Saturday, April 2, 2011


I picked this book, a very brief collection of short stories, up off a friend's shelf a couple days ago, remembering that I'd intended to read it for my gaps list, and decided now was my chance. I ended up finishing the whole book this morning in one sitting at a pastry shop. At first I thought I wasn't going to like it, but now I find myself so fixated on particular ideas that I needed to come home and blog about it.

The collection was first published in book form in 1981, but the stories were published individually starting in 1974 in different magazines. The stories vary in their darkness and hopefulness, but many are set in the Pacific Northwest and focus on traumas--small or large--in American lives and families. Most of the stories are very short--10 pages or so, some even less--so they are ideal for reading in short single sittings.

The story in the collection that made the strongest impression on me was probably "The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off," about a mute family friend called Dummy who raises a bunch of bass fish and then can't bear to see them fished. (In this example, as in others, the title of the story ignores the bulk of its content and instead focuses on an often side-stepping or mundane "take-away" from the overall story arc--a comment, I think, on how we tell stories to ourselves and others, how we recast the truth to suit our purposes, and how we try to hide what matters to us behind what we think is supposed to matter to us. That's only my editorial note, though.)

Another story I found very affective was "So Much Water So Close to Home," about a woman who is pretty sure her husband and his friends murdered a young girl whose body he reported finding in the woods. Although it was not my favorite, I feel obligated to mention the eponymous story, too, which features two couples, both remarried, discussing their previous loves and whether or not they were real or correct. In all three cases I've mentioned, the story isolates day-to-day moments and tensions and draws on very dark elements--murder, attempted murder, suicide, all of the above--almost as afterthoughts.

Not all of the stories are as dark as the ones I've mentioned: they also deal with quieter moments, haircuts, breakups, alcoholism, extramarital affairs, child-rearing, yard sales.

I'm glad I read this not only as a reader but as a writer--I think Carver offers a specific idea of what a short story writer can create in a small number of pages, and also suggests some boundaries for what needs to be expected of a short story writer. Although I didn't love every story, I did get the impression that Carver was very careful to never bite off more than he could chew. I would recommend the collection to anyone who is working on very short fiction of their own.


Joanna said...

I am willing to give them a go but in general short stories leave me so frustrated.... like eating a bag of crisps and never getting to the beer.

Lisa Eckstein said...

Thanks for reminding me about Carver's work. I've read a few of his stories, and I should pick up this collection.

Ann Best said...

I love Raymond Carver. I heard him read from this book at a college I was attending in 1981. He wasn't a very good reader. He was quite shy. But in my opinion, he's a great writer, one that other/aspiring writers would benefit from reading. He creates haunting characters with an amazing minimal style.

moonrat said...

Joanna--you know, I used to feel the same, and now I'm really getting into short stories. I wonder if maybe tastes change? Or I'm looking for different qualities in a reading experience these days? Anyway I find that I'm appreciating them a lot more.

Lisa and Ann--nice to find other people who are familiar! I put the collection on my Gaps list because I encountered it on several "best of" lists, but I've never met anyone who has specifically talked to me about Carver before.