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Sara Miller

The Real Ray Carver

He didn’t need a lot of words to go deep.

At a graduate writers' workshop I attended in Missoula, Montana, in the 1970s, our resident fiction instructor held up a copy of Raymond Carver's first book of short stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, and proclaimed, "This is going to knock you out."

And so it did. Carver's spare and powerful stories revealed in swift strokes the bruised lives, failed marriages, and assorted psychological wreckage in anonymous towns and working-class hamlets along the Pacific Coast. We were bowled over by his small, charged scenes. Innocuous incidents exposed hidden desires and muted despair, then snapped shut like nutshells. The dialogue was terse, oblique, the characters nondescript yet fully menacing. Reading Carver was like eavesdropping on trapped ghosts who don't know they're dead until they accidentally cross before a mirror. A Carver story was the record of what they saw. A friend described Carver characters as "those people in Edward Hopper paintings—together with their drinks but alone with their secrets." Critics dubbed the stories "minimalist"—short, bleak, profound stabs of realism. It was not long before the terms "minimalist" and "Carveresque" were interchangeable.

In a professional career that lasted less than two decades, Raymond Carver wrote five collections of stories and several volumes of poetry. His big break came in 1971, with the publication of his story "Neighbors" in Esquire magazine. Esquire's fiction editor, Gordon Lish, edited many of Carver's early magazine stories as well as his first book, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, published in 1976. Lish also edited Carver's third book, What We Talk about When We Talk About Love (1981), the book that confirmed Carver's reputation as a minimalist. It was a label Carver both regretted and resented.

At their most minimal, Carver's stories were like glancing blows, shorn of literary prose and even the exigencies of plot. Some critics thought his X-rays too bleak and unforgiving, the characters ...

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