The first time I read Raymond Carver was during my first year of college. I remember my professor introducing Carver’s work to us with the disclaimer that great writers didn’t have to be alcoholics — even though so many of the writers we read were.
Outside of his writing, Carver was a man who got married and had kids young. He was 18 when his 16-year-old girlfriend Maryann Burk got pregnant. As he told The Paris Review, “We didn't have any youth. We found ourselves in roles we didn't know how to play.” The two worked dead-end jobs to support their kids. His wife worked for a telephone company at first, then as a waitress, then as a door-to-door saleswoman. Carver worked any job he could get: first at a library in Iowa for $2 an hour and later as a night janitor at a hospital in Sacramento. Somehow this allowed for him to write:
There was a certain amount of work that had to get done, but once it was done, that was it—I could go home or do anything I wanted. The first year or two I went home every night and would be in bed at a reasonable hour and be able to get up in the morning and write. The kids would be off at the babysitter's and my wife would have gone to her job .... I'd have all day in front of me. This was fine for a while. Then I began getting off work at night and going drinking instead of going home.
Anyone who’s read Carver can guess that he struggled with alcoholism. His two most famous stories, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” and “Cathedrals,” include a deluge of drinking (as you’ll see below). In his fiction, Carver talks about drinking ‘til you can’t taste anything, struggling to know when to put an empty glass in the sink. And Carver isn’t a Fitzgerald drunk; there’s no ritz, no glamour. But that’s part of the appeal of his writing: profiling the everyday working man or woman. You understand at the end of the day why his characters need a good drink.
Carver uses alcohol as so many different things in his stories: as a truth serum, as a ritual for bringing people together, as a symbol of emotional heft. Sometimes he uses it as method of seduction, of getting lost in the moment. Sometimes the drinks in his stories speak for all those things that get left unsaid — “I am unhappy” or the common “This marriage isn’t working.” Nobody ever seems to get sick, and people are hardly called out for blacking out. In “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” four people share (and finish!) two bottles of cheap gin; supposing each bottle was the typical litre, that would mean each character had to have roughly six or seven drinks. Alcohol isn’t always a means of destruction in Carver's stories, and when it is, it’s just below the surface. In many cases, characters drink just to have a good time.
To celebrate the 38-year anniversary of Carver's first short story collection, Will You Be Quiet Please? (published on February 22, 1976), we made a game: each drink in each story got a tally. If it said three drinks were poured, we made three tally marks. If another round was had, I marked a drink for each character. If people were drinking and someone came in drunk with an empty glass, it was noted. No drink left behind. These are the “bar tabs” for six of Carver’s best known short stories:
The craziest thing about tallying the drinks in these stories is that it hardly does the drinking justice. Half the time, stories begin with “another drink” and leave you with the notion that everyone just kept drinking non-stop. Sometimes the amount someone had to drink isn’t even measured by glasses but by showing someone so piss drunk that they fall smack over a coffee table, drink in hand (which happens in “Vitamins”).
In 1977, shortly after Will You Be Quiet Please? was nominated as a finalist for The National Book Award, Carver joined Alcoholics Anonymous and decided to get sober. When asked what prompted the decision, he said, “I guess I just wanted to live.” After he cleaned up, Carver got his first big book deal, received teaching offers and grants, and left his unhappy marriage with Burk to spend the rest of his life with the poet Tess Gallagher. Carver called it his “second life.”
Ten years later, not long after Carver began coughing up blood, he died of lung cancer. While it may not seem fair for someone to go that way after things began to change for the better, Roger Ebert reminded fans: “[Carver] believed he would have died at 40, of alcoholism, if he hadn't found a way to stop drinking.”
Who knows if quitting bought him those last 10 years of his life. And who’s to say there aren’t second acts in American lives, no matter how long or how short, no matter how many drinks it took the man to write a story.
Freddie Moore is a Brooklyn-based writer. Her full name is Winifred, and her writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily and The Huffington Post. As a former cheesemonger, she’s a big-time foodie who knows her cheese. Follow her on Twitter: @moorefreddie
(All "bar tabs" created by author. Other image credits, from top: Nosh Pit; The U.S. National Archives; The U.S. National Archives; The U.S. National Archives; Flickr user Joshua Rappeneker; State Library Queensland)
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