In the pantheon of modern fiction, how important is Raymond Carver? Fellow writer Robert Pope once dubbed him the “salvation of American literature.” Charles McGrath, former editor of the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review, called him the “bellwether for a whole generation.” And now Carol Sklenicka has written a wonderful biography of Carver that, at nearly 600 pages, is more than 10 times longer than anything Carver himself ever penned. Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life is a dense plumbing of the often bizarre life of the man whose spare, grinding tales of the poor and working class made him the most celebrated short-story writer of our time. Sklenicka chronicles Carver’s life from his modest beginnings through his death in 1988 from lung cancer—a peripatetic whirlwind of alcohol, writing and keeping one step ahead of the debt collector.
While it sometimes feels that Sklenicka offers Carver a free pass on his alcoholism—among other causes, she cites family responsibilities, heredity and even the national zeitgeist as reasons for his drunkenness—her book is a lushly researched necessity for anyone who loves literature. The story of Carver also chronicles the end of an era—the last group of authors for whom Dionysian excess was as necessary as limpid prose.
The only thing Carver appeared to enjoy as much as writing was the company of writers. Sklenicka’s book is thick with insider conversations, parties and first-person observations of some of the best-known writers of the last half-century. Prominent are Carver’s second wife, poet Tess Gallagher, and dozens of authors he considered friends, including Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff and Jay McInerney.
A Writer’s Life is also the perfect holiday companion to the recently released Raymond Carver: Collected Stories. The collection includes Beginners, the original manuscript for What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The manuscript version was nearly twice as long until pared liberally by editor Gordon Lish. Carver was so unhappy with the result he begged Lish to halt publication. Now here it is in its original form for all his fans to enjoy.