Raymond Carver

A Writer's Life

by Diane Leach

1 March 2010


The Toll of Chaos

Carver & Gallagher

Carver & Gallagher

The Toll of Chaos

One remains amazed at both Sklenicka’s intrepid accounting—the research effort had to be tremendous—and the couple’s constant movement, which torpedoed any attempts at stable family life.

After years of what can only be described as chaos, the physical effects of heavy drinking began exacting their toll. Carver was the kind of drinker whose brain requires alcohol to function; an early attempt to stop drinking caused a seizure. He ate little, remembered less, and once nearly killed Maryann by slashing her neck with a broken bottle. Both had affairs. Carver, told to stop drinking or die, finally took his last drink in June 1977.

The sober Carver changed his life. He moved away from his family, eventually divorcing Maryann and moving in with Tess Gallagher. His attempts to make amends were his now-adult children were mixed; Vance, it seems, was more accepting of his father’s idiosyncratic affections, while Christine struggled with the same severe alcoholism that nearly killed her father. Both continued to suffer as Carver relentlessly mined family life for material.

The Tess Gallagher/Raymond Carver love story is another of those great literary myths, much promulgated by Gallagher herself in countless poems, stories, and essays. As a longtime fan of Gallagher’s work, it was Sklenicka’s description of her that hurt this reader most. Yet Gallagher was indisputably a stabilizing influence, demanding Carver behave, stay sober and maintain the steady, rather dull habits productive writing demands. To that end, she took very good care of him, creating space and time for him to work without interruption. 

After writer Alice Sebold, then one of Gallagher’s students, was raped, Gallagher accompanied her to the court hearings, a grueling experience Sebold recounts in her memoir, Lucky.  Here are her words on Gallagher:

Tess was my first experience of a woman who inhabited her weirdness, moved into the areas of herself that made her distinct from those around her, and learned how to display them proudly…

This, her care of Carver as he sickened and died, and her earnest stewardship of his legacy are all admirable. Less admirable is her treatment of Carver’s ex-wife and children. To cut through numerous documents and court hearings, Maryann Burk Carver and her children see almost no money from Carver’s work, though much of it was penned during their years as a family. After Carver’s death, Gallagher leaned on Christine and Vance to sign legal waivers denying them access to income under copyright law. 

Maryann, now in her late-60s, is back in Washington state, where she works, variously, as a substitute teacher, pizza delivery driver, and in a vitamin shop. Sklenicka writes that Christine, now 52, is a grandmother, but mentions no employment. Only Vance, who worked overseas for years, managed to climb out of poverty, becoming a high school teacher. 

Notably, while the Carver family and dozens of Carver’s friends willingly spoke with Sklenicka, Gallagher did not. Her own bout with cancer is not mentioned in the book’s final pages; nor is she thanked in the copious list of acknowledgements. 

Finally, there is Carver’s cancer diagnosis, in September 1987. He may have managed to stop drinking, but he never stopped smoking. After surgery to remove part of his left lung, Carver refused further treatment for the lung cancer, which metastisized to his brain. Sadly, Carver and Tess opted not to divulge the severity of his illness to most of his friends and family. 

When he died, in August 1988, many were stunned. The close friends and family who made it to the funeral were shocked anew by Gallagher’s choice to keep Carver’s unembalmed body, still in his hospital bed, in her living room for the funeral service.

Ultimately, it’s impossible not to judge the behaviors of others. In this case, we learn that a writer who was a primary influence for many of us was in fact often a thoughtless, selfish man.  But we also learn of his kindness to young writers. 

Carver was always eager to feature young talent in the anthologies he was invited to edit, to suggest friends for teaching jobs, to nudge somebody in the direction of publication. He helped others stop drinking, in one case mentoring a writer who could not abide AA’s tenets.  His relationship with Maryann remained warmly loving to the end.

Nor did he shut his children out entirely: he worried about Christine and her daughters, sending some money. We also learn that his second wife, who writes so movingly of their lives together (I dare anybody to read “Elegy with a Blue Pony”, or “Sixteenth Anniversary” without choking up) is perhaps a little selfish in perpetuating the story of her life with Carver.  Then again, she truly loved him. We learn the man was childish in some ways, fierce about his work, and he did his best, which is really all any of us can do. 

And, of course, there are the stories. The wonderful, wonderful stories. Chaotic and personal (now public) life aside, Raymond Carver is still the hero of Carol Sklenicka’s excellent biography.

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