I surprised myself with this second reading by not wanting to give the collection 5 stars.
Carver’s first collection is relatively short – as was everything he published – the man was not very prolific. I’ll review his major publications as I get through them in the LOA collection, then read the Poetry and uncollected stories and essays. All told, about 1600 pages of material by Carver exists. This first 181 pages of it is middling Carver – him feeling out the style which would come to redefine much of American short story writing.
In some ways it is reminiscent of Chekhov, but there is a more subdued quality. Less variety. Very little figurative language, sometimes what is being stated is completely literal, and other times he will end a story on a disquieting and eerily imaginative note. A lot of the time he simply states what his characters are doing. Every story features cigarettes and heavy drinking, most of them contain some form of violence of verbal abuse, and you might suspect the author was simply writing about himself. Though Carver’s life resembled some of his characters’ in places, there is certainly a detectable distance. Occasional satire. Much dry, artful humor. Straight-faced, utterly bland recountings of a day or two of life. Yet the voice is supremely clear, and extremely compelling. Writers who have appropriated this style in part or expanded upon it include: Murakami, Denis Johnson, Joy Williams, and many others. It is not hard to understand Carver’s influence once you get into reading his stories. So distinctive, tight and absorbing, yet so plain, so straightforward, always effortless.
Contained in this collection are tales of marital strife, stories about men sitting around in bars, men acting like macho men but really crying inside, fishing, thinking about chicks, sitting around the kitchen table drinking, smoking often, acting like that ‘one guy’ at social gatherings who has to ruin the fun for everybody. In short, they are very bleak, utterly depressing, and memorable, but tend to blend together. A lot of subtext in the dialogue, as if he were imitating Hemingway. Not everyone will dig this first book, but what comes later, that’s where it gets interesting.