Reading Raymond Carver

By Phil Cousineau

Photo by Marion Ettlinger

The American poet and short story writer Raymond Carver was an admirer of Anton Chekhov and told the Paris Review, “Years ago I read something in a letter by Chekov that impressed me. It was a piece of advice to one of his many correspondents, and it went something like this: Friend, you don’t have to write about extraordinary people who accomplish extraordinary and memorable deeds.”  Instead, Carver thought, you could write about the crash and burn of ordinary people, struggling, as he did, to quit drinking, to come to terms with their regrets and to grieve for their lost dreams.

When writer and filmmaker Phil Cousineau met Carver and his wife, the poet Tess Gallagher, at the Village Voice bookstore in Paris. Carver was at the top of his game, but he had the ragged look of a man who’d met his demons at the bottom of a bottle and managed to fight his way back up.  He would die a year later, at the age of 50, from lung cancer and a lifetime of hard living.  What follows is a love letter from one writer to another—an appreciation of the special genius that made Carver (What We Talk About When We Talk About Love; Cathedral; Call If You Need Me) the most highly regarded storyteller of our time.

Reading your lean stories makes me want to drop everything and charge outside to change the air filter on my ‘82 Mustang. Listening to your lank verse inspires me to repaint the patio furniture, go fishing with a down-and-out friend, write seven poems about something I stopped seeing a long time ago, and describe a waterfall to a blind man.   

Reenter the real world, you say. Do some truth-telling.   

That’s what I heard you talking about when you talked about love in Odile Helier’s Paris bookstore the summer of 1987.  I saw that home-from-hell look on your face when you followed your friends Richard Ford and Jonathan Raban to the front of the room and shyly read your poems.

Your shyness took me by surprise yet you played the crowd like a jazz man, syncopating the moment. Ford’s stories were stiletto-sharp, especially the one about the guy who saw a bear catch on fire. Raban was coyly ironic when he talked about bumping into Paul Theroux in a small village along the coast of England—their rivalry kept them from divulging anything about their journeys to each other.

But you broke open the game. Your voice was as clear as a trout stream. You spoke as if love were the only force on earth worth talking about, our only chance to defeat death’s hammerlock. You read your poems as if the long slow alchemy of your life had led to the possibility of transcendence. You described “stupendous changes” as the only thing worth writing about.

Then you read your stories, trembling.

You kept flicking your hands to stop their shaking, as if you were flicking away a phantom film of cigarette ash. We were there with you in those bleak tales of characters gazing over their shoulders, the long slow suicides in faceless suburbs, the seedy menace in rustbelt factories, the forlorn world of sawmills, truck stops, diners, and bars.

I heard the warning bells from life’s dangerous railroad crossings. But I also heard hope for love’s redemptive touch, imagined changed expectations about shattered lives, and felt the heart’s unruly ways. 

Who knows why we do what we do, I heard you say that afternoon, as I listened from the top of the staircase.  Who can tell why we carry on when our hearts are splintered? Or why “I’m sorry” are the two hardest words to pronounce, and sometimes they don’t make a difference after all? Or why it’s so agonizing to give up that shot glass on the bedside table?

I heard your words as valentines to the utterly lost, messages in a bottle to places where passion was lying low, lurking behind “FOR SAIL” signs for old boats on the front of boarded-up laundromats somewhere in the drizzling Northwest.

I heard an ardent belief in the possibility of epiphany for the emotionally collapsed out there on the asphalt roads of America. That poems and stories should stretch us, as when the inconsolable grief of the unfound dream is finally surrendered. 

These were moments that got past my defenses.

 “Endow things with immense, startling power,” you told an earnest poet.

“Poke through the ordinary details of life,” you urged a note-taking professor from the Sorbonne.

“We must convince the reader that our characters have seen things,” you said softly, as the rain purled down the window glass.

“That’s the soul of the story,” you added, quoting Chekhov, your voice ringing with laughter, surprised that you had used that old touchstone word.

That’s what I heard from my perch next to the bookshelves featuring International Fiction, and the steady pinging of rain on the rooftops.  In a bookstore jammed with backpackers, scholars, and waiters from nearby cafés. All of us listening intently to your “wordmusic,” as Tess would say later on, words that revealed your “perfect pitch in the soul and spirit department.” Plain and simple music that expressed your forgiveness of the world’s wicked disappointments.

To the last question, the one all true writers disdain, about the purpose of stories, you replied, “Stories are something glimpsed only for the…”  your voice drowned out by thunder.   

Eight years later, I’m reading you again. When I finish your story about the blind man describing a cathedral, I’m cleaved in half. A long-buried question slowly emerges, the one I had at the end of your reading in the Paris bookstore. As if it were yesterday, I recall how we strained to hear your answer through the guttering rain. Now I search through my undermemory—my pile of yellowing notebooks and journals.

Finally, in an old French notepad, at the bottom of a coffee-mottled page, I find it.  But the last word is indecipherable. I squint then shift the notebook under a bright light. Music? magic? nuance? numinous?

But I can’t make it out. 

What’s the word, Ray? The last word on stories?    

I read the sentence out loud. “Stories are something glimpsed only for the—”     Then I read it again for the rhythm. I close my eyes and recall the sound of rain on cobblestone, Ford’s wolf-like gaze, the owlish wisdom that danced across Raban’s face.

Then, as if foaming to the surface of a river, a word comes to me. I check it against a scribble on the notebook. Somehow it fits: “Stories are something glimpsed only for the marvel.”

The sentence clicks, the idea makes its way home, as if along your “new path to the waterfall,” in a dream we were all dreaming together our last night on earth.

Phil Cousineau is a writer, teacher, editor, independent scholar, documentary filmmaker, travel leader, and storyteller. His life-long fascination with the art, literature, and history of culture has taken him around the world. He lectures frequently on  mythology, film, and writing, travel, sports, and creativity. He has written more than 30 nonfiction books.  This essay has been adapted from “Reading Raymond Carver in Paris,” in The Book of Roads. 

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