Book Review: Readings
Reviewed by Lissa Richardson, Fri., May 4, 2001
Call If You Need MeThe Uncollected Fiction and Other Prose
by Raymond Carver
Vintage, 285 pp., $13 (paper)
Raymond Carver is perhaps the most influential short story writer of the late 20th century. Before his death in 1988, his collections revealed such a level of austere and swift mastery over the short story form that his style has become as unmistakable as the earlier masters he revered, Hemingway and, especially, Chekhov. Knowing this, it is difficult to say anything negative about Carver's work for fear of beheading the king, but it is safe to say that Call If You Need Me is not exactly a representation of Carver's excellence. It is rather a convenient vessel for leftovers that need the type of marketing Carver's name will promote.
Call If You Need Me consists of five "new" stories, recently published in Esquire; six essays about Carver's life; five very early stories; one novel fragment that is indistinguishable from the very early stories; eight pieces in which Carver reflects on his own work; six introductions to other literature; and 12 book reviews, from An Outside Chance by Thomas McGuane to the Selected Letters of Sherwood Anderson. In other words, it is a hodgepodge of material that supposedly has one thing in common: It is "uncollected." This claim is not truthful marketing, however. Many of these pieces were collected in 1992 in No Heroics Please: Uncollected Writings. The difference between the 1992 and 2000 collections seems to be the newly "discovered" stories and the omission of poetry, which was included in No Heroics.
In a foreword, Carver's widow, poet Tess Gallagher, explains the purpose of Call If You Need Me: "When we love a writer, we want to read on and on, to encounter the full range of what he or she wrote -- the transcendent, the unexpected, even the unfinished." She is partly right. Those of us who love Carver are grateful to hear his voice, especially in the newly "discovered" stories, pieces that Gallagher and others "found" in Carver's files long after his death. They are likely not finished to Carver's degree of quality, but they are close to his voice and heart. The first story, "Kindling," is a delicate characterization about a broken writer who stows himself away for a time in a little town, to heal. The story from which the title is taken, "Call If You Need Me," shows a couple at the end of their marriage, united for a last moment by the magic of wild horses. These pieces are characteristically Carver in their deceptive simplicity and the bittersweet ways the characters aim to improve their lives. It is a pleasure to read them.
The abundance of Carver's commentary on writing is an excellent resource. His advice is straightforward, and his understanding of the writer/reader relationship is deep. Yet there is something grotesque about the insistence of publishing his early stories. They demonstrate a side of Carver's style that he thankfully grew out of -- the blatant Hemingway imitation of his novel excerpt, The Augustine Notebooks, and the surreal psychological traumas of "Bright Red Apples" and "Furious Seasons." The reason these stories interest readers today is that they remind us that our gods are mortal. All great writers begin by writing badly. Still, I would rather reread some of Carver's great pieces for the hundredth time than to have read these pieces once.
Omitting poetry in Call If You Need Me is also a mistake since the essays show Carver's love for poetry but do not demonstrate it with the proof of his work. The editor may have chosen to omit poetry because he believes Carver's poems are not as worthy of attention as his stories, even though Carver says "I put a more intimate value finally on the poems than I do the stories." It is just as likely that poetry was omitted because Knopf had already published All of Us: The Collected Poems by Raymond Carver in 1998. Both Knopf and Vintage are subsidiaries of Random House, which would certainly keep an iron grip on its publications and would not want two books to overlap in the market, even if overlap would greatly improve one of the books.
Titling the collection Call If You Need Me is appropriate to the purpose of the collection. Carver's power and "heft" are undeniable; we will always need the voice of this writer staying current among our other published fiction. It is too bad that his strength is diminished by poor editing and marketing choices, but even against these odds, he continues to reign in American fiction.