I came across my copy of “Short Cuts” by Raymond Carver in much the same way that things happen to characters in his short stories – by a sequence of events that just ‘happened’ to me.
The book had been packed in storage since I don’t know when really, in a cardboard box and brought over to Sydney by my sister and her husband when they emigrated to Australia.
It was delivered to my door in Oak Park, Melbourne by a woman I found online, whom I paid $35 and who had spare space in her car and was driving down to Melbourne from Sydney. I unpacked the cardboard box and placed the book “Short Cuts” in the bookshelf in the lounge, where it remained for a few weeks.
On Monday morning I woke up, dressed for work and realised I’d left my satchel in our daughter’s room with the book I was reading. Not wanting to risk waking her up, I looked for something else to read on the train into work among the books in the lounge.
So one thing led to another, and then another, and then another, and now I find myself contemplating the nine stories and one poem that I read over the past four days.
Raymond Carver was a master of the short story. He is an American literary giant and considered among the greatest exponents of writing a story that can be read and enjoyed in one sitting. He died in 1988, aged 50, from lung cancer, the same year he was posthumously inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In each of the nine stories in Short Cuts (and the poem “Lemonade”) things happen to everyday people.
In one story a couple are asked to look after the flat and feed the cat of their better-off neighbours across the hallway and it becomes the focus of their otherwise mundane lives with comic consequences; in another an out-of-work husband convinces his wife, who works as a waitress in a diner, to lose weight when he overhears other men comment on her thighs when she serves them; in another the pent-up frustrations and libido of a married man leads to unexpected tragedy.
In one of Carver’s most famous short stories, “Will you please be quiet, please?” a quiet evening at home between a husband and wife spirals out of control after an adulterous incident from the past is brought up casually in conversation.
It is a story that taps right into our everyday lives – an evening at home, a chance silly remark (we have all made them) and by the end of the night you’re drunk, alone and sleeping on the couch.
Probably the most famous story in the collection (and re-told in the film “Short cuts” and in the Australian movie “Jindabyne”) is “So much water so close to home” about a group of friends who go fishing and find a dead girl in the river. They deliberate about what to do but eventually decide to tie her to the rocks and continue fishing, notifying the sheriff a few days later. The story is told from the point of view of the appalled wife of Stuart, one of the fisherman, who cannot understand his wife’s rage.
People who have seen Robert Altman’s classic film “Short Cuts” with its inter-weaving storylines set against the backdrop of the sprawling Los Angeles suburbs, will recognise elements of the stories in the film, which have been twisted masterfully by Altman into a cinematic narrative.
Suburbia. Ordinary people. Relationships and chance encounters. Tragedy and kindness. Everyday lives and the things that happen to these lives – these are the subjects that Carver writes about in his concise, but elegant prose.
Here’s a short extract from “So much water so close to home”:
“They fish together every spring and early summer, the first two or three months of the season, before family vacations, little league baseball, and visiting relatives can intrude. They are decent men, family men, responsible at their jobs. They have sons and daughters who go to school with our son, Dean. On Friday afternoon these four men left for a three-day fishing trip to the Naches River. They parked the car in the mountains and hiked several miles to where they wanted to fish. They carried their bedrolls, food and cooking utensils, their playing cards, their whiskey. The first evening at the river, even before they could set up camp, Mel Dorn found the girl floating face down in the river, nude, lodged near the shore in some branches.”
If you like the pared-down writing style of Charles Bukowski (read my review of his hilarious memoir “Hollywood”), George Orwell or Ernest Hemingway, you will almost certainly enjoy reading this collection of Carver short stories.