The story "The Bridle," for instance, tells about what could have turned out to be a family tragedy. However, written by Carver it becomes much stronger and more positive. After going bankrupt in agriculture, a family moves with its few belongings packed into a station wagon to a cheap apartment in a hotel somewhere in the Midwest. The narrator, who is the unfriendly and uncaring woman who runs the hotel, relates the story of what happens to the mother, Betty, and the horrible temporary jobs she takes to take care of her family.
One day at a drunken party at the hotel's pool, her husband, Holits, climbs to the roof of one of the units to jump into the water. Betty cries out, "What are you doing?" But he just stands there at the edge. He looks down at the pool, deciding how much he will have to run to get to his destination. "He spits in his palm and rubs his hands together. Spud calls out, 'That's it boy! You'll do it now.'" He hits the deck and suffers some type of brain damage.
At the end of the story, the narrator goes to clean out the family's unit and finds that Betty has cleaned everything including the sink, kitchen cupboards, bed, shining floors. The owner says. "Thanks'" I say out loud. Wherever she's going, I wish her luck. "Good luck, Betty.'" This, like other stories by Carver show the care he has for his deep characters. Each person, in the middle of the chaos and desperation, does something small yet meaning so much to find order and an answer to life. This is the part of life that has to be documented.
After Carver became clean, his works became even stronger characterizations of the people around him. Kibble notes that when Cathedral, his fifth volume of stories was published in 1983, most reviewers noted that with the improvements in his own circumstances the author appeared to have discovered a more upbeat, even forgiving, expression than he had earlier used in his stories; "true epiphanies had become possible for his characters, a concession he had never made before." Also, the 18 stories collected in Cathedral were, even noted by Carver himself, more "generous": "There was an opening up. [...] I knew I'd gone as far the other way as I could or wanted to go, cutting everything down to the marrow, not just to the bone. Any farther in that direction and I'd be at a dead-end -- writing stuff and publishing stuff I wouldn't want to read myself."
For example, the story "A Small, Good Thing," is often given as an example of the change in Carver's style as he revised an earlier story. In "The Bath," the original version, the child Scotty is hit by a car on his birthday and dies in a few days, although he had been expected to fully recover. The local baker continually phones his shocked and grieving parents, demanding that they pick up Scotty's birthday cake. The story ends with one of those nagging, almost cutting, calls from the storeowner.
In the revised version, however, the angry parents confront the lonely baker, who actually is not aware of their son's death. Apologetic as well as pleased with their company, he offers the two some rolls, for "eating is a small, good thing in a time like this." Despite the fact that this simple act does not at all lesson the tragedy, it somehow gives the parents some comfort, an element rarely found in Carver's earlier stories.
In his review of Cathedral in the Washington Post's Book World (September 20, 1983), Jonathan Yardley concluded that Carver "is a writer of astonishing compassion and honesty, utterly free of pretence and affectation, his eye set only on describing and revealing the world as he sees it. His eye is so clear, it almost breaks your heart."
Cathedral had an almost unprecedented degree of success for a short-story collection. It sold over 20,000 hardcovers, was nominated for the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction, and was named one of the best 13 books of 1983 by the New York Times. Fires, a collection of previously published essays, poems, and short stories, was also issued in 1983.
One of the essays in Fires, in fact, shows how Carver has altered over the years since his earlier life. In "My Father's Life," he has some a scene that "has to be one of the most moving expressions on record of a son's love for his father," says his wife Tess Gallagher (xiii) in Call Me If You Need Me. In a very emotional part of an early draft of the story, Ray goes to his father, who's in the mental ward of the hospital where Ray's child has just been born, and tells him, "You're a grandfather." His father responds, "I feel like a grandfather." States Gallagher, that sentence "falls as softly as distant thunder, yet it has the effect of a hammer blow."
In his last years, Carver turns increasingly more toward poetry, hoping that the critics and readers will not be upset that he has decided to do more in this literary vein than the short stories. However, he explained, he did not see his poetry simply as a hobby or pastime to rest away from fiction. Instead, poetry was a spiritual necessity as he came closer to the end of his life.
Ray," says Gallagher in New Path to the Waterfall "used his poetry to flush the tiger from hiding. "He was living a vocation and this meant that his writing, whether poetry or prose, was tied to inner mandates that insisted more and more on an increasingly unmediated apprehension of his subjects, and poetry was the form that best allowed this" (xxx).
Gallagher notes that the poetry and short stories must be seen as a totality that made Carver what he was as a writer. They cannot, or should not, be taken alone. "It could be that Ray in his own fashion, has done as much to challenge the idea of what poetry can be as he did to reinvigorate the short story."
She concludes about Carver's change throughout life: "What is sure is that he wrote and lived his last ten years by his own design, and as his companion in that life, I'm glad to have helped him keep his poetry alive for the journey, for the comfort and soul making he drew from it so crucially in his too-early going" (xxxi).
Carver, Raymond. A New Path to the Waterfall. New York: Atlantic Monthly, 1989.
Carver, Raymond. Call if You Need Me. New York: Vintage, 2000.
Kibble, Matthew (Ed). "Raymond Carver" from Literature Online biography. London: Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company, 2001.
Scribner's Writing Series. Raymond Carver. Writers A to Z. Section. New York: Thompson Gale.