Carol Sklenicka's new biography of the late Raymond Carver portrays a writer who lived a life as troubled as many of the characters in his groundbreaking fiction. Sklenicka discusses her book Wednesday at the Elliott Bay Book Co.
“Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life”
by Carol Sklenicka
Scribner, 592 pp., $35
Raymond Carver once addressed the thin line between fiction and nonfiction by stating: “Everything we write is in some way, autobiographical.”
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This adage is true of most fiction writers, but it was especially true in Carver’s case, because much of the appeal of his work came from its real-world authenticity.
Carver is most associated with minimalism, but the secret to his prose is the ominous sense of doom that hovers around and over the situations his characters find themselves in.
For someone whose fiction so closely tracked his own life, Carver himself has been less studied than his style.
There have been two oral biographies, a photo collection, and countless magazine pieces, but most of those have focused on the continuing controversy about how closely Carver was edited by Gordon Lish. “Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life” is the first in-depth biography of Carver’s entire life, and it is a dark, and tragic ride, certainly worthy of one of his short stories.
California author Carol Sklenicka meticulously traces Carver from his youth in Yakima, early years in Northern California, university studies and teaching posts around the U.S., and eventual death in Port Angeles at age 50.
Sklenicka begins with a short introduction that finds Carver at a pivotal moment, in the days before the 1976 publication of his first book of short stories, “Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?”
While Carver proofs the book that will make him a literary star, he’s on his way to court to declare bankruptcy, and deeply shackled by alcoholism.
Carver’s drinking dominated much of his life, and it is the lens through which this book is focused. Drinking derails Carver’s early writing efforts, and in the depths of his disease he blames his inability to write novels on his family.
Carver’s two children and first wife Maryann (who wrote her own excellent memoir) cooperated with Sklenicka, and their stories of abuse, neglect, and poverty are as painful to read as any gin-soaked memoir.
Many of Carver’s stories had alcoholic protagonists, and Sklenicka chronicles the roots of such stories, “Vitamins,” “Chef’s House,” and others.
As a first-time biographer, Sklenicka succeeds in detailing Carver’s life with a prose that is spare, but mostly effective. Her book works best when she explains the links between Carver’s life and work, and she makes her reader want to reread Carver, looking for more clues.
Still, when she writes of how some of Carver’s stories distorted the lives of Maryann and the children to make the family look worse than they were, Sklenicka raises more questions then she answers.
There is a second act to Carver’s life. Unlike many of his fictional characters, he evolved and became a better man. He stopped drinking, and embarked what he called his sober “gravy” years in a poem (though Sklenicka reveals that he still smoked marijuana almost daily).
Many of the gravy years were spent with second wife Tess Gallagher, who didn’t cooperate with Sklenicka. Still, Gallagher is mostly sympathetically portrayed, more so than Carver himself.
“Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life” ends by detailing the success of his estate since his death, particularly since the release of Robert Altman’s film “Short Cuts,” based on some of Carver’s stories.
That success mostly eluded Carver’s children, who accepted paltry payouts for copyright renewals. It’s another sad act in the saga of a man who wrote better than he lived for many of his years, and another piece that could have come straight from one of Raymond Carver’s own stories.
Seattle author Charles R. Cross is the author of biographies of Jimi Hendrix and Kurt Cobain.