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Peering Through the Keyhole at Gloom : WHERE I'M CALLING FROM New and Selected Stories by Raymond Carver (Atlantic Monthly Press: $19.95; 393 pp., ISBN 0-87113-216-8)

June 26, 1988|Paul Skenazy | Skenazy teaches literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz. His book, "James M. Cain," will appear this fall (Ungar). and

It is usually poets who periodically issue "new and selected" editions of their works as updated census reports of ongoing careers. Both a poet and a short-story writer, Raymond Carver has edited and revised his several volumes of fiction down to 30 previously published tales, along with seven uncollected stories, that he wants to stake the future on. The book that results is austere, impressive and weighty with the authority of a writer whose attention to language, and the people who live within and by it, rarely wavers.

Carver's trademark is a superbly condensed kind of mundane ghost story in which people are haunted by the presence of some lost, almost forgotten, not-really-expected possibility. They wait to "hear from up north"; they think about a new life in Alaska; they imagine things will be better if the wife loses weight. They'd like to believe their problems will end with the right kiss, the right kid, the right job. Their days are overshadowed by their furtive, greedy need for some mild passing temptation--something as small as a drink of good whiskey.

Carver's fictional folks are the kind who don't quite fit in. Their gestures fall short; their clothes need pressing; their rent and car payments are due. A lot of these people drink (the title story is about a return visit to a drying-out facility); their addictions are symptomatic, begrudging admissions that they've "bungled" things, as one character puts it. They "sign up for it all," as someone else says, only to find themselves bit players in "another tragedy in a line of low-rent tragedies." They live in couples or families--often divorced or split up but still in frequent contact with their former mates. They're in debt, selling off possessions or exchanging cleaning for the rent. Their friends are similarly afflicted by pressing anxieties they prefer to ignore. If they haven't lost their jobs, they work with fiberglass insulation, pitch vitamins and vacuum cleaners door-to-door. Intimacy rarely massages away the ache of their lonely dissatisfaction.

A Carver story frequently ends in a static tableau. A couple bleakly hug in a hallway; friends planning to go out to dinner drink themselves into a state of inertia: "Now what?" one person mutters to the others. Especially in his early stories, Carver insists that we notice how "every day, every night of our lives, we're leaving little bits of ourselves, flakes of this or that, behind," as a two-bit peddler puts it. His people don't know who they are until they see themselves mirrored in others. As they inventory someone else's life--the clothes and cupboards in a neighbor's apartment, a couple they rented their house to when away traveling, the furniture that's left of a broken marriage, the dust that collects in a mattress, a woman killed in the woods--they find something approaching a tangible expression of their selves, magnified and distorted.

Then these characters face the struggle of trying to translate their projected alternative self into language. "I know now I was after something. But I don't know what," a waitress says of her conversation with a fat man. Or, in another story, a woman tries to explain the furniture she buys: "She kept talking. . . . There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out." Again and again, they look for words, seem to be trying to talk their way across a lifetime on a fraying rope.

Carver himself is obsessed by the same problem: discovering and articulating the analogical likenesses that the world throws up. The dislocations and voyeurism of his characters seem allegorical, parablelike, but with the meaningful part of the parallel absent, out of focus, off stage, barely glimpsed. With exacting precision, Carver identifies the vagueness and incapacities of these often battered lives--the cliches that contain inexpressible confusions, the intimations of something more, or at least different.

The foreboding and intensity that Carver manages to instill in his short tales come from the way the reader is forced to fill in the gap between the barren surfaces of events and the almost operatic emotional release and response that they often produce. A woman's inability to fall asleep next to her husband ends in a desperate prayer for morning light.

When revelations do come to Carver's characters, the visions are mostly cautious and limited, but extraordinarily rendered. A blind man and a sighted one touch hands as they jointly draw a cathedral, a baker offers food to a despairing couple because eating is "a small good thing in a time like this," a man blesses the children and other relatives who take advantage of his generosity. And Carver registers the instants of pleasure in a language appropriate to the uncertainty that must surround such rare satisfactions: "He felt something come to an end. It had to do with . . . the life before this."

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