Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life

“Courageous” is not an adjective often applied to biographers, but Carol Sklenicka has earned it. In writing the biography of one of America’s most influential writers, Sklenicka has taken great risks; both in choosing such a beloved subject and in her willingness to delve deeply into his complex, sometimes cruel character, which impacted many people still alive to read her words. The book is not only unflinching, but meticulously researched and compulsively readable. What emerges is a surprising portrait of one our greatest writing talents.

Raymond Carver is correct that anonymous grocers—those of us who won’t be immortalized in biographies—often have equally messy, complicated family lives. Who among has never acted badly toward those closest to us? Mistreated our partners, spouses, or children? Only obscurity protects us from the world’s rancor.

Stephen King, reviewing the biography in the New York Times, expressed unmitigated rage at Carver, vociferously defending his wife, Maryann, who shouldered the family’s financial burden for years ( “Raymond Carver’s Life and Stories”, 19 November 2009). Like Carver, King battled alcoholism and drug addiction. Like Maryann, King’s wife, Tabitha, steadfastly believed in his talent—it was she who pulled the first 50 pages of a manuscript called Carrie from the trash, exhorting her husband to keep writing.

When King’s alcohol and cocaine use spiraled out of control, Tabitha dumped a garbage bag filled with King’s drug paraphernalia and beer bottles into the middle of the living room and told him to clean up or get out. (See King’s On Writing.) So King’s fury at Carver is understandable—there but for the grace of Tabitha go he.

For the rest of us, Sklenicka’s book is an often dismaying document. We so want our geniuses to be perfect people. Or at least nice people. And so often they aren’t.

By now Carver fans know the legend: born in Clatskanie, Oregon in 1938, Raymond Clevie Carver’s beginnings were humble, indeed. Mother Ella worked a variety of jobs; father Clevie worked mostly in lumber mills. Though the family was often short cash, at one point living in a house lacking indoor plumbing, they were surrounded by extended family.

Young Carver was a fat child; in those days, fat children were given amphetamines to lose weight. Carver was no exception. Early photographs of an overweight, nerdy-looking boy give way to a slender young man who was a skilled hunter and fisherman. Though ‘Clevie’ occasionally read Westerns, books were a rarity in the household.

Carver was an indifferent student but soon became an avid reader. By his teens he had begun writing. In this, too, his beginnings resemble King’s, who grew up in Maine and was a voracious reader and writer despite inhabiting a milieu far from literary society.

Ella and Clevie moved around a great deal, establishing a pattern Carver followed nearly to the end of his life. Alcoholism ran in the family: like his father Frank, Clevie drank too much. But neither man drank so much as Carver at his worst.

By age 17 Carver was already a heavy smoker and drinker. But this same boy who liked beer, jazz, and girls, enrolled himself in the Palmer Institute of Authorship Correspondence Course out of Hollywood, California. He was already an obsessive writer, one longing to escape Yakima, Washington.

At this juncture Sklenicka makes an interesting observation about Washington before the days of Microsoft and the internet:

“Washington was the most remote of the lower forty-eight states. Many who grew up there were infected by an anomie peculiar to their part of the country. Defining this trait as a tendency to avoid ambition or success (or to disintegrate under the pressure of success; as did the writer Richard Brautigan and the rock star Kurt Cobain.)” (parenthesis author’s)

Yet Carver was ambitious, if aimless. In the summer of 1955, surrendering to a lifelong craving for sweets, he walked into the Spudnut Donut shop (where his mother Ella was also working) and spied 14-year-old Maryann Burk. Maryann was a sharply intelligent, pretty girl who fell for Carver immediately. By 1957, 17-year-old Maryann and eighteen-year-old Carver were married. Maryann was also pregnant. By the time they were 19 and 20, they had two children.

Carver wrote extensively, bitterly, about his relationship with his family, particularly his children. Christine and Vance, only ten months apart, were a source of bewilderment and resentment. Though madly in love with Maryann, like most very young men, he had no idea how to be a parent. Their poverty only worsened matters. Maryann, herself an excellent student and lover of literature, was certain of her young husband’s talent, and would literally sacrifice her own considerable gifts to that talent.

In 1958 the couple moved to Paradise, California, so Carver could attend college at Chico State University. Thus began 30-odd years of incredible, continual upheaval, which Sklenicka manages to detail extensively without ever bogging the reader down. Instead 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.

Carver started various educational programs, including the Iowa Writer’s workshop, and countless jobs. He never finished a degree program or worked more than 18 months in one place. The couple filed for bankruptcy twice.

Incredibly, Carver wrote throughout. Wherever they were—Chico, Iowa, Santa Cruz, McKinleyville, Arcata, Palo Alto, even a disastrous sojourn in Tel Aviv—he wrote. His life and the lives of his family were his material. His submissions soon bore fruit in the now-dying ‘littles’: small literary publications often paying in contributor’s copies. Slowly, he began making a name for himself.

Meanwhile, Maryann worked. And worked. And worked. Often she held two jobs at once. She waitressed, then sold encyclopedias door-to-door. During their moves, which took place in a series of beat-up cars, Maryann would walk into a restaurant and offer to waitress a few hours, taking payment in a meal for her family.

Whenever Carver landed in an academic setting, she enrolled in coursework until she finished her degree, becoming a schoolteacher. While teaching, she hostessed nights at a lounge. Her stamina is astonishing: just reading about her workload is exhausting. And all of this in service to her husband’s writing.

By 1964, Carver was drinking heavily. Maryann, also an alcoholic, never matched her husband’s intake. Photographs show a delicately pretty woman and a bear of a man who, by all accounts, was uncomfortable inside his hulking skin. He dressed poorly; his curly hair was unkempt.

In 1967, Carver met a young would-be writer and editor named Gordon Lish. This famed relationship, lionized for over 20 years, has recently eroded under scrutiny from scholars William Stull and Maureen Carroll, whose access to story drafts prove Carver’s famed “minimalism” is the result of Lish’s remorseless edits.

Tess Gallagher corroborated Stull and Carroll’s findings, sending Carver’s letters to Lish and the story “Beginners” to the New Yorker in 2007, who reprinted the story both in its original draft and after Lish’s cuts. Sklenicka adds to the pile of damning evidence, printing more excerpts of the Carver/Lish correspondence, including pathetic letters from Carver begging the powerful fiction editor of Esquire Magazine to leave his work alone. She also reprints story excerpts in original drafts and post-Lish.

After Carver became both famous and sober, he was able to break free of Lish, and forever after insisted on submitting all his stories himself and working closely on line editing, unusual choices for a powerful, agented writer.

The Toll of Chaos

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.