In gathering all of Carver’s stories, including early sketches and posthumously discovered works, The Library of America’s Collected Stories provides a comprehensive view of Carver’s career as we have come to know it… But it also prompts a fresh consideration of Carver by presenting Beginnings, an edition of the manuscript of What We Talk About When We Talk about Love that Carver submitted to Gordon Lish, his editor and a crucial influence on his development. Lish’s editing was so extensive that at one point Carver wrote him an anguished letter asking him not to publish the book.
-Carver: Collected Stories. Library of America
“There are always going to be readers who will feel that Gordon Lish did Raymond Carver a favor,” Mr. Rudin [Max Rudin, publisher of the Library of America] said, “or at least worked the kind of editorial magic that he was supposed to, and others who disagree, who will feel that Lish hijacked the stories, cutting and shaping them to serve his own, not Carver’s, vision.”
-“The Real Carver: Expansive or Minimal,” New York Times, Oct., 17, 2007
How can we understand how others are feeling, especially people who are so different from us? I see people who lead completely different lives from me every day, and I never bother to ask myself that question.
I first read “A Small, Good Thing,” Raymond Carver’s republished manuscript that was originally titled “The Bath” when first published, from a link a friend sent me in an email. Soon after, I read a book review about a new biography of Carver; detailing how he cruelly mistreated his first wife who supported him in poverty, and was mistreated by his editor Gordon Lish, who propelled him to riches and fame. The review was written by Stephen King.
I had picked up the Library of America’s Collected Works of Raymond Carver accidentally when searching the library. Unsure of which book of his to check out, since I didn’t know much about any of his books, I checked out the one with the most stories in it. Inside was “The Bath” contained in the book What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and “A Small, Good Thing,” in his manuscripts.
“The Bath” is a pale mirror of Carver’s original manuscript “A Small Good Thing.” When a story is so lightly sketched out, the smallest strokes can change everything. I wonder if Lish, as a veteran of fiction publishing, saw Carver’s words, his sentences, and he knew that he could create jarringly short stories, which would stick out enough to create interest. Maybe we would never know Carver’s stories if it weren’t for Lish creating something radically terse and sharp out of them. But they were not the stories Carver wanted to tell.
“The Bath” starts out with a mother ordering a cake from a baker for her son’s birthday. Walking to school, the son is hit by a car on his birthday, and passes out back home. He suffers a concussion and has to go to the hospital, where he stays in a coma. After staying beside her son throughout the night, his mother goes home to take a bath, hoping that perhaps the boy will wake up if she is not there watching. When she gets home, she gets a call from the baker, who is calling about “Scotty” the cake order. She misunderstands, thinking it is news about Scotty from the hospital, hoping that he woke from his coma.
“A Small, Good Thing,” also starts out with a mother at a bakery, ordering a cake for her son’s birthday. The day of his birthday, the son gets hit by a car and goes limp at home. His parents watch over him, and his father goes home to take a bath. He angrily hangs up the phone at the baker who tells him about the cake order, because he did not know about it. When his mother goes home to take a bath, hoping that her son will wake, she gets a call from the same angry baker who asks about “Scotty,” the cake order. At the hospital, they continue to watch over their son until he dies. They go home and get a call from the baker. The mother furiously realizes the identity of the caller and they drive to the bakery in the middle of the night to confront him. When they tell him about their son, he begs their forgiveness for harassing them, and offers them some hot rolls and coffee. Together, the parents hear the story of the baker’s life as they sit and eat.
Lish presents us with a story of a family falling apart because of a tragedy. He presents this isolation by omitting all names, and often even relational pronouns. The result is bizarre writing that is foreign to Carver’s clean style. For instance: “They waited for hours, and then the father went home to take a bath. ¶ The man drove home from the hospital. He drove the streets faster than he should. It had been a good life till now. There had been work, fatherhood, family. The man had been lucky and happy. But fear made him want a bath.”
The switch from “the father” to “the man” suggests the father’s seperation from his family as he fears the worst. But it is abrupt and jarring. But the father is not a person, only a weak symbol.
How can we understand how others are feeling, especially in a crisis? One of the most unreliable ways is to have another person else tell us. In that passage, the narrator states that the father used to be “lucky and happy” but now he faces “fear.” This is how I would describe someone I know nothing about.
This is the original passage in “A Small, Good Thing.”
He and Ann had been in the hospital with Scotty since that afternoon, and he was going home for a short while to bathe and to change clothing…. Howard drove home from the hospital. He took the wet, dark streets faster than he should have, then caught himself and slowed down. Until now, his life had gone smoothly and to his satisfaction- college, marriage, another year of college for the advanced degree in business, a junior partnership in an investment firm. Fatherhood. He was happy and, so far, lucky- he knew that. His parents were still living, his brothers and his sister were established, his friends from college had gone to take their places in the world. So far he had kept away from any real harm, from those forces he knew existed and that could cripple or bring down a man, if luck went bad, if things suddenly turned. He pulled into the driveway and parked. His left leg began to tremble.
The second passage presents fear in its most prevalent form, as doubt. Doubt trickles into Howard’s mind as he evaluates his life, his strong bond with his family. We see the universal karma calculator come out during crisis. Things have gone too well, too smoothly for Howard. We see how much Howard has to lose, because we see how completely unprepared he is for this crisis. This man could lose his mind if his son dies. Carver does not use the word “fear” once.
“The Bath” is a stunted story, ending with the mother alone, on the phone with the baker who she believes is the doctor, having confirmed her own superstitions: that as soon as she left Scotty’s side, he would wake up. The story ends with the baker’s words:
“Scotty,” the voice said. “It is about Scotty,” the voice said. “It has to do with Scotty, yes.”
It ends cruelly, with a mother separated from her husband and child, filled with a false hope. To Lish, the baker was just a clever use of dramatic irony; we get to hear the frantic desperate mother in a hopeful state; completely alone, away from her comatose son only because she believes that if she is not at the hospital watching him, he will wake up.
Frank Kovarick, in his very thorough review of Carver’s manuscripts, writes: “Lish amputates the second half of the story, which he titles “The Bath”: Scotty never dies, and the story ends ambiguously, with Scotty’s mother getting another phone call from the baker.”
I don’t buy it. “The Bath” is not ambiguous. We all know that Scotty is never waking up, and each parent with unravel because of it. The message could not be clearer; desperate people who indulge in foolish fantasies will have reality handed to them cruelly, in confusion and isolation.
“A Small, Good Thing” ends the morning after Scotty’s death. That death is very important to Carver, as he writes about it in sharp, quiet words. (I admit, I did not even catch it until the second read). The writing is tremendous.
The boy looked at them again, though without any sign of recognition or comprehension. Then his eyes scrunched closed, his mouth opened, and he howled until he had no more air in his lungs. His face seemed to relax and soften then. His lips parted as his last breath was puffed through his throat and exhaled gently through his clenched teeth.
I don’t know how something so shattering could be written to sound so quiet. I see a boy making his last noise, yet the room being absolutely quiet, as if the boy had pushed all the oxygen out with his cry. For some reason, this reminds me of a passage in Dennis Johnson’s “Car Crash While Hitchhiking,” of a woman finding out about her husband’s death:
The doctor took her into a room with a desk at the end of the hall, and from under the closed door a slab of brilliance radiated as if, by some stupendous process, diamonds were being incinerated in there. What a pair of lungs! She shrieked as I imagine an eagle would shriek.
I understand now why when we hear something unbearably loud, we call it deafening.
In “A Small, Good Thing,” the baker is not just a tool for dramatic irony. He is the first person to console the grieving parents as they drive to the bakery in the middle of the night, to confront him for harrassing them on the phone. The baker provides the only hope in the story, the hope that the parents will be able to survive their son’s death.
After apologizing to the parents and offering them food, the baker does something incredibly couragous; he tells them about his life.
Often times, when people are confronted with a terrible tragedy, they stay quiet, as if anything said could not compare to the present pain. We isolate ourselves from the tragedy of others, convincing ourselves that we cannot understand. So we offer nothing, only silence and space.
But the baker offers his life, in his story; and his life’s work, in his food. He starts talking to people who hate him, telling them a story that they do not want to hear. Perhaps these are the risks we must take to ever explain ourselves. If there is nothing at stake when we tell a story, then we will never be heard.
Here are the last two paragraphs in the story:
They ate rolls and drank coffee. Ann was suddenly hungry, and the rolls were warm and sweet. She ate three of them, which pleased the baker. Then he began to talk. They listened carefully. Although they were tired and in anguish, they listened to what the baker had to say. They nodded when the baker began to speak of loneliness, and of the sense of doubt and limitation that had come to him in his middle years. He told them what it was like to be childless all these years. To repeat the days with the ovens endlessly full and endlessly empty. The party food, the celebrations he’d worked over. Icing knuckle-deep. The tiny wedding couples stuck into cakes. Hundreds of them, no, thousands by now. Birthdays. Just imagine all those candles burning. He had a necessary trade. He was a baker. He was glad he wasn’t a florist. It was better to be feeding people. This was a better smell anytime than flowers.
“Smell this,” the baker said, breaking open a dark loaf. “It’s a heavy bread, but rich.” They smelled it, then he had them taste it. It had the taste of molasses and coarse grains. They listened to him. They ate what they could. They swallowed the dark bread. It was like daylight under the fluorescent trays of light. They talked on into the early morning, the high, pale cast of light in the windows, and they did not think of leaving.