While I do enjoy reading short stories, I’m not the biggest fan of making my way through short story collections, especially those by the same author. I can imagine that it’s because I’m so used to reading novels that when I go from story to story, I expect the continuity that comes with going from chapter to chapter of a novel. So I guess that’s why it took me the better part of three years to read this collection of stories by Raymond Carver.
This book, which is an anthology of his short stories, is a holdover from college, a purchase required by a professor in my advanced fiction writing class. I can’t remember reading beyond just a couple of the stories back in the late Nineties, but I did remember that my professor was trying to use Carver as an example of a writer who could fully develop very flawed characters, ones who felt more real than the tropes we were all definitely pulling from–or at least that I was pulling from because I remember having a terrible case of writer’s block that semester. A few years ago, I took a class on teaching fiction writing as part of my Master’s program and decided to take this off the shelf in hopes that reading some of the stories of a well-regarded writer would inspire me to do well on the required stories for the class.
All in all, I wrote one story that I still think might be worth a revision and one that I completely scrapped once everything was done (and funny enough, the one that I think is worth it was inspired by a Hemingway short story, not one by Raymond Carver) and I put the book on my reading pile, determined to get through it at some point so I could check it off my “to read” list.
Carver’s characters definitely are well-developed, although I have to say that he definitely calls upon the same types of people. So many of them are men who drink, smoke, are divorced, and might have varying degrees of success in life. I don’t know how much of a reflection of Carver himself all of this is, but the stories certainly explore a type of masculinity that definitely has a darker side. I guess you could call it toxic, to be honest, and while in many cases Carver is showing us how messed up these people (and their situations) are, he also gives at least some of them compassion.
It’s a story collection worth checking out of the library or maybe grabbing on the very cheap at a used bookstore (which may be the only place you can find it because it might be out of print), and it may be one that you don’t read all the way through. If you’re interested, consider these highlights: “Cathedral” (a story about a man meeting his wife’s blind friend for the first time); “So Much Water So Close to Home” (a story about men finding a dead body told through the POV of one of their wives that is fascinating and creepy); “Blackbird Pie” (a man gets a letter from his wife telling him she is leaving him, and his perspective is one of the fog of mental illness); “Whoever Was Using This Bed” (a couple gets strange calls in the middle of the night asking for “Bud”); “Neighbors” (a weird one about people spending time in their neighbors’ place when they’re not supposed to be there); “A Small, Good Thing” (a couple copes with their son ending up in the hospital with life-threatening injuries after a hit-and-run); “Little Things” (a fighting couple literally gets into a tug-of-war over their baby); and “Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes” and “Nobody Said Anything” (both of which touch on fatherhood).
You should read this book if:
1. You like conflicted, often damaged male characters.
2. You find stories with a sense of uneasiness intriguing.
3. You’re looking to get better at writing fully developed stories and characters in few pages (a number of these are pretty short).