Left Cultures: Raymond Carver by Dan Woolley

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written by

Dan Woolley

Feb 26, 2024

This essay, by Stir to Action member Dan Woolley, was originally published in the second edition of Left Cultures (leftcultures.com), which features over 50 stories discussing a dazzling array of past and present cultural moments to create a Lexicon of the Left, fully illustrated throughout.

Left Cultures 01 & 02 can be purchased online, and in a number of independent bookshops (see stockists here).

So far as I’m aware, few people have a poster of Raymond Carver on their wall. To be clear, nor do I. Which isn’t to say I haven’t considered it. Well, maybe not a poster. More a framed photo, facing out over my desk: the desk where I was going to sit and write every morning, working on my own masterpieces of short fiction. I thought about printing the photo and signing it, as if by the man himself. “Dan – be cool. Ray x”

That was back in my early twenties, around the time I discovered Raymond Carver’s first collection of stories, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? You can’t walk past a book with a title like that and not pick it up. 

On account of his unadorned prose and his adherence to realism, Ray was often compared to Ernest Hemingway. But where Hemingway lived, and wrote of, a life that most Americans (especially those from the blue-collar side of the tracks) could only experience vicariously, Carver depicted a world that for many was all too close to home. If it wasn’t quite the dark underbelly of the American Dream, it was one characterised as much by the shade as the light, the negative spaces and the contours of lives unfulfilled. Perhaps a closer comparison is with the paintings of Edward Hopper, or the photographs of Robert Frank.

In an early, lesser-known story, one of Carver’s narrators is looking out the window and sees his neighbour moving the lawn, whom he describes as: “an unhappy man with a good sense of humour.” In the space of nine words, we have been gifted both a masterclass in minimalist description and, quite possibly, the sense of an author catching his reflection. Because it’s there – the humour – if you look for it; maybe not always, but more than you first realise. And in Ray’s stories there are no villains or hate figures – only men and women going about their lives, living one day at a time, hoping perhaps for a better turn of luck.

Happily, something like a better turn of luck eventually found its way towards Ray. His ‘second life’, as he called it, began when he overcame his addiction to alcohol. Gradually, from this point onward, something in his writing begins to shift. There’s something in the later stories, such as Cathedral or Elephant, that wasn’t quite there before.  It’s hard to describe what exactly. The best I can say is that there’s a sense of forgiveness. I like to think that Ray had learned to forgive himself.

After 17 years living in London, and several more years living away from the small town where I grew up, I recently returned ‘home’. Most of my books are still packed away in boxes; but as I sat down to write this piece, I decided to pull one out from the chaos: “Where I’m Calling From: The Selected Stories of Raymond Carver”. It’s a handsome, hardback edition: a silver cover with text in red and black, and a framed black-and-white photo of the author. I think I’ll keep it out for a while. Maybe place it on my desk, propped up against the wall. I have the feeling that I’m ready. Ready to get to work on a new beginning. ∞

Dan Woolley is a keen reader, writer, fell walker, swimmer and lover of the outdoor world. Having moved to London by mistake many years ago, Dan recently returned to his native Lake District. He now spends his days working for Stir to Action in order to bring about the economic revolution, and outside of this is forever tinkering around the borders of a new essay, poem, or some form of experimental writing. Dan agrees with Gil Scott-Heron (whom he greatly admires) that the revolution will not be televised, but is hoping that it can be captured neatly in prose. Instagram: @iam_danwolf

Artwork by Geoff Grandfield.

Purchase Left Cultures 01 & 02 at leftcultures.com.

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