Lost in Carver Country
by Greg Ames
When his first collection of short stories was published, I was a young associate professor at the University of Buffalo. This was back in 1976 or 1977, I think. We'd all read the book in hardcover and couldn't stop talking about it. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? The laconism of those sentences, the casual humor, etc. We knew it was a masterpiece.
We scurried to our desks to write short stories, hoping some of his genius would rub off on us, but his style was impossible to copy. You just ended up sounding really stupid. Here you've got a teenager named Earl in a Laundromat folding his shorts, or you've placed an Arlene on a Tilt-a-Whirl up in Washington state. And then what? We sipped our coffees and shook our heads.
But Christ. I was dying to write one. My friends were all dying to write one too. A Carver story. We were not ashamed to admit it. And worse, we were reading our meager efforts out in public. In the late 1970s, open fiction readings were pretty popular in Buffalo. There wasn't much else to do during the ball-shrinking months of winter. I still remember the night Tony Pelosi sauntered up to the microphone at The Verb and read an "original" story. Nobody in the audience knew what to make of the narrator who was a forty-year-old man reclining on a cot in his mother's ranch house, chain-smoking Merits and asking things like "What's the weather like in Tonawanda?" and "How much are you asking for that color console?" But hell. We all clapped like crazy when old Tony finished up, even though we were pretty embarrassed for him.
Snow fell relentlessly outside the bar's plate glass window. Red and green Christmas lights blinked off and on above the bar. I drank eleven cups of draft beer. Soon it was my turn to read. My piece -- "Hand Me My Pajamas, Honey" -- didn't go over much better. Hell.
We were in hell. Carver hell. We couldn't break the ties. Every time I thought I had gotten over him, moved on, found my own voice, I would write a few sentences that were undeniable rip-offs. And I'd bury my face in my hands. But I wasn't the only one struggling. Every young professor in our department wanted to be a writer. One guy was a Beckett fanatic, of course, there's always one of those types lurking around, but he kept mostly to himself -- his clothes always smelled of gasoline, as I recall -- and he ended up committing suicide in 1984. His suicide note read: "I can't go on. I really mean it this time." But Carver was the ghost that haunted us more than any other writer.
So a few of us started a support group, using the twelve steps and traditions laid down by Bill W., the founder of A.A. The first meeting was held at my house on a Tuesday night in 1985. We called it the "So Much Raymond So Close to Home" group. As chairperson, I read the Daily Reflections and How It Works, replacing the word "Carver" for "alcohol" when appropriate. Then I welcomed any first-timers and out-of-towners. Nobody said anything. "You're in the right place," I said. After that, we went around the room and introduced ourselves. The first meeting was not very well attended. It was just me and Barry Stein from the PhD Comp. Lit. department at the University of Buffalo. So instead of sharing in the traditional sense, we just sat on the folding metal chairs, sipped our coffees and talked back and forth.
"You know, I have never even been to the Pacific Northwest," Stein said, rolling his Styrofoam coffee cup between his palms. "And yet I dream about it. Every god damn night." He shook his head. "And fishing! I hate fishing. I wake up in the morning and I can smell pike on my hands."
I nodded my head. Sure, we'd all been there. Pike on the hands. "Go on, Myers," I said, stubbing out my cigarette on the chair beside me.
"What?" Stein said, turning to me. "What did you say?"
"Go on. It's just an expression," I said. "It means I'm listening," I said.
"But you called me Myers," he said, holding up his hands. "Why did you call me Myers?" he said.
"No, I didn't," I said, holding up my hands. "I didn't call you Myers."
He shrugged. And he tried to get it talked out. "I just need to get it talked out," he said, shaking his head.
"Talk it out," I told him and shrugged. "Who's stopping you?"
"I can't do my own work, my research." He looked at me and sighed. Stein had spent the last three years working on a biography of Nikolai Gogol. Raymond Carver was the bear in his path. "I thought I would have accomplished so much more by now. But it's the little things that get to me." He swirled the coffee in his cup. "Things are bad," he said. "Things are real bad."
"Tell me about it," I said. "It's really something," I said.
He seemed desperate. "Maybe I need to take a trip somewhere," he sighed. "A little vacation. You know, to clear my head."
It was then that I had the idea. "What say we climb into one?"
Stein gave me a look. You know that look that Stein gets? He gave me that look. He used his face to give the look. "What do you mean?" he said, looking at me.
I meant what I'd said. "I mean what I'm saying, Stein," I said. "It's simple."
"I need a drink," he said.
"Look, we choose a story," I said, "and then we go into it. As readers we become textualized. Christ. It's beautiful," I said. "We've got them all memorized. Let's pick one and climb in," I said.
My mind galloped over the plains of Carver country, but I found it hard to concentrate. My living room seemed so clean and comfortable. The TV was a beaut. The ferns were healthy and sprawling. The sofa was too damn soft. It just wasn't right. We were miles away from Carver country. So we moved the So Much Raymond So Close to Home group to the bar -- Tiny's -- on the corner. I didn't have any money but Stein did. He was a tenured professor. He bought the first round.
"What's wrong with us?" Stein said and shrugged. We took two stools at the bar. "Christ. We're a mess. Are we crazy?"
"Hell," I nodded, shaking my head. I'm a big man and I have a big head. I shook it. Then I nodded. "We're lost in Carver Country," I said.
Then we didn't speak for seventy-four minutes. Nobody said anything.
"Hell," Stein said finally, looking at me.
I said, "Christ." And looked back at him.
Finally Stein said, "Let's get us another round. What do you say?"
I nodded. Why not? I shook my head and shrugged. What was stopping us? "Okay," I said.
Neither of us budged. Time passed. Shadows moved over the bar. It was not the sun or the moon casting the shadows. It was the bartender. Big Jim. He wanted to know if we were drinking or just taking up goddamn space. We ordered two more and moved ourselves to a booth in the back.
"So," Stein said after we were seated, "how do we get into one? How do we get textualized?"
As professors of English we had every damn right to do it, I argued. I thumped my fist on the table to emphasize my point. Stein was a mess. His tie was undone and his collar open. He looked down at the table and began to cry. "I'm drunk," he said.
"All the more reason," I told him.
First, we drank another round. Then we ordered another one. We poured that round into the round we already had. Then there was a mess on the table. Beer was dripping on the floor. Stein began to cry again. A good-looking woman, an ash blond, came over with a wet rag in her hand. She mopped up the table. She didn't say anything. We watched her. We didn't say anything. Then she walked away.
It was getting late.
Stein yawned. I was drunk. The jukebox was off. So we went home.
Stein went to my place and I went to his place. I unlocked his door and took off my soft beige-colored shoes that made my feet feel free and springy. I stepped into Stein's slippers and I put on Stein's cotton pajamas. Then I went into his kitchen.
What I wanted more than anything was to break free of Raymond Carver, to become his opposite. I wanted to be known as his sworn enemy. Carver's nemesis! If he was a minimalist then I would be a maximalist. If he ate meat then I would become a vegetarian. But you couldn't flick him off like a piece of lint on your sweater. He was too big. At night I felt his hairy fingers pressing into my neck, constricting my windpipe. His enormous shadow stretched behind me when I headed to work in the morning. I turned quickly to find nothing there. I cheated on him with other writers. I read promiscuously. I spent nights in bed with Proust, Mann, Kafka and Borges. I tried desperately to love Katherine Mansfield and Doris Lessing. I cradled Eudora Welty in my arms and let my gaze linger on her spine. But I kept coming back to one man.
Carver had me in a full-nelson and wasn't letting go.
I sipped some whiskey and watched Stein through the kitchen window. Over in my house, Stein was wearing my red flannel pajamas. He kissed my wife on the lips and put his arms around her waist. They slow danced. He grinned at me through the window.
"Stein," I said.
But he couldn't hear me. He was in my house and I was in his. I banged my hand against the glass. I called out his name. I called out my own name. I called out Carver's name. But the night was silent. Nobody heard me. After a while, I stopped talking.
About the author:
Greg Ames lives and works in Brooklyn. His short stories have appeared in numerous literary journals and websites, including McSweeneys, Open City, The Sun, Fiction International, Literal Latt, failbetter.com, Brooklyn Review, and Other Voices. He received a special mention in the 2003 Pushcart Prize anthology and in the Best American Nonrequired Reading of 2004. To learn more, go to www.gregames.com.