcoholic writer estranged from his wife (and “between lives”), who seeks stability in performing chores for the couple with whom he boards, a pair whose surface happiness seems merely a variant strain of his own disorientation. “Dreams”—the best of these five—ingeniously dramatizes the limits of our ability to enter imaginatively into others’ lives, while echoing one of Carver’s most deservedly famous stories, “A Small, Good Thing.” By comparison, the five “Early Stories” are slack and melodramatic, the flat “Fragment of a Novel” a superficial glimpse of (its self-described) “broken-down Hemingway characters.” It’s nice to have the compact literary essays “On Writing” and “Fires” available again, as well as the wonderfully moving “My Father’s Life”—but, as stated, these are available elsewhere.
Still, we probably can’t have too much of Carver’s spare, precisely honed prose in print. One hopes a Collected Stories will appear before long.