When the author was introduced to Raymond Carver twenty-one years ago, he couldn’t have known that he had just met the man who would soon be the most celebrated short-story writer in the world.
The NEW YORKER, OCTOBER 5, 1998
I met Raymond in the fall of 1977, not really so long ago, although of course almost half of that time he’s been gone. We met at one of those semi-fancy literary festivals that still take place in American universities. A mixed group of writers—poets and prosers—get themselves invited to a college campus (in this case it was S.M.U., in Dallas). Public readings go on every evening, panel discussions, classes with students in the afternoons, late nights in the Hilton Hotel bar with pals, occasionally some low-grade high jinks, nothing too serious—all of it on the cuff. It’s what occupies the space of a literary life outside of New York.
Ray and I were lesser lights in a larger group that included Philip Levine and E.L. Doctorow—distinct literary stars, even then. A friend of ours at S.M.U. had included us on the “faculty” as a way of putting some money in our pockets and giving us some needed exposure. I had published a novel the year before, to no special acclaim. Ray had published his first collection of stories, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?,” which had been nominated for the National Book Award.
I can honestly say I didn’t know who Raymond Carver was at the time. That his name would become a household word in the next ten years, his stories a standard for the form, and he himself elevated to the station of “the American Chekhov” did not seem quite evident then. (It’s difficult, of course, to re-create the condition of not knowing once experience has made so much known. It is, though, a phenomenon writers all puzzle about as we try to make made-up experience seem real.)
It’s possible I’d heard the name Ray Carver before, knew of some wild and woolly literary drinking episodes in the Bay Area or Iowa City, two places I knew little of. (I, improbably enough, lived in Princeton.) But I’m certain I hadn’t read a Carver story. I was thirty-three, and Ray was vaguely thirty-nine. Neither of us had much gotten our head up out of the foggy ether young writers live in—sometimes for years, sometimes forever—in which you’re indistinctly aware of a “writing world,” conscious of a few names on its periphery, a few stories, an occasional significant breakthrough into print, but mostly are just beavering away trying to make isolation and persistence into a virtue, and anonymity your sneak attack on public notice.
I say this last because Ray and I were so typical of Americans who decide to try being writers, and were products of the environment that included college, writing workshops, sending stories to quarterlies, attending graduate school, having teachers who were writers—Doctorow had been one of mine—all of us seeking improvement in the standard postwar American way: through some form of pedagogy. Ray had been to Iowa and to Stanford. I had been to U.C. Irvine. I had an M.F.A.; Ray said he had one, though in fact he hadn’t stayed around long enough. But we had entered the writing world by that institutional means, just as Flannery O’Connor and Tennessee Williams did years before, and that way was moving us along, giving us walls to reach out and touch until we could put up some persuasive edifices of our own with what we wrote.
In 1977, Ray was married, had two teen-age kids, and was not long off booze—a year and a half, which people who know say is entry-level for staying sober. Indeed, the first thing I remember hearing about Ray that week in Dallas, even before I laid eyes on him, was that he’d been deep in the drink for a long time, had tried to quit over and over, had finally got sober in A.A. but was a solid risk to fall off again. Inviting him to your writers’ festival, to teach at your college, to borrow your car, to house-sit your apartment, to walk your dog around the block would be dicey business.
I don’t remember the exact moment we met, although I retain a picture of me shaking hands with Ray in some big glassy hotel lobby where a crowd of people are all wearing paper nametags. I do, however, remember who he was then, how he seemed. Later he would look like the warm-and-substantial guy in the Marion Ettlinger photograph—large, well groomed, handsome and tanned, rugged-featured in an almost Indian way, and sporting a good haircut. But in 1977 he was tall, skinny, and bony, hesitant, barely speaking above a clipped whisper. He seemed friendly but slightly spooked, though not in a way that spooked you; more in a way that suggested he’d recently been on the ropes and definitely didn’t want to show up there again. His teeth needed work. His hair was dense and practically matted. He had rough hands, long fat sideburns, black horn-rimmed spectacles, a pair of mustard-colored trousers, an ugly brown-and-purple striped shirt from Penney’s basement, and a taste in footwear that ran to Hush Puppies knockoffs. He looked as if he’d stepped down off a Greyhound bus from 1964, and from someplace where he’d done mostly custodial duties. And he was completely irresistible.
I’m a man whose externalities in the world are never far from my notice. I’m a white-buck Southerner, a former fraternity member, a perennial job applicant. I like certain kinds of clothes. Cotton this, cotton that. Nice shined loafers, natural shoulders for my jackets. It’s a look.
Ray was my opposite, at least in appearance: a man who truly had other things on his mind. Ray Carver was hungry in 1977, and not for a square meal. You could also say he looked haunted. Bad things were not very far behind him, and he meant to be watchful. He laughed hurriedly, then slipped back into a kind of serious but uncertain reserve. His eyes darted a little. His big shoulders were slightly hunched. He seemed to want to come near you, to agree with you about something important you and he knew together, something literary, if possible—admiration for somebody’s book or poem—but not to come all the way to you. “Yes, yes, oh yes. Oh by God I couldn’t agree more.” His voice was hoarse, deep. His eyes would move away but find you again, as if he were testing something—your opinion of him. He seemed vulnerable, good. And everything—his clothes, his hands, his hair (if you put your hands on his shoulders, as we all did a lot then, and drew close)—everything smelled like smoke. Though everything did not smell like booze. Booze was over.
The night I met Ray he gave a reading in some big, cold and barny, echoing multipurpose room on the S.M.U. campus. Other people, even if I didn’t, seemed to know who Raymond Carver was, because lots of them turned up to listen. Ray read a story that was then called “What Is It?” and that is still my favorite. (Later, an overweening editor convinced Ray to call it “Are These Actual Miles?”—a terrible title for giving away the story’s keystone line.) The story concerns a couple on the brink of bankruptcy and dispossession who decide to sell their prized convertible (an emblem of palmier times) before whoever is going to foreclose or serve papers or slap a lien on them arrives at the door. She leaves to do the selling. He stays home, full of apprehension and loathing, drinking Scotch. The story, which is from “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?,” is shockingly brief—ten pages in my Vintage edition—especially in view of the broad emotional distances it traverses while still being full of memorable moments and lines. In the passage of an afternoon and evening, a man’s entire spiritual life is laid bare then bludgeoned in ways that make the reader both laugh and cringe: his marriage is possibly sacrificed to hardship; he is almost certainly cuckolded by a used-car dealer his wife has only that night become acquainted with; great fury and indignation are fruitlessly unleashed; his wife’s distaste for him is revealed. And, of course, his car is sold.
Ray read the story in near-dark conditions, hugely hunched over a glaring little podium lamp, constantly fiddling with his big glasses, clearing his throat, sipping water, beetling down at the pages of his book as if he’d never really thought of reading this story out loud and wasn’t finding it easy. His voice was typically hushed, seemingly unpracticed, halting almost to the point of being annoying. But the effect of voice and story upon the listener was of actual life being unscrolled in a form so distilled, so intense, so chosen, so affecting in its urgencies as to leave you breathless and limp when he was finished. It was a startling experience—wondrous in all ways. And one learned, from the story, many things: Life was this way—yes, we already knew that. But this life, these otherwise unnoticeable people’s suitability for literary expression seemed new. One also felt that a consequence of the story was seemingly to intensify life, even dignify it, and to locate in it shadowed corners and niches that needed revealing so that we readers could practice life better ourselves. And yet the story itself, in its spare, self-conscious intensity, was such a made thing, not like life at all; it was a piece of nearly abstract artistic construction calculated to produce almost giddy pleasure. That night in Dallas, Ray put on a blatant display of what a story could do in terms of artifice, concision, strong feeling, shapeliness, high and surprising dramatics. The story was definitely about something, and you could follow it easily—it was about what two people did in adversity which changed their lives. But here was no ponderous naturalism. Nothing extra. There were barely the rudiments of realism. This was highly stylized, artistic writing with life, not art, as its subject. And to be exposed to it was to be bowled over.
On the way out of the building into the watery Texas night, I came up beside Ray and patted him on the back. (We were always doing that.) “Gee,” I said, “that was a terrific story, Ray. And you read it just perfectly [hesitantly, painfully, reluctantly, almost inaccessibly, as if all the horrors and poignance and comedy were straight from true life, which they probably were].”
“Oh God, Richard, really?” Ray said, looking nearly astonished and grinning. “Did you like that? Did you? Oh Christ, I’m glad to hear that. I really am.” He stopped and shook his head. “I hadn’t read a story sober in longer than I can remember. Maybe never. I was shaking in my boots. I was afraid I couldn’t finish it. But that you liked it means the world to me. Thanks a lot, my friend. I’m pleased. I really am. Thanks. Thanks.”
I realize as I write this how “soft” it is, how uncritical, how lacking in refining distance, since to write about Ray, even now, when he has been dead ten years, is so fiercely to resist that fact—his being gone—so that I come toward our friendship with the very same caution and careful, unsummarizing forbearance I’d have used were he alive and present. Indeed, to write about him, to “see” him in the way a remembrance should, brings him so close—so agreeably close—that details blend, blur, become again just bits of fabric in the deep weave of life lived moment to moment.
In the months following our Dallas meeting, Ray was sporadically in my and my wife, Kristina’s, life—through letters and fugitive phone calls. I cannot actually remember where he was then. I was in Princeton trying to write a novel, and he was wherever he’d been before I met him: Noplace. Out West. Where his wife was he didn’t tell me. I didn’t know her. Where his children were was also an unvisited subject, though he said one night on the phone that he hoped to get some writing done and had instructed his son to stay clear for a while. This was family life I didn’t know about.
But again, Ray seemed like a man with too much in his train; much that didn’t bear discussing, couldn’t be made to come clear, too much that might leave a bad mark on a recently cleaned-up slate. And also there was about him the sense of a man trying to get free yet feeling regret about things and people he saw the absolute need to be free of—even people he loved. As long as I knew Ray—the next ten years—there was this feeling of so much good and bad that had been left behind in a single lot, so that among my few friends, he seemed to be facing life in the most direct and jarring way, the most adult way—a way that made the stories he wrote almost inevitable.
Literary friendships are a complex, tricky business—frequently volatile, often impurely understood by their core participants. They typically hinge on the very issues both parties are likely to feel least secure about yet wish to feel most secure about because of their importance: the character and fate of one’s writing. They routinely eventuate in absurd miscalculations, unwinnowable confusions, and deep rivalries often so at odds with amity as never to be set right.
Ray and I, however, never had any of that. I rather enjoy confrontation, but Ray hated it. And I would over time see him go to ludicrous ends to sidestep controversy: with Gordon Lish, his editor; with an agent he wanted to fire (I was the go-between there); with the director Michael Cimino when their deal for Ray to write a screenplay based on the life of Dostoyevsky went snafu and somebody owed somebody something. Ray was simply happiest when he was happy and when you were—not always true of humans. And, since I liked him, this made it easy to concentrate on agreement. Therefore, by an informal and mutual deference that sometimes seemed courtly, we avoided what I have not always been able to avoid with most of the writer friends I’ve ever had—bursts of temper, hurt feelings, sullen separations, steel-jawed resolve never again to go the extra mile, hard lessons about trust and rivalrousness (I am trustworthy; I am not rivalrous) learned the hard way, then learned again down through the list of friends, including the ones who remain my friends to this day.
From the beginning, though, and especially in 1978, when he entered my life and my dwelling at 60 Jefferson Road, Princeton, Ray was good will’s very soul, a state he never deviated from to the end. And by being that way he beckoned good will from almost all around him.
There was, naturally enough, a whole job lot of “Bad Raymond” stories (his name for himself, a name he liked), tales from the drinking days in San Francisco, Cupertino, Iowa City again: certain citizens struck with chairs; an inadvertent blow delivered to a certain vulnerable artery occasioning a race down a city street to catch an injured party before he/she bled to death. Bankruptcy. Cars towed away, rows with everyone, unpaid debts, police, stolen checks, stolen kisses, stolen time. The old days. He enjoyed telling them on himself.
But just as I never saw him go close to a drink, I never saw any of that behavior. The Raymond Carver I knew twenty years ago had inched his way out of shadows and into light, and he was as thankful, and as determined to stay in the light—my light, your light, the world’s light—as any convert to a feasible religion.
I knew something of what Ray liked about me almost as soon as he walked in the door. He had come down from Goddard College that winter, where he’d landed a must-stay-sober job in the then experimental M.F.A. program run by the poet Ellen Voigt. He was on his way to a farmhouse in Illinois, a place someone had lent him for the winter. He was waiting for Guggenheim news, was making overtures to Yaddo and MacDowell for working space; he had a job possibility at Texas-El Paso for the next fall. And he had backup friends in Iowa if the Illinois house didn’t work (which it didn’t). What he didn’t have was quite simply a place to beright then, and Kristina and I could offer that. The day before he arrived he’d been in New York, and upon walking up out of the subway on Eighth Avenue was hailed by a hooker. “ ‘Hey, Curly,’ ” Ray said she said. “ ‘Got time for a date?’ And by God, I thought, Yes, I do have time for a date. But time is all I do have, unfortunately.” He loved that story. He liked stories about being down at his heels, stories he could remember when he was flush.
What he liked when he got to Princeton was our whole setup. I had made some movie money the year before, and we had a good house on a pretty street. We made our mortgage payments. We owned our French car. Kristina was Kristina—she looked like a million bucks, loved to laugh, and had a professor’s job at Rutgers. I wrote. There were no dependents. We didn’t get drunk and take swings at each other late at night. We didn’t frequent lawyers. The credit companies didn’t threaten us. We were solid little citizens, and we were not even thirty-five. When I think about that life now, I don’t blame him for liking it. For a while I liked it.
“I want to get myself set up. I do,” Ray said that first morning. He and I were up at six. Drinking coffee. Ray was smoking cigarettes, and as usual at that hour talking barely above a whisper, as if bad memories and certain fond hopes congregated then and needed to be sorted through carefully. He’d already been out and brought back a sack of jelly doughnuts and eaten three of them. No one I’ve ever known ate worse than Raymond Carver, and no one took greater satisfaction in eating the crap he ate. “I really want to get a good car, too,” he went on, “and get a decent house. In El Paso, if I can get there. I want to start living like a human being. I do. It’s nice here, Richard. I like it here.” He lowered his head and peeked out the kitchen window at the huge bare copper beech that grew in our side yard. An antique Sears, Roebuck gazebo stood there, surrounded by pachysandra I had planted myself. Rhododendrons separated us from our neighbors. Snow masked the ground prettily. It was a likable little tableau. “Princeton, yep,” Ray said approvingly. “You’re in business here, old man. All you need to do is walk upstairs and write.”
“I have to write something good, of course,” I said.
“That’s all right. Write something shitty.” He hooded his eyes and suppressed a mumbling laugh. He was happy, I think. Possibly he felt safe where he was. “You can write something good later. There’s plenty of time for that. I’ll write the good stories for a while, then I’ll sit back in a big house with servants and let you do it. Fair’s fair is what I think. Don’t you agree?”
“I couldn’t agree more,” I said. “Or less.”
There was nothing I now think of as mercenary or envious or selfish in Ray’s admiration for the particulars of Kristina’s and my tidy suburban life. He was on the hunt for something good in the world, and we just happened to be in possession of a sampling of it. He knew he was a wonderful writer and that that could bring good your way. And if we had what he wanted, or some version of it, then he could hope for that. I’m sure he was glad we had it. It may be slightly mercenary on my part, but it doesn’t seem alien to friendship to see good in the other and want it for yourself. That isn’t envy. Envy’s something else.
But in thinking about that morning in January, I have always thought that Ray and I became friends just as his tide was changing from not so good to very, very good. What, indeed, would you ask as a more hopeful beginning to a friendship?
I had read his stories by then. He had read “A Piece of My Heart,” the novel I’d published, and said it was “first rate, top drawer.” And I could tolerate hearing that from him without worrying about whether he had reservations about my writing, or about who was a better writer (I supposed he was). Ray was six or seven years older than I, yet that distance in time mostly vanished when we were together. It was as if he so wanted time given back to him, or at least to seize it furiously, that he willingly became my age and at least, when it suited him, assumed my state of being an entreater to the literary world. Indeed, around Ray there was always the sense of time’s extreme preciousness and the duty—the fortunate duty—we have to make the most of it.
His stories seemed enormously impressive to me in 1977. Twenty-two stories in that first book, so many, all of them finished on their surfaces, so polished, as if he knew exactly what he was doing and couldn’t set a word wrong. A heavy feeling of the dire floated through so much of what Ray wrote. People had had it rough, or, worse, were having it rough: drinking too much, fighting with loved ones, leaving loved ones and being dispirited over it. There was death, breakage, abandonment, unwelcome people showing up at the front door with all manner of unwelcome news. “A man without hands came to the door to sell me a photograph of my house.” So begins “Viewfinder.” “That morning she pours Teachers over my belly and licks it off. That afternoon she tries to jump out the window.” So begins “Gazebo.” Direness of this sort often became so unrelieved as to be absurd and then funny yet never lost its grip on seriousness. Life was serious in those stories. And life, especially life with others, was all there was. So, if your life was in a pickle, everything was in a pickle. And anything you could find to help you get relief—locking yourself in the bathroom and asking your loving if once faithless wife to be quiet please, just for a moment be quiet; or climbing up onto your roof to have your picture taken; or asking the two kids who visit your distress sale to take a moment to dance together there in your driveway—any of that might console you.
At heart, of course, a story itself is consolation’s instrument. And to me the most arresting quality of Ray’s stories was not how much they drew on life, or how dire or spare they were (they often weren’t spare), but, rather, how confirmed he was, how unswerving was his election of art—stories—to be life’s consoling, beautifying agent. In the very imagining of fictive events, in their committal to shapely, objectifying language, in their formal depiction of emotions we readers will perhaps never have to face in life, there is pleasure and relief and also beauty. And if in the coming years Ray became everybody’s favorite writer it was because his stories—with Ray as their living exponent—shared with the reader an understanding that life can sometimes make you want to bite the rim of your glass of Scotch, but shared it in a form whose first principle is to reconcile the very news it carries. This is one of art’s oldest ideals and seems so simple when performed flawlessly.
Ray and I liked the same literature, of course. It seems rather Aquarian now, but often after a big meal, when the poet Michael Ryan was around, or after Tess Gallagher came into Ray’s life, we used to read poems aloud. More than a story writer, Ray featured himself a poet, and assumed a certain laid-on reverence when he talked about verse and versifying. (I always told him he wrote poems only when he lacked the wherewithal to write a proper story, and made them out of odd bits and pieces that didn’t fit elsewhere. I still think that.)
But we liked Galway Kinnell and James Wright and Richard Hugo and Elizabeth Bishop and William Carlos Williams—that strain of American poetry coming from Whitman toward Philip Levine and C.K. Williams—the poems novelists and story writers usually like if they like poems at all, the easy ones to like. I distinctly remember Tess reading Hugo’s great poem “Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg,” and as the last phrase sounded—“and her red hair lights the wall”—feeling a moody silence come over us all, a slightly embarrassed wordlessness about the fact that we were so frankly letting this poem in, with all its blunt intimations of death and lust and boomtowns gone bust and beautiful girls you’d never get to visit again. It’s a sentimental poem and a wonderful one from a wonderful and rather sentimental poet who never got his due. And it carries strong feeling the way a hod carrier totes bricks. But we all subscribed to it. In 1998, it seems innocent and quaint that we did that when we were in our thirties. I really don’t know anybody to do it with again. But I wouldn’t want not to have done it, not to have let writing that aspired to being literature enter life and become a fixture as that poem has, or to have missed doing it in the presence of my friends when we were all young at heart.
And there was more that joined us. Ray’s and my parents were rural Arkies of the same pre-1910 generation, who’d all grown up within a hundred miles of each other and had somehow stayed solvent in the Depression while running a little wild—Ray’s parents running all the way to Oregon, mine staying put with solid jobs in Little Rock. Too young for one war, too old for the next. That experience of common pasts once removed meant something to Ray and me, confirmed things we knew, and knew we shared: that having a job or not having a job was a big deal; that bad luck lurked and took hold of you when you were least prepared for it; that who you loved mattered, and marriage was a fundamental human engagement given to shocking frailties; that kids were a mixed blessing because they had to be housed and fed, and outlived you as their gesture of gratitude; and that getting up and moving someplace else only changes the scenery, not who you are. As a world view it seems to comprise a sort of Prairie Existentialism, but it is not without its dramatic uses.
When I was born, in 1944, rather late in my parents’ youth, they both essentially took the pledge and set aside craziness forever for my sake. Ray’s father, on the other hand, was a millwright and a boozer to boot, and one evening in the sixties he came in the house, had dinner at the table, opted for a bottle of whiskey, then went to sleep and never woke up. And in plain enough ways, when we told those stories to each other, in 1979, they meant something, albeit something simple: that life goes this way or life goes that way; that chance is always involved, and that living is usually just dealing with consequences. In one way or other, of course, fiction is often about just that: sorting through consequences—the past impending on the present and setting into sometimes astonishing motion the future.
Everyone knows the story of the good man who works like a demon, never stints, stays true to a calling, suffers setbacks, endures wounds that would demoralize others, eventually hits bottom. And yet he pulls his socks up, turns the page, recovers himself, finds new resolve, after which his luck changes, all his schemes work out, strangers love and praise him, everything he touches goes platinum, whereupon he turns into a fearsome asshole, ignores his old friends, begins hanging out with movie stars, and everybody who ever knew him feels sorry they did.
This did not happen to Raymond Carver. There are rare souls who wear good fortune handsomely, who grow and become better with each sunnier day. And Ray was one of these.
From the beginning, Ray spoke ill of practically no one—only, in my memory, of two friends of mine who at crucial moments had refused to lend him small amounts of money. (This should be a lesson to us, when others are in need.) His general attitude, even in those shaky times, was to find something to praise, someone else’s story or poem, someone’s mettle as a friend, someone’s wit or intelligence, someone’s ferocity—this he especially admired. It was commonplace to all of us who were his familiars then—Tobias Wolff, Geoffrey Wolff, Chuck Kinder, Bill Kittredge, Amanda Urban—that Ray had had enough of bad, and wanted not even to speak of bad, as though it might blow back his way on a returning wind.
There was no phoniness to it. We are all given to stand slightly aslant of someone speaking praise—here writers can be both the worst and the most adept—as if the bad-mouth, especially when the subject is conveniently not present, required a certain rakish courage. With Ray you could believe he might experience diluted enthusiasm for someone or someone’s work. But, given what he felt he’d seen, one understood his impulse not to bother with it. We made fun of him sometimes. Good Raymond. Saint Raymond. But it was another lesson, even if I and others did not perfectly learn it. “Well, yes, I read that,” he would say, looking grave, sometimes comically grave. “I did. I read it. Hmm. I don’t know.” Or, “I met her. Right. She was fine. Yep, yep. But I’ll tell you what I did like, by God. I liked. . .”And then he’d be off to more promising subjects.
And I have sound evidence to prove that for all the ways I knew Ray almost anyone else could have known the same man, could have seen what I saw and liked him as much as I did. It’s a useful measure of a person that he be the same whenever and wherever we intersect with him. To know friendship in that way is to realize it is not exclusive but as generous as love. And surely this phenomenon, almost as much as his work (but not quite), made him so curiously adorable to the world. He’d seen some things, as his great story of the early eighties “Mr. Coffee and Mr. Fixit” implies. He’d had a lot of strong feelings in his life and he could credit that you had, too, whoever you were. And matters hadn’t turned out so bad for him—in fact, they’d turned out so great he was damned near humbled with gratitude. So, maybe that could happen to you, and he wanted you to know he thought that. You two had good luck in common. That was him. Good Raymond.
Specifically with me he was a generous friend. He spoke well of me behind my back—to editors in England and France, to his friend and editor Gary Fisketjon, who became my friend. To journalists who had never heard of me or what I might’ve written. He refrained from giving me advice I did not request, and (at least to me in person) seemed to want me not to be just like him but to be myself and make whatever mistakes of judgment, temper, excess I seemed determined to make, but then was the same toward me when the dust had settled. It was agreed from the beginning of our acquaintance that Ray would do anything in the world for me that he could do consonant with his own certain interest, inasmuch as his interest—to be a great writer that everybody in the world had admiringly read—had been forged over a very hot flame and could not be rebent. It makes such sense, this theory of friendship. How could anyone ask more of a friend and still hang on to the fundamental of progress?
I know that Ray harbored several incomplete and misunderstood conceptions about me, most of which I was happy to let ride. Particularly he liked to think I was a fierce man—which is not true, though it pleased the spooky side of him to have me that way. Once we were visiting Provincetown, and took a walk on the chilly beach late in the afternoon. It was in November. Along the way Ray began to tell me about a predicament his daughter—whom he dearly loved—had got herself into out in Washington State. A biker, it seemed, was involved; some diverse bad behavior, reportedly some illegal activity. It worried him sick since he was out of touch with that part of his life, and going back just wasn’t in the cards.
“I wish I could do something,” he said, smoking a cigarette in the cold breeze, the collar of his not quite adequate brown car coat bunched up around his chin. “I swear to God, Richard, I could put a contract out on this biker. I’d do it. I would. You know?” He looked at me, looked devilled by events. “I’d kill him myself if I didn’t know I’d get caught. I’d be the first one they’d come looking for, of course.”
“Look,” I said, thinking about it for a moment, thinking what a friend could do for a friend in unwieldy circumstances. “If you just buy me a ticket, I’ll fly out there and I’ll kill him. I’ll wait by his trailer, hide in the bushes, and when he rides up on his Harley I’ll shoot him from ambush. Nobody’d ever expect it was me. You just have to buy me a ticket. I don’t have the money, of course.”
“Oh Jesus, Richard,” Ray said. “I don’t know.” His eyes flickered at me, trying to estimate if I was serious about this, and in a way wanting me to be.
“Well, shit, Ray,” I said. “Is this guy causing you grief or not? Do you want to go out there in your father-in-law role and have a heart-to-heart with him? I’m sure that’d do the trick.”
“No,” Ray said softly but certainly. “I can’t do that. I’d rather he just went away on his own. You know?”
“Well, we can make him go away,” I said. “I’ll just shoot him.”
“Shoot him,” Ray said, as if the words were suddenly written in front of him in the foggy beach air and he needed to read them closely. Shoot him. “Well, O.K.,” he said suddenly in terror. “But maybe we should wait on that right now.”
“Oh, sure, O.K. We’ll wait. But just so you know you have some options here,” I said, relieved not to have to go further with my offer. “There’s always a solution to every problem,” I said, just to finish it off in the right spirit of sangfroid.
“Yep, yep, there is. I know that,” Ray said darkly, tossing his cigarette in the sand. “I know about those solutions, too. You bet. I sure do.”
“I didn’t want you to feel trapped here thousands of miles away,” I said.
“O.K., O.K.,” Ray said quickly. “I appreciate that. I really do. I’ll let you know about it. Just hold off till you hear from me. I’ll give the word.” He looked at me out the tops of his eyes and grinned.
“Right. I’ll hold off,” I said, and laughed. “You just give the word.”
Later that year we tried writing a treatment for the director Richard Pearce, a friend of Ray’s. In our co-authored story, a man travels cross-country to commit a murder for the good of another man, his friend. We worked on that treatment for months and months, letters and drafts back and forth from Princeton to Port Angeles where he and Tess lived. Though the basic premise always seemed far-fetched to the important people we hoped would pay big bucks for it. “Why would a man ever do that?” they said, and said it often.
“For friendship,” we answered back.
“Oh, no,” they said. “Friendship’s about something else. Friendship isn’t about murder.”
“In our story it is,” we said, and knew we were right.
They never got back to us.
Much is vivid and revealing of Ray in this episode: His fundamental spookiness, born of bad times but worn on into good. (You could tell Ray a scary story and actually frighten him; he could tell you one and frighten himself. He liked that.) There is also his complexly grieving relationship with his past, the life he’d have liked to see work out better for everyone but couldn’t return to. There’s the aforementioned readiness to amplify life by seeing me as a desperado (though I was far from that, and was all talk). And underneath there’s the willingness to take absolutely to heart whatever I or any of his trusted friends said—indeed, right out to the point of the ridiculous. “Oh my God, don’t tell me,” he’d say to some preposterous misfortune that was only half true, and then laugh about it. It was always my lot and my pleasure, and again this is true of many of his pals, to make Ray laugh. He didn’t fancy jokes and didn’t tell them. But he loved to laugh at life, and would go the distance with you if life could be portrayed as being fraught as it was, and yet he could be spared at the end.
Over the years, we saw each other in Port Angeles, in Seattle, in Princeton, in New York, in various Vermont houses I rented. In Syracuse, in Missoula, in London, in Edinburgh, in Paris, in New Orleans. Our letters are often just cordialities sent to accompany itineraries. I have uninteresting suspicions about my own itinerancy. (“Anywhere but here,” Ray and I and Mona Simpson used to say and laugh about that, and also mean it.) But Ray was making up for lost time, seizing chances (a reading, a lecture, a book signing, a foreign promotional tour, a U.S.I.A. “ambassadorship”) in the plenteous spirit in which they came to him—as the frank rewards of his good work.
“Richard?” he said to me once on the phone—maybe it was 1984—when some new good luck had landed on his desk. A movie deal. A New Yorker acceptance. A foreign best-seller list. Some award from the American Academy—the mixed bounty of literary success. There were a lot of such calls. All his friends got them. You couldn’t really hold it against him. He was just overjoyed. “Richard?” he said. “I swear the wheel of fortune has stopped on my number. Can you believe it? It’s just astonishing. It’s good for all of us, by golly. Luck’s turning right around. I can feel it. I can.”
“It’s turning for you, anyway,” I said to taunt him.
“Well, yes.” He mumbled the little laugh that always acknowledged the shaded side of good portent, even his own. “It’s turning for me. Yes, that’s right. You get yours right after I’ve gotten mine. You don’t mind that, do you?” He laughed again. He knew luck was a joke. But a serious joke.
“No, Ray,” I said. “I don’t mind. Mine’ll just be of a higher quality than yours.”
“O.K. Good. You take that,” he said. He liked the concept of a bird in the hand. His hand. “You take the higher-quality goods. I’ll just fill up my basket and get out of your way. I’m happy you like it that way.”
Ray loved the idea of a full basket. Cornucopia was his concept of a minimal good time. It was just his nature, and probably had a little to do with feeling deprived as a child. “Good. More for me,” he’d say when you turned down some offer he’d made you—to split a reading fee, to go fishing in Puget Sound, to divide up a last doughnut. He was always offering you something—a piece of his good fortune. He thought that was what it was for, part of why it was good. But if you didn’t want yours, he still did.
He wanted a fishing boat, so he got three fishing boats. He wanted a new house in Port Angeles, so he got two new houses. He wanted a nice new car, so he got a red Jeep Cherokee, then showed up one day in Missoula driving a new silver Mercedes 300D, which I was able to point out had Naugahyde, not leather, seats. “By God, I’ll see to that,” he fumed. “Next time you see me I’ll have leather seats or I’ll have a different car. That’s for sure. I paid for leather seats. I want them.”
He hated all forms of physical labor and would do anything to avoid it, and was possibly the least physically fit man I ever knew to be so otherwise robust. Yet he loved to fish, and he loved to hunt—things he’d done as a kid in Washington and Oregon. So we went to Saskatchewan, to Vermont, to Montana, to the Strait of Juan de Fuca for that. It was pure pleasure, and there was seemingly no end to it. He surely wanted no end to it.
And all along he was writing. New stories. Bushels of poems. Reviews, memoirs, and essays trading on the difficult origins of his desire to be a great writer, and giving evidence that such beginnings can work out rather well for some.
Never once in all that extended rain of good luck—the middle eighties—did I hear him begrudge anyone else’s fortune, admit to rivalry, take away anybody’s glory, or sell out his or anybody’s honest efforts. And he never once in my hearing talked of talent. Serious writers almost never do, because they know, if they know anything, that talent is simply a Step 1 requirement, and many possess it who never amount to anything; and because talent is impossible to quantify; and because it only promises but doesn’t usually deliver. What delivers—and Ray knew it, I know it, Tess knew it—was “being at your station,” as Ray said: being there, present to do the work. And needless to say luck, too. Luck delivered. And for a time he surely had that and loved it like a brother.
For a good long time in these years I was of course in Ray’s shadow, on his coattails as a writer (if, indeed, I’m off his coattails yet, or ever will be). And even though I surely wanted good to come to me, I always liked it where I was. To see, at close quarters, Ray get famous was instructive. It was pleasurable to see him hang on to his humility in the face of clamorous acclaim, to see him grow confident about his choices but not quit on his desire to do better with the next batch of stories. He never made me feel I was in the shadow, never scolded me when I picked up a sentence beat from him, inadvertently cadged a character’s name, adopted as my own the direct, no-vamp-entry style of his short-story openings, which he, of course, had willingly adopted from Chekhov. To do any of that, to hold myself against me, was not his nature. He was too confident. It didn’t get in his way, me trying to make my own way. We were friends.
Influence, indeed, was a subject we never talked about but took for granted. Like talent. If you wrote well you had talent. If you wrote at all, somebody’s work had influenced you. You just had to hope that the influential work was good work and that you could do something good with it yourself.
And if I was on the receiving end of Ray’s literary influence, as I’m sure to some extent I was, it would be nice now to think I wrote something in those days that he could have found a use for: a longer sentence line, maybe; a bit more explanation of somebody’s motive, a heavier hand at a story’s end to turn it toward the light. (I have absolutely no evidence that such influence ever took place.)
But his sentences were certainly infectious, if only because they seemed so easy to write, seemed so natural, provoked such palpable effects in the way they refracted and magnified life. I had stopped trying to write stories years before. I, in fact, began writing a novel because stories—the accepted way for a young writer to learn his business—had failed me. I had subjects, but I lacked a concept of stories that was my own. Reading Ray’s suddenly made the prospect of stories appealing again. And this is ever the way good writing encourages other work—maybe influences it: you see something you like; you take notice of its strong effects upon yourself; you relish the thought that you might cause strong effects with your own writing. And so you try.
Yet I could never read Ray’s stories and write at the same time. I was almost thirty-four when I met Ray Carver, and knew something about the perils of influence from reading Faulkner and Walker Percy, two writers who so influenced me that I can’t read them now. I understood that what can never be imparted through one writer’s influence on another is the whole, true complex of forces “beneath” any story’s stylistic surface. I knew that at best—even in blatant imitation—one achieves only a version of a surface, perhaps taps into one or two of the original’s subsurface forces, and that the best “use” of influence is simply to be moved by what you like, to understand you can never replicate it (indeed, wouldn’t if you could), to feel encouraged, and then to move on alone.
Influence, Denis Donoghue writes in his biography of Walter Pater, may represent the “presence” of one piece of writing in the life of another, but more accurately influence is a relation, “a field of action” in which the influenced reader is “free to consider many lines of force, affiliations, trajectories.” And I am happy to say—and Ray certainly knew it—that for a crucial time in my life his stories were an affecting presence in the stories I wrote, just as I’m certain that his work will cast a light of some intensity on anything I’ll write in the future. After all, his is such wonderful work. It showed me, as it showed all his readers, what one version of good could be. And then, much as he would’ve wished, it set us free. Who, for the sake of staying uninfluenced, would’ve wanted anything different, anything to be less good? Who would’ve wanted another friend? Not me, I can tell you true. Not me. Not ever.
I have no fancy end for this. I once wrote in a book, “Life will always be without a natural, convincing closure. Except one.” And that one, Ray’s end, his natural, convincing closure upon the earth, I simply do not have the heart to write about.
Our time went fast when it was happening. And the time between has gone fast, too. Yet I remember it as long. All of it seems to have taken so long, a double-mindedness that makes me think I lived it right. And even though I’ll never have a friend like Ray again—I and all of us feel his absence every day, feel exposed to the world in a way we’d rather not be—I think that how that precious time seems to me now bodes well. It was a full, mirthful, involved, charged, dedicated time in which we couldn’t feel the walls of life, couldn’t go back, could only go forward. And to remember it this way, in the late middle of my life, means I may still know something important when I see it. It means I am not too busy to pause over what’s good. And it means I know that now is now and must be treated with respect. I wish Ray were here. I wish I weren’t writing this. And so there is this feeling of regret. But except for these two bewilderments—one huge and one infinitesimal—I would not want one small bit of any of it to be different. ♦