‘So Much Water So Close to Home’ by Raymond Carver

I first encountered Carver’s short stories when I was a teenager, trawling the local library for things I hadn’t already read. At the time, I couldn’t work out if he liked people or not, but I was drawn to his style and his acute observations of relationships between men and women.

In ‘So Much Water…’ Claire, the narrator, is shocked to discover that her husband and his buddies have found the body ofa dead girl washed up on the shore upon arrival for their annual camping trip. Instead of reporting this to the police, the men carry on with their boys’ weekend, merrily fishing, eating, and drinking whisky. Reading it again, I share Claire’s horror and disbelief.

Carver writes with detached observation about the disillusionment of men in mid-century America, his emotionallydisengaged characters full of grimy, unapologetic bluntness. Marriage and domestic life – meal times, conversation, sex – are all portrayed with a scary kind of detachment, devoid of passion or feeling.

First published in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Knopf, 1981

‘Whoever Was Using This Bed’ by Raymond Carver

In the introduction to Best British Short Stories 2022, Nicholas Royle says of The Stories of Raymond Carver, “Wherever I open the Carver and read an opening line, I want to read on”. ‘Whoever Was Using This Bed’ starts, “The call comes in the middle of the night, three in the morning, and it nearly scares us to death.” Disturbed by a strange phone call, Jack and his wife Iris stay up smoking and talking, “the kind of talk that could only take place at five in the morning.” They reveal their health concerns and discuss “a life-and-death thing” with a sense of intimacy and understanding and trust, which is brilliantly undercut by the chilling punchline.

First published in The New Yorker, April 1986, and available online for subscribers here. Collected in Where I’m Calling From, Harvill Press, 1995

‘Why Don’t You Dance?’ by Raymond Carver

So many Carver stories could have been on this list, but I chose this one because – in only 1600 words or so and set entirely on a driveway where a garage sale is being held by the alcoholic narrator – we see the broken remains of a life, and how important connection is, however minimal that may be. 

A young couple scope out the furniture pieces, possibly to buy for their own apartment, but there are no price tags on any of the items. As the girl is looking through his record collection, they put a song on and dance together.

There is no traditional ‘plot’ and the reader is only drip fed certain tiny, but crucial, elements of information. Nothing is resolved, everything is implied. 

First published in Quarterly West, 1978. This version first published in the Paris Review, 1981. Collected in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Knopf, 1981, and Where I’m Calling From, Atlantic, 1988

‘Why Don’t You Dance?’ by Raymond Carver

The simplicity of language and action in this story encourages the reader to co-create the “more to it” that cannot be “talked out.” I imagined entire lives on this artfully blank canvas, in a frame sketched out with minimal words:

His side, her side.

First published in Quarterly West, 1978. This version first published in the Paris Review, 1981. Collected in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Knopf, 1981, and Where I’m Calling From, Atlantic, 1988

‘A Small Good Thing’ by Raymond Carver

‘A Small Good Thing’ was the first short story that showed me the transcendent possibilities of the form. I didn’t understand how Carver could create his effects with such precision and concision; I still don’t. The story of a parents’ loss of a child and their consolatory interaction with a baker, ‘A Small Good Thing’ is a devastating tale of forgiveness and kindness that continues to reverberate deep within me.

First published in the USA in Cathedral, Alfred A. Knopf, 1983, and in Britain by Collins Harvill, 1984; collected in Where I’m Calling From – The Selected Stories, Harvill, 1993

‘Fat’ by Raymond Carver

The story I have read most often – and in the most detail – ‘Fat’ is a deep dive into the dumper truck of sadness. It has moments that still make me shiver even having read it hundreds of times. To think, this was the first story in his first collection! For me, it remains the high watermark of Carver’s art, and perhaps his most affecting. 

First published in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? McGraw Hill, 1976. Currently available from Vintage Classics, 2009. Also collected in Where I’m Calling From, Atlantic/Harvill Press

‘Fat’ by Raymond Carver

Though he is unsentimental, Carver is a hugely compassionate writer. This story is a perfect example of how short fiction is like a pebble thrown in a pond. It ripples out over a great expanse. On the one hand ‘Fat’ is about a waitress who serves an obese customer. Other staff mock him but she looks after him with exemplary care. When she talks about her shift, the waitress realises that she has been unsettled by this encounter. But on the other hand, ‘Fat’ it’s about magnanimity, the place we occupy in the world.

First published in Harper’s Bazaar in 1971. Collected in Will You Please Be Quiet, Please, McGraw-Hill, 1976 and Where I’m Calling From, Atlantic, 1988Available online here

‘Why Don’t You Dance’ by Raymond Carver

McEwan, Paley and Ballard were my models, and I spent most of my time as an MA student at UEA trying – and failing – to emulate them. If Malcolm Bradbury had an opinion on this he didn’t say, but my other MA teacher was Angela Carter, and she did. I submitted a single page of single-spaced typewriting that attempted to be McEwan, Paley and Ballard all at once. “Oh Andrew,” she sighed, “why don’t you just write about what you know.” She gave me a copy of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. She had no use for it, but assumed I might – and I did. In the years that followed it seemed that everyone aspired to be Raymond Carver, if they didn’t already aspire to be Angela Carter. For a short while I tried – and repeatedly failed – to emulate ‘Why Don’t You Dance’. It’s still mysterious to me how it works, but when I began to write about what I knew, in a voice that sounded more plausibly like mine, the permission came from Raymond Carter – via Angela Carter – and has much to do with his embrace of the everyday and the quixotic in the quotidian.

First published in Quarterly West, 1978. Collected in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Knopf, 1983, as well as Where I’m Calling From and Collected Stories

‘So Much Water So Close To Home’ by Raymond Carver

I first read this story in my teens as a result of seeing the brilliant Short Cuts by Robert Altman. The story interests me in part because it’s about a gulf of understanding, about a deep disparity of knowledge and feeling that can arise between men and women around questions of violence, degradation, and bodily dignity – something I am thinking a lot about these days. The narrator’s husband goes on a weekend fishing trip with friends; they discover a dead girl’s body floating in the river, but choose not to curtail their trip or inconvenience themselves by finding a phonebox to call the police. Carver makes economical use of the queasy mingling of the fish they acquire and the female corpse they ignore. The narrator’s subsequent horror at the men’s indifference, and her anxiety about her husband’s implication in the story, draw an increasingly violent wedge between husband and wife. There are some killer lines: “He put his arms around me and rubbed his hands up and down my back, the same hands he’d left with two days before.” It’s an uncomfortable and astute rendering of the sickly knowledge of male violence with which women live.

In Where I’m Calling From: The Collected Stories, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1988

‘Elephant’ by Raymond Carver

My mother and my daughter and my former wife. That’s three people on the payroll right there, not counting my brother. But my son needed money, too.

It was hard to choose just one Raymond Carver story but this is the one that has stayed with me the longest, perhaps because of the hopelessly unfair situation the narrator is in. He works long hours in a dead-end job in order to support various family members whose demands become increasingly unreasonable. Carver perfectly captures the overwhelming sense of hopelessness that the narrator feels. Yet despite this he still manages almost angelic moments of optimism and good will towards the world and even his hapless and predatory relatives.
Published in The New Yorker, June 9, 1986 and collected in Elephant and Other Stories, The Harvill Press, 1988 and Where I’m Calling From, The Harvill Press, 1993. Read it online here

‘Cathedral’ by Raymond Carver

‘My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything.’

A prejudiced, bitter, stoned narrator is asked by his blind guest, a friend of his wife, to draw a cathedral. Their hands both holding the pen, the guest says: “‘Go ahead, bub, draw. You’ll see. I’ll follow along with you. It’ll be okay. Just begin now like I’m telling you.” It leads to an emotional moment of catharsis and transformation for the narrator ‘like nothing else in life up to now’; he keeps his eyes closed and keeps drawing even when he doesn’t have to. Early Carver includes stories I like a lot, including ‘Fat’ and ‘Why Don’t You Dance?’, but they always seem to be written outside of his own skin. I find the Carver brand of nihilism somewhat distancing. This story was the first Carver I read where it felt he was writing with real feeling – he had stopped drinking, had re-evaluated life and in his own words, “was in a period of generosity. The story affirms something” as a result.

In Cathedral (Vintage, 1983)

‘Errand’, by Raymond Carver

As a Chekhov devotee it might seem odd I should choose a story about, not by, Chekhov. But in truth, I prefer his plays, and this, about Chekhov’s final moments and death by champagne is classic Carver – or classic Gordon Lish (Carver’s editor), as we might now be led to believe. Regardless of that, it has all the precision, sobriety and exquisite timing of Carver’s best work with an added Russian flourish, and is the last story in Elephant, the collection published in the final year of Carver’s life. (Carver died aged 50 in 1988). My best friend, Sonia Misak, with whom I’ve been sharing stories both real and imagined  for most of our lives, gave me my copy of Elephant at New Year 1990. Carver was quite possibly already terminally ill when he wrote ‘Errand’, but in it he is exploring Chekhov the writer rather than Chekhov the dying man; and reading it calls to mind that great line of Virginia Woolf’s: ‘I meant to write about death, but life kept breaking in as usual.’

(Originally published in Elephant. Also in from Where I’m Calling From, Harvill, 1993)