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Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life Hardcover – November 24, 2009

4.4 out of 5 stars 34 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

He has been called a chronicler of blue-collar despair. He led a relatively private life, much of it spent trying to raise cash via odd jobs and the writing-conference circuit, and died from the cancerous effects of excessive drinking and smoking. Raymond Carver (1938–1988) is a fascinating figure more for what went on in his imagination, as it registered the dynamics of couples' relationships amid the counterculture, than for his messy life. He came from the lower-middle class of Yakima, Wash., and was a father before he turned 21. Maryann Burk, his first wife, had her own measure of success as a memoirist, but as the Carvers' lives came to resemble his stories, they divorced. Carver soon found his second great love, Tess Gallagher. It's ironic that the master of the minimalist short story has his own life recounted in such whopping detail by short story writer and essayist Sklenicka. Earnest and carefully researched, this biography interestingly recounts Carver's working relationship with editor Gordon Lish and other publishing figures. But the writing is most compelling in an epilogue that highlights posthumous legal disputes showing Gallagher maintaining an iron grip on Carver's growing legacy and reputation. (Nov.)
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"Raymond Carver's stories and poems are still very much alive, and thanks to Carol Sklenicka's biography, Ray the writer comes to life again. This is a remarkable book, very thorough and deeply moving. I knew Ray, and now I know him better than ever." -- Richard Cortez Day, author of When in Florence and Something for the Journey

"If his stories, told in a clipped, brusque voice, help us better understand life in all its loveliness and anguish, then this biography does the same for the man behind them, only with a shout -- full-throated with the voices of those who knew him. Meticulously researched, unflinchingly honest, and always compelling. What we talk about when we talk about Carver will forever be defined by this poignant monument of a book." -- Benjamin Percy, author of Refresh, Refresh and The Language of Elk

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Scribner; 1 edition (November 24, 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 074326245X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0743262453
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #761,578 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Foster Corbin TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 7, 2010
Format: Hardcover
I do not believe that I have ever learned so many details about the life of anyone whose biography I have read than that of Raymond Carver or Ray Carver as he was known to his friends and family. When I finished Carol Sklenicka's too-long book-- over 570 pages if you count the hundreds of notes-- about the only fact I didn't know had to be whether he wore boxer or briefs. The author took ten years to write her book, apparently read everything that Carver wrote and interviewed literally hundreds of people, including his family members, in her quest to get to who the writer often compared to Chekhov was.

Raymond Carver's life reads like that of many of his characaters. Born of bluecollar parents, he was the first in his family to graduate from high school; and his childhood home in Yakima County, Washington had no indoor toilet. At the age of 18, Carver married Maryann Burke, who was only 16 and a recent high school graduate. Their first child Christine was born a few months later; their son Vance, soon afterwards. Maryann would be the primary breadwinner of the family for many years to enable Carver to do what was most important on earth to him, to be a writer. The family moved again and again with the children never being able to stay in the same school or make and keep friends for long, and both Ray and Maryann held dozens of jobs. Even though she eventually got a degree and taught high school English, Maryann often supplemented her teaching jobs by working as a waitress, even when she was 37 years old. Carver worked in a plywood mill, also as a janitor, detailed cars at a gas station, was a clerk and delivery man at a pharmacy, had a job as a shipping clerk in a department store, worked for $1.25 an hour in a library and was a salesman in a bookstore.
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Carver was called the father of minimalist fiction and when he finally gained acclaim it was because he connected with readers who either identified or were horrified by his stories of money problems, alcoholism, and rancorous marriages. His personal trajectory included those very issues and many more including his overweight childhood, longtime cigarette smoking, and his eventual battle with cancer. The years of moving, living dollar to dollar, bottle to bottle had profound influence on his writing.

I appreciated Sklenicka revealing the sources for many of his stories including Maryann working at Sambo's coffee shop which inspired "They're Not Your Husband". The author does the same for "Harry's Death", "Night School", and "Fat" (which is my favorite Carver). The part of the book covering the writer's workshop with John Cheever was very cool: "Pardon me. I'm John Cheever. Could I borrow some scotch?". Cheever told Carver that fiction is "our most intimate and acute means of communication" and Carver took that to heart.

His wife Maryann deserves huge credit. I found her completely fascinating. Picking up oddjobs, pursuing her education, living her husband's angst, and sharing many of his bad habits. Incredibly as they moved to pursue new opportunities and away from debts and disappointments she would work two hours in a restaurant along the way in exchange for feeding the family. Maryann deserves both our sympathy and admiration as do the Carver children.

This is a tremendous biography that provides superb context for Carver's work. I remain unsure if I like the man himself but I am definitely a fan of his writing.
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Format: Hardcover
Raymond Carver was called "the Chekhov of middle America" by The Times of London. His writing, especially his short stories, has influenced countless writers and even helped to revitalize the short story as a popular format in the mid-1980s. And his reach even extended to film: a compilation of his stories formed the basis for the Robert Altman feature, Short Cuts. But despite his skill and mastery of the form, very little is known about the man.

Perhaps this is because his stories and poems felt so raw, so real. The reader would assume "this must be what the writer has experienced. He had to go through this himself --- no one's that good a writer." Well, yes and no. Yes, Carver experienced a lot of what he wrote about --- the desperate lives of blue-collar men, the recriminations of an angry spouse --- and no, he actually is that good. Carver's own formula for writing was fairly simple: "....a little autobiography and a lot of imagination are best" for writing fiction. His early life in hardscrabble Washington state mill towns formed the spine for most of his stories and memorable characters. Carol Sklenicka's exhaustively researched biography presents a striking portrait of Carver as a man as well as the talented writer.

Carver was born in Oregon in 1938 and then raised mostly in Washington state. His father, C.R. Carver, a hard drinking mill worker, "bequeathed his two sons the muted dreams and finely honed resentments of a disappointed man." Right out of the gate, Carver was given inspiration for his stories, which were sometimes called "dirty realism," but the muse was hard-won. His father's job at the Cascade Mill, where most of the population of the area worked, provided grist for his writing.
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