In their brevity and terseness, the short stories of Raymond Carver suggest a darkness inarticulated, a state of perpetual unease that mapped very well into those last few years before the Internet, when answers didn’t arrive instantly through text or Google.
This post will summarize each one of the 37 short stories in his last collection, “Where I’m Calling From,” published in 1989. I will not comment on the stories here, but just try to capture, by plot summation, the mysterious precision of Carver, at least at a surface level. Each summary will be no more than 280 characters in length, the size of a Tweet.
Carver drank a lot, then stopped. But he still died at an early age of 50, in 1988. Carver’s stories were heavily clipped by his editor, so it was later disseminated, though his best lines remained his own. Minimalist fiction, it’s been called.
"Readers loved his grim, often funny, sometimes transcendent stories about the lives of the working poor. He wrote about their money problems, alcoholism, embittered marriages, and disaffected children; about muted, interior crises brought on by bad luck or neglect rather than intent. Carver knew that territory because he lived in it for much of his life," The New York Times wrote.
As I am a person of many projects, these summaries are being written over time, piecemeal, so check back every few years for any progress that has been made.
1: "Nobody Said Anything": A boy plays sick to get out of school, then goes fishing, getting a ride from a pretty lady. Another boy at the stream shows him a humongous fish that they then conspire to catch together. They argue over who keeps it, and decide to split it in half.
2:“Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes”: A father gets drawn into a dispute with two other dads over their kids' rough treatment of one boy’s bicycle. Instead of resolving the dispute, the father gets in a physical altercation with another father, winning the admiration of his son.
3: “The Student’s Wife”: “‘Just hold me and get me off to sleep. I can’t go to sleep,’ she said. He turned over and put his arms over her shoulder as she turned on to her side to face the wall.” — #RaymondCarver #ShortFiction
4: “They’re Not Your Husband”: an out-of-work salesman becomes obsessed with his wife’s weight, after some customers at the diner she works at make snide comments. He goads her into losing 9 pounds & then, back at the diner, obnoxiously touts her figure to an uninterested patron.
5: “What Do You Do in San Francisco?”: A busybody mailman wonders why a beatnik couple moved to his town of Arcadia. The man is too skinny, bearded, & not interested in work & the woman doesn’t look after her kids, in his view. The family stays the summer then leaves separately.
6: “Fat”: A corpulent man visits a restaurant and eats a full meal, with the staff gossiping on. The waitress makes sure he is well-served. That night, when she has sex with her boyfriend, the cook, she feels fat herself. But the woman feels it’s a sign her life will change.
7: "What's in Alaska?": Jack & Mary go to Helen and Carl's house to smoke a new Hookah and drink cream soda. That day, Mary interviewed for a job in Alaska. Carl asks "What in Alaska?" Carl and Mary share a quiet moment in the kitchen. The cat carries in a live mouse to kill.
8: "Neighbors": A couple’s love life reblossoms when they house sit for their next door neighbors. They dread the return of their neighbors and secretly hope they won’t.
9: “Put Yourself in My Shoes”: More house-sitting gone awry. Paula and Meyers visit a couple they house sat for, tho they had not met. Myers, a writer bereft of story ideas, gets pitched a few by the increasingly hostile husband, culminating in accusations of lousy house-sitting, thus giving Myers his story idea.
10: “Collectors”: A stuck-at-home, out-of-work divorcee, Mr. Slater is visited by a gregarious vacuum cleaning salesman, Aubrey Bell. According to Bell, the man’s wife had signed up for, and won, a contest for a free home vacuum, including the mattress. Bell cleans the house though Slater declines to buy the vacuum cleaner.11: "Why, Honey” A mother’s letter responding to an inquiry about her son, an infamous politician. She fears the man, knowing him as a child. 12: "Are These Actual Miles?” : A bankrupt couple needs to sell their sports car -- a relic from a more opulent era -- in a hurry. The wife volunteers to take it to the dealer, arguing she’d get a better price. She stays out late with the salesman, to the husband’s consternation.
13: “Gazebo”: An alcoholic couple score a gig taking care of a rundown motel, which works out great until the man has an affair with a Mexican cleaning lady. The place falls apart and they hole up in the luxury suite to figure out their next move.
"Booze takes a lot of time and effort, if you're going to do a good job with it...."
14: "One More Thing": A wife comes home to find her husband drunk, again, and arguing with their daughter. She decides to kick him out. He objects, throwing a jar of pickles through the kitchen window. Eventually though, he agrees to pack, using her suitcase.
"It was another tragedy, in a long line of low-rent tragedies..."
15: "Little Things": A couple who are breaking up physically fight over who will keep the crying baby. He forcefully removes the baby from her grasp, and "in this manner the issue was decided."
16: "Why Don’t You Dance?" : A man moves all the furniture from his house onto the front lawn — presumably due to a break up — replicating the arrangement inside. A young couple driving by stop and buy many of the items. They celebrate with whiskey and an impromptu dance.
17: "A Serious Talk" : A possessive man, Burt comes over to apologize for almost burning down Vera's house the previous day (Christmas) and for stealing six pies cooling on the shelf. He used to live there too, and sees clues of Vera's new boyfriend everywhere.
18: "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” : A pair of drunk couples debate whether violent, abusive love is actual love. The doctor of the group relays how an old couple were hospitalized from a car wreck and were in a bad way but the husband only wanted to see his wife.
19: "Distance": A young couple gets into an argument over whether the husband should go geese hunting when their baby daughter is sick. He doesn't want to disappoint his hunting partner, Carl, a friend of his father's, though Carl agrees he should stay home. The baby turns out to be fine.
Ongoing: Check back soon for updates