It’s hard to be a dead writer. No matter how much you may have wished otherwise, your legacy is at the mercy of others, of your heirs and children, your literary executors, those who mean to capitalize on your work. Your files are open, your journals and rough drafts accessible, all those words in progress — misfires, alternate takes, embarrassments — potentially available to us all. From a reader‘s point of view, that’s not always a bad thing; it can be illuminating to look at the neglected efforts of a writer, a way of seeing unexpected epiphanies or unexplored directions, whole new categories of work. Jack Kerouac, for instance (the source of 11 new books since 1992, or nearly two-thirds as many as came out during his lifetime), has only been enlarged by the release of his previously unpublished poems and letters, while Franz Kafka . . . well, without posthumous publication, he wouldn‘t even be a flyspeck on the windshield of the world. Still, for every writer like these two, there are others posterity should have left alone. I’m thinking now of Ernest Hemingway, whose archives have been scavenged so systematically that there‘s nothing left but clean, white bones.
Raymond Carver might not be in the picked-over company of Hemingway, but neither does he belong to the Kerouac and Kafka camp. In the 12 years since his death of lung cancer at age 50, he (or his estate) has published five books, yet with the exception of A New Path to the Waterfall, the 1989 poetry collection that he finished, literally, in the last weeks of his life, his other posthumous works have featured little previously unknown material, for the simple reason that he didn’t leave a lot behind. Even No Heroics, Please, a compendium of uncollected writings that appeared in 1992, relied on book reviews and ephemera (introductions, brief prose comments, a fragment of an unfinished novel) to fill the gaps between apprentice fiction and a smattering of poetry; otherwise, Carver seems to have lived by his oft-repeated tenet that a writer should hold nothing back. Because of this, it was surprising to learn, in 1999, that his widow, the poet a Tess Gallagher, had found five unpublished stories — “the last of the last,” she called them — and was preparing them for print. A year and a half later, the result is Call if You Need Me: The Uncollected Fiction and Other Prose, a book that grafts these pieces to the bulk of No Heroics, Please, with mixed results. On the one hand, as Gallagher notes in her foreword, “The certain joy of this present endeavor has been in hearing something new from a voice it seemed had left the earth, of being glad for its unexpected entrance, after a curtain has rung down.” At the same time, Call if You Need Me also highlights the difficulties of posthumous publication, since with so little new work, it can‘t help but be diffuse, diluted, even marginal — in other words, both essential and redundant.
Faced with these limitations, it only makes sense that Gallagher and editor William L. Stull begin Call if You Need Me with the essential, using the five “new” stories to start things off. Even so, it’s hard to know, exactly, how to judge this material. “We were mindful that Ray would sometimes take a story through 30 rewrites,” Gallagher acknowledges. “These stories had been put aside well short of that.” Some of the work is clearly unfinished. “What Would You Like To See” suffers from repetitive dialogue and a plot, involving a couple‘s leave-taking from a rented property, that never fully blossoms. “Vandals,” despite some excellent writing, is clunky in places, incompletely drawn. Still, at least two of the stories subtly render sensitive portraits of people at the crossroads, their existences marked in equal measure by perseverance and loss. “Dreams” is reminiscent of both “Whoever Was Using This Bed” and “A Small, Good Thing,” tracing the quiet, almost voyeuristic lives of a husband and wife in a suburban subdivision, whose ordered universe is thrown into disarray when a fire kills two children next door. “Call if You Need Me,” meanwhile, recalls the tension of stories like “Chef’s House” or “Careful,” evoking a failing marriage given one last chance. This is classic Carver territory, and his exploration of it is plain and piercing, focused not on the love that binds his husband-and-wife protagonists, but rather on the bitter fact that love is not enough. Even the moment of wonder with which he resolves the narrative is insufficient to bring these people back together, or, in any real sense, to change their lives.
What‘s fascinating about stories like “Dreams” and “Call if You Need Me” is that they provide a kind of double vision, in which we appreciate them for what they are as well as for what they might have been. The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of the remainder of Call if You Need Me, which, with few exceptions, is less revelatory than retrograde, moving from the uneven to the uninspired. Part of the problem is the sheer inconsequence of most of it; both Carver’s introductions and his “Occasions” (short pieces on his own writing) are slight and overly cautious, so carefully rendered that they have no real life, while his book reviews are — there‘s no other way to put it — simply awful, heavy on plot synopsis and far too forgiving of his friends. More disturbing, however, is that we’ve seen this writing elsewhere, in No Heroics, Please and other volumes of Carver‘s work. That might have been okay if these pieces bore up under re-reading; I’ve never grown tired of stories like “Cathedral” or “Fat” or “So Much Water So Close to Home.” But even the best of Carver‘s nonfiction — like the essays “My Father’s Life” and “Fires,” which resonate with much of the power of his fiction — remains relatively minor, limited in appeal. None of it, certainly, has much to offer an uninitiated reader, which raises doubts about the integrity of Call if You Need Me. If, after all, the book is geared to the faithful, then it seems disingenuous, manipulative even, to pad it with so much insignificant, and previously published, writing — especially when there‘s still some valuable material out there, like Carver’s long unavailable 1977 story collection Furious Seasons, which should be restored to print.
The issue left unresolved in all this is whether, or to what extent, Call if You Need Me affects our attitude toward Carver. Reading some of the work here, you can‘t help but feel a bit of his luster fade. Paradoxically, though, these efforts may also enhance our sense of his achievement, by reminding us of his fundamental, fallible humanity, the way his literature reflects his life. Despite their flaws, Carver’s criticism and introductions — his writing on writing — consistently return to the notion that the best stories rely on “clear and specific language, language used so as to bring to life the details that will light up the story for the reader.” Thus, the potential of Call if You Need Me is that it may be a way of peeling back the surface of the Carver myth to glimpse the writer underneath it, a writer for whom, as for William Carlos Williams, there were “no ideas but in things.”
In the end, of course, it is this that matters, the quality of the writing, its ability to re-create the world. There are indeed moments here that bring us face to face with the stark power of Carver‘s vision. Unfortunately, too much of Call if You Need Me is built around material we didn’t need to see again. This is the peculiar burden of the dead writer, for whom the standards of a living, self-determined literature no longer necessarily apply.