When the New York Times published a Sunday spread on the author Raymond Carver in the spring of 1981, his stark stories about loneliness and bruised relationships had already earned him a Guggenheim fellowship and a nomination for a National Book Award. He’d won the most prestigious prize in short story writing three times. So a high school classmate of Carver’s brought the newspaper clipping to share with friends on a trip back home.
“She came to Yakima to visit and went to the library and asked for some of his books and the library had never heard of him,” recalls Joy Garretson, another classmate of Carver’s from middle school on. “She was just astounded. And kind of gave them a lecture I think.”
This week marks the anniversary of Carver’s death from lung cancer on August 2nd, 1988. He was just 50 years old. Carver was famous for stories capturing the searing drama of everyday life – from divorce and alcoholism to small town gossip--and featuring fishermen and mechanics might have been inspired by figures from his boyhood in Yakima. But Carver’s worldwide fame has never been fully embraced by his hometown.
Another Yakima notable –Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas—has had a federal wilderness named for him. A large painted sign marks the site of the Yakima home where he lived in high school. Carver’s books have made it into ibraries here today, and also into the curriculum at the local community college. But there are no memorials to speak of.
For old friends like Garretson, that anonymity is right in line with the Carver they knew growing up. “He blended in and he never stood out. He really never seemed to excel in anything,” she says.
Another childhood companion of Carver’s, Nick Rasmussen, says you could broaden that description to much of the Southeast Yakima neighborhood where Carver spent his early years: “The average kid from our neighborhood simply did not succeed in life. They just didn’t.”
Though Carver grew up in the boom years following World War 2, he spent much of his childhood in a house with no indoor plumbing. His father, Ray Sr. worked at the saw mill and often drank a good portion of his paycheck. Rasmussen say Junior--Carver’s boyhood nickname--was a quiet, unremarkable kid.
Family friends of Raymond Carver, like 95 year old Buey Davis, don’t remember him as being particularly ambitious, but he did see some signs of Carver’s literary drive. “I know his aunt would talk about how Raymond wanted to write stories: none of us thought anything about it. Actually, it seems she thought he was wasting his time,” Davis recalls.
Instead, he says, of doing something “more worthwhile.” For a time, Carver’s aunt must have prevailed: Carver picked cherries and harvested hops in the summers, something he remembered later as “unimaginably hard work.” But he never stopped writing.
Buey’s son Larry Davis, who played with Carver as a boy, says his friend’s imagination showed through in other ways, too. “In the summers,” Larry says, “we’d sleep out in his backyard, and Raymond would tell these scary stories, so scary that his brother and I had to go inside.” Those stories featured the aliens and axe murderers of the pulp fiction Carver read as a boy.
At Yakima High in the mid 1950s, Carver was a middling student who covered sports for the school paper and wrote yarns inspired by weekend fishing trips. All the same, says classmate Lucy Valderhaug, “It’s interesting to look back and see that there was something about him: There was a darkness that was apparent to me.”
She says Carver was a loner wrapped in a tough exterior. “He didn’t have much to say,” Valderhaug remembers. “When he walked down the hall, he would walk next to the wall.” She says Carver slumped and kept a pack of cigarettes rolled up in his sleeve, like James Dean. Flipping through the Yearbook to photos of Carver and a handful of friends, Valderhaug says most of all, Carver was “fast.”
“That’s a term that you have kind of to interpret,” she says, chuckling. “You see that look? You see that hair?”
Being “fast” meant drinking and cutting class; for Carver, perhaps it was an escape from a home life where the dream of writing never seemed realistic. In a way, he lived “fast” as an adult too: As Carver himself famously said, he wrote short stories and poems because he couldn’t afford to take the time to finish a novel.
Copyright 2015 Northwest Public Radio
Stephen King: Raymond Carver's Life and Stories (New York Times, 2009)