Carol Sklenicka, Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life

Publisher: Scribner
2009, 592 pages, hardcover, $35

good biographies separate myth from fact. Then, having distinguished each, the reader can attain fundamental truths of the person in question. Carol Sklenicka’s biography of Raymond Carver separates rumor from truth in a clean and sharp way. While shedding light on his creative work, Skelenicka clarifies Carver’s mindset and provides great insight into how a chubby boy from the Northwest grew into the most influential short story writer of his generation. The book is a major addition to American literary biography in the tradition of Joseph Blotner and Carlos Baker.

Sklenicka describes the young Carver growing up in poverty and his interests in fishing, hunting, and reading, pastimes that led him to yearn to put words together. When he was a high school student, he enrolled in a correspondence course in the “Essential Elements of a Short Story and How to Develop Them,” given by Palmer Institute of Authorship. Later Skelenicka portrays Carver during his undergrad days when he, already married with two children, became involved with the small literary journals of universities and began his apprenticeship under John Gardner.

It is in these years that Skelenicka shows how Raymond Carver became the author Raymond Carver. Skelenicka gives details of a young man who was inspired to become a writer and live out the mythos of Hemingway and Fitzgerald’s generation, but who had to adapt to his own times. Carver was at the frontline of the new young authors who found themselves moving more and more into the hallways of universities. Though Carver himself wished to be a professional writer leading a romantic life, he instead found himself with a young family and little income, receiving letter after letter of rejection from publishers. While Hemingway and Fitzgerald also received rejections, they were still successful at a young age. Carver, with a poem here, a short-short there, and one story in Best American Short Stories, toiled in obscurity until 1977 when his first collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, was published and shortlisted for the National Book Award. Even then Carver’s income was meek. It was also at this time that his long marriage fell apart and his alcoholism became full-blown, eventually taking him to jail and to hospitals.

Skelenicka could have easily broken her biography into two books with the interlude occurring at this part of Carver’s life. It was then that he transformed from boozehound and working-class struggling writer to a mature man of letters. Skelenicka makes a profound observation when she links Carver’s dive into alcoholism and subsequent break-up of his long-term marriage to a time he and his family spent in Tel Aviv in 1968. It appears that this time abroad was Carver’s last chance (in his mind) to achieve his ideal mythos of the writer living overseas and writing the great American novel. When that dream was not fulfilled, he began his descent into whiskey, adultery, and self-annihilation.

Ten years later, Carver, in his last days of heavy drinking, finally seemed to accept that he was not Fitzgerald or Hemingway. He then found his own way of survival, and in that he created his own mythos.

The second half of the biography depicts Carver as he travels from university to university, one semester at a time, living as writer in residence and refraining from drink. Though literary biographies are usually more interesting before an author finds success, Skelenicka almost provides a “how-to” guide for the modern writer’s survival. Carver began teaching creative writing classes at various colleges and consequently saw the dawn of a new age of MFA programs and literary journals, all bolstered by the switch of the writer’s mythos from the Hemingway school of adventure toward the halls of academia.

Skelenicka shows Carver enjoying the fruits of his labor from the late seventies and onward until his death from lung cancer in 1988. While these years are not as dramatic as when Carver was a young man, it is interesting to the struggling writer to see how Carver lived almost like he was a touring rock band, roaming from Texas to New York and back to his native Northwest.

Recently much has been made about Gordon Lish’s editing of Carver’s stories. Some have suggested that the stories are more collaboration than a singular individual’s creative work. Skelenicka handles the topic professionally and never takes sides, instead laying before the reader the facts of the scenario. Through interviews and research, she discovers that Lish felt inclined to edit anyone and anything that came to his desk. Upon meeting Carver for the first time, Lish apparently commented on how he would have changed the ending of Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? This interaction speaks not just for the Carver/Lish relationship, but also for Lish’s ego.

Skelenicka’s biography will hold the most interest for a new generation of short story writers, as Carver is still considered a “writer’s writer,” but this detail should not push away other readers. The book maintains a running human conflict of the individual trying to balance domestic life with burning creative energies. Skelenicka does not shy away from Carver’s ugly and unlikable moments (he once smashed a bottle over his wife’s head and severed an artery), but neither does she write the biography as a “tell-all” that simply paints an unlikable portrait. Skelenicka’s book shows a writer coming into his own style, finding his own themes, and ultimately creating his own mythos: the working-class, post-alcoholic author striving to navigate a new world where writing workshops have replaced salons and literary journals are more prestigious than glossy magazines. Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life is bound to be the premier literary biography for generations.

-William Jensen