annotation by Tina Rubin
Ever since encountering “Popular Mechanics” during my first Antioch residency, I looked forward to reading more of Carver’s short stories. Although much has been said about the role Carver’s editor, Gordon Lish, played in the minimalism his stories are known for, reading them left no doubt in my mind about Carver’s mastery of the format.
The stories in this collection deal with damaged love in every form; in other words, strong emotion. The stories progress clearly, directly, yet they surprise. The endings reveal an unexpected theme. After reading the first few stories and seeing the pattern, I began to look forward to the endings to see how Carver would resolve each situation. His titles are a clue, carefully chosen as a signpost to the emotion of the story.
Carver employs two techniques that I found especially instructive. First, these stories reveal emotion mainly through action and dialogue, yet they manage to pierce the deepest feeling places. Second, it is what is not said that carries the most impact. In “Tell the Women We’re Going,” for example, two best friends settle into their marriages, but one feels more burdened by family responsibilities. Midway through the story Carver gives us this line: “It was a Sunday at Jerry’s place the time it happened.” He then continues with seven pages of an ostensible pick-up scenario: Jerry and Bill leave the women, go for a drive, and try to hustle two girls on bicycles headed for a hike in the mountains. Like Bill, the reader assumes they are going to cheat on their wives. It’s okay with Bill if it happens or it doesn’t. In the last paragraph, however, the narrator nonchalently reveals, “But it started and ended with a rock. Jerry used the same rock on both girls, first on the girl called Sharon and then on the one that was supposed to be Bill’s.” It’s only then that the reader realizes the depth of the Carver’s clues.
In another example, “So Much Water So Close to Home,” a woman’s husband discovers a female body in the brush by the stream as he and his buddies begin a camping trip. Rather than hiking back five miles to their car and then looking for a telephone, they fish and drink and camp for two nights, calling the authorities only on their way home. Hearing the story, the wife becomes judgmental, internalizes the murder, and even begins to fear for her own life. Yet in the end, she welcomes her husband’s advances in the time remaining before their son comes in from the backyard. “First things first,” her husband says, and she agrees. The idea is closer to home than she realizes.
“After the Denim” also stood out for me. In it, Carver uses more of the techniques found in longer works (or perhaps Lish didn’t edit this one as much). He spends more time developing the characters; e.g., James is always concerned about locking doors and leaving porch lights on—protecting what is his—while happy Edith wiggles her toes at him and makes light of his cynacism about a younger couple (in denims) displacing them in their bingo group. When she faces a serious female problem, his anger is directed at the younger couple. Carver uses wonderful symbolism at the end, when James stabs at the eye of his needlepoint and pretends he is a man in a photograph he has seen at their community center, standing on a overturned boat and waving.
The collection taps into an emotional realm that everyone can relate to—because we’ve all been there. This too is a lesson for me: it’s the emotion of the characters that makes the theme work, not the grandeur of the theme itself.