A grass-roots hero of American letters

Call If You Need Me: the uncollected fiction and prose by Raymond Carver (Harvill Press, £15)
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The Independent Culture

The subtitle of this book is only partly true. Many of the essays, reviews and other non-fiction pieces here were published in book form some years back, and some are still in print. The major new material, drawn from his posthumous papers by Raymond Carver's widow, Tess Gallagher, consists of five stories from his mature period as a writer, and five early stories.

The subtitle of this book is only partly true. Many of the essays, reviews and other non-fiction pieces here were published in book form some years back, and some are still in print. The major new material, drawn from his posthumous papers by Raymond Carver's widow, Tess Gallagher, consists of five stories from his mature period as a writer, and five early stories.

Carver produced five collections of often superb short stories. These have spawned many imitators who, all too often, have replaced the bone-hard style and grim honesty of the originals with flatness and drabness; not Dirty, but Dingy Realism. That said, the earliest stories here give little indication of what was to come. They were published in university magazines in Carver's mid-twenties, and are pretty bad.

In her introduction, Tess Gallagher describes "The Aficionados" as a parody of Hemingway; it is not, it is a pastiche, and a not very good one, with a daft trick ending. "Bright Red Apples" is awful; senility, misery, and the ubiquitous American shotgun suicide all in a few dire pages. Only "Furious Seasons", Carver's first published story, but later revised, points the way forward to future achievements.

The five stories from his later life are a different matter. Carver was an obsessive rewriter, sometimes going through 30 or more drafts of a story until he was satisfied. Here and there in these new stories are signs of small redundancies of dialogue and description which he surely would have pared away before publication, but as a 70-odd page addition to his work they are indispensable.

The best of them, "The Kindling", is a beautiful story. Carver shared with Chekhov the ability to summon up a whole world in a few lines, and one so real that it seems we can sense the breathing of its men and women and children even when they are silent.

The best of the essays tell us a lot about his early struggles to find a voice. In "On Writing", he praises the writers he first admired, including Isaac Babel, Hemingway and - more surprisingly, until you think about it - VS Pritchett. The matrix from which his fiction was formed is laid out in "My Father's Life".

Carver came from the American working class. His father seems to step from a Woody Guthrie ballad: alcoholic, hoboing, he earned a living from hard manual labour. His son's career as a writer was hard-won. An alcoholic, too, for years, Raymond supported himself and his family with a variety of tedious jobs while learning his craft the hard way, by doing it over and over again. His first book of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please, was published in 1976, when he was 38. It brought success and fame. After this, he managed to avoid drinking, but had only another 12 years of life before his death from lung cancer in 1988.

One section brings together Carver's introductions to some of his own stories and poems. It would have been useful to have had the poems described printed alongside. They might have taken the place of some of the not very interesting short reviews of modern American novelists. Carver is mostly generous to a fault to his contemporaries, though he does give Richard Brautigan a well-deserved going-over.

Throughout the essays and reviews, the comments on writing are of interest - with a near-evangelical fervour for literature as a depiction of "morals and manners" - to which I can only bang my tambourine in unison. Such a belief will strike some English writers as naive, soaked as they are in irony, but the detailing of "m&m" is what writers have been up to for the past 1,000 years or so.

The book ends with two long and valuable reviews. One is of biographies of Hemingway, the most powerful influence on Carver, the other of Sherwood Anderson's letters. Anderson is now remembered chiefly for his collection of stories, Winesburg, Ohio. What he once wrote will stand as an epitaph for Raymond Carver: "I have written a few stories that are like stones laid along the highway. They have solidity and will stay there."

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