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A Writer's Life
By Carol Sklenicka
Illustrated. 578pp. Scribner.
Edited by William L. Stull and Maureen P. Carroll
1,019 pp. The Library of America.
“You never start out in life with the intention of becoming a bankrupt or an alcoholic or a cheat or a thief. Or a liar.”
- Raymond Carver
2009 was a great year for Raymond Carver fans with the publication of two important new books featuring the life and work of the legendary short story writer and poet:
“Raymond Carver: Collected Stories” is a handsome and pricey volume of all of Raymond Carver’s works including sketches and posthumously discovered work. The book is one in a vast series of books by authors of note published by the nonprofit Library of America. It is also the latest volume on Carver edited by William L. Still - a professor of English at the University of Hartford. The book even comes with a classy little green ribbon bookmark. “Collected Stories” is absolutely top notch.
Carver fans have been waiting twenty years for a definitive biography of the troubled author and Carol Sklenicka’s “Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life” is an especially satisfying and significant achievement. All Raymond Carver biographies will be compared to this book.
Ms. Sklenicka’s writing is smart and her research meticulous, with a magpie’s eye for detail. Her portrait of Raymond Carver is compelling; but it’s the story of Carver’s first wife, Maryann, which haunts the book. Given Carver’s alcoholism and bouts with depression, Maryann Carver’s existence was as vivid and bleak as her husband’s. Ms. Sklenicka could have easily re-titled her biography “A Writer’s Wife.”
Ms. Sklenicka conducted nearly 300 interviews during her research for “A Writer’s Life.” But the one person who resolutely refused to be interviewed was Tess Gallagher, Carver’s second wife and primary heir to Carver’s publishing estate and fortune. Raymond and Maryann Carver were married twenty-five years. Basically, Maryann supported Raymond and the children all those years until he sobered up in 1977, found a new girlfriend, and split.
Carver’s hero, Ernest Hemingway, married a relatively wealthy older woman and moved to Paris as an aspiring young writer. Raymond Carver and Maryann Burk, on the other hand, met as teenagers over the counter of a Spudnut Shop in Gap City, Wash. It wasn’t long before they fell in love, married and had two babies. Through more than two decades of some serious poverty and domestic violence, Maryann Carver stuck by her husband, sharing his dream, and providing him the space he needed to complete the work that would eventually make Raymond Carver wealthy and famous (after their 1982 divorce, she received minimal and grudging support).
In his New York Times review of “Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life,” novelist Stephen King expressed a very reproachful view of Carver: "Through most of those early years of restless travel, [Raymond Carver] dragged his two children and his long-suffering wife, Maryann, the most unsung heroine of Sklenicka's tale, behind him like tin cans tied to the bumper of a jalopy that no car dealer in his right mind would take in trade."
"As brilliant and talented as he was," writes Stephen King in the Times, "Ray Carver was also the destructive, everything-in-the-pot kind of drinker who hits bottom, then starts burrowing deeper."
The book also focuses on the relationship between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish, Carver’s long time editor and friend. Lish, the highly regarded editor of new fiction at Esquire magazine, was extremely supportive of Raymond Carver’s work. He was primarily reasonable for Raymond Carver’s stories first receiving nationally attention.
Some writers resisted and even refused Lish’s slash and burn style of editing. Not Raymond Carver; he justified and routinely solicited Lish’s changes. Maryann once accused Raymond “of being a whore, of selling out to the establishment.” It’s ironic that Ms. Sklenicka’s biography is published by Scribner’s, the same house that introduced Thomas Wolfe to his legendary editor and friend, Maxwell Perkins.
Raymond Carver was also a fine poet. “All of Us: the collected poems.” *
This is her second book. Carol Sklenicka attended college in San Luis Obispo, California and graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis. She lives with her husband, poet R. M. Ryan, near the Russian River in northern California.
* please see review below.