Carver’s capers in calamity |

Carver’s capers in calamity

Matt Zalaznick

Taken as such a warning, the book is much less frustrating than reading it and hoping for the thematic pay-off one expects from other novels of ambition, decadence and self-destruction, such as “The Great Gatsby” or John O’Hara’s “Appointment in Samara.”

But even then – and even with the relentless, battering episodes of alcoholism, betrayal, domestic squalor and all-or-nothing literary ambitions – it’s hard to tell what Kinder’s warning against.

Because if it really is a warning, it seems about as genuine as those rock stars who warn folks not to do drugs and then go on to brag about all the wild, wonderful times they had under the influence in the ’60s and ’70s.

Kinder’s cautioning appears to be directed at anyone hoping for literary fame. Or, anyone hoping for fame as a writer who is a pathological alcoholic and check bouncer who has trapped himself in a hopeless marriage and decomposing home life, where the decomposition includes the potentially poisonous groceries in the refrigerator.

Most disturbingly, Kinder’s gravest warning is against a writer creating a drunken, self-perpetuating mess of his life just so he has a fertile pool of ideas for his short stories. That is exactly what the down-and-out but driven Carver character, Ralph Crawford, is accused of doing.

That is also the book’s chief contribution to American literature. Kinder gives us a tawdry and un-romanticized picture of the environment that produced some of the best American short stories of the 20th Century. (Carver’s tale of his time in a rehab center, “Where I’m Calling From,” was picked by John Updike as one of the best American short stories of the 20th Century).

Many other writers and film makers would have taken the characters in “Honeymooners” and made them heroic for denigrating and desecrating everything in their wake –for instance, the movies “Sid and Nancy” and “Trainspotting,” where, under a thin veneer of catastrophe, crippling heroin addiction is depicted as laughable a lark as an episode of “The Monkees.”

Kinder admits misery and mania may, in extraordinary instances, produce artistic masterpieces, but in “Honeymooners,” there’s no question about it –misery is miserable.

But is Carver-Crawford truly fomenting heartache, pain and madness just because the best short stories are never about happiness, fulfillment and dreams coming true?

Or is Kinder trying to sober us up by showing us the quagmire behind Carver’s rough and tumble persona and his astonishing stories?

Because on another level, Kinder’s telescopic obsession with Carver-Crawford’s squalor de-emphasizes the importance of Carver’s stories, which are always about lower middle class schlepps, often drunks, who have long abandoned any hopes of attaining even a sliver of the American Dream.

These harried characters trudge through desperate lives, bleeding themselves to keep their seconds-away-from-repossession cars running and a roof over their heads while hoping for the fleeting moment of fresh air in a chance sexual or barroom encounter.

The brilliance in Carver’s stories are those briefest moments of magic and connection, such as the diner waitress’ empathy for her obese customer in the early masterpiece, “Fat.”

The waitress is intrigued by the man’s obesity. At the same time she feels sorry for him but, she encourages him to eat what he wants. She doesn’t indict him for using the menu to make himself happy.

Kinder would have added a vital spark to his tale by telling us how such moments of fictional magic came out of a mind trapped in such a wrecked life.

Crawford spends a majority of his time worrying about going to jail, fighting viciously with his wife, being unfaithful and being afraid of his children, whom he frequently calls his “criminal children.” For sure, this same terror and nervous energy was redirected into his stories when Crawford sat down to write.

Perhaps, only a genius like Raymond Carver could have translated his daily anxieties into sharply written stories that expand into tales that are meaningful for all us who happen to live in the west in the second half of the 20th Century and beginning of the 21st.

There are some moments of hapless celebration when Crawford publishes his first collection of stories. Crawford’s wife says she knows every story in the book by heart and that she also knows by heart all the true incidents and accidents that inspired the stories.

When Crawford says his memory isn’t so sharp as that, his wife agrees and tells him he’s always had her memory to rely on. Crawford then says he’s always used and counted on his imagination as the crucial fuel for his stories.

But ultimately, the publication of the collection seems to be nothing more than a road-bump in a downward spiral.

There is also the buddy aspect of the book. Crawford’s best friend, Jim Stark, is another frustrated writer who starts out in a dismal marriage. Stark eventually leaves his wife to steal Crawford’s beloved mistress from him.

It’s a strange buddy-ship. In many of the scenes Crawford and Stark seem on the edge of brawling. Their jealous rancor, however, is usually doused in booze and drugs. Though “Honeymooners” pales in comparison, it reminds one of Jack Kerouac’s classic, “On the Road.”

In “On the Road,” two young, sensitive and hopeful men –who also drink and take a lot of drugs – discover the endless possibilities of America’s open society and its varied landscape. In “Honeymooners”—a title which invokes travel and fresh starts more ironically – the two young, sensitive and hopeful men do bad things to each other and their loved ones, and then wallow in the dreariness they’ve created. –

Carver’s career and renown truly blossomed when he left his first wife, quit drinking and married the poet Tess Gallagher, though his spare stories were still mostly about failure and hopelessness.

In later works, more magic came out, such as in the story, “Cathedral,” where a blind house guest sits in a man’s living room drawing pictures of churches to the blue glow of a television.

Amidst the drudgery, Kinder tells us that Carver-Crawford will become a famous writer. Perhaps that’s because Carver-Crawford – unlike Kinder in “Honeymooners” – understood that to make even misery come alive, a story needs flashes of humor and resonance and magic –even if those moments are sucked away seconds after their startling arrival.

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at

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