Carver is considered to be one of the great short story writers of all time and this was his first published collection. He’s an icon of the Minimalist movement and we’ll explore how accurate that all actually is, but his stories here could easily fit that description. Carver’s prose here is clinical & simple. He tells you what happens, but leaves the characters’ interior lives up for debate; he’s not going to tell you what people are thinking or feeling, just what they’re doing. Part of what makes this so effective is his utter lack of judgment. Neighbors is one of the more famous stories and it neatly points this up and also kind of lays out a template for Carver’s typical story. A married couple lives across the hall from another couple; when the other couple goes on vacation, they get asked to feed the cat and watch the apartment. Simple enough, but once this couple begins to invade the other couple’s apartment, their behavior gets kind of strange and, without Carver ever making it explicit, they’re feeling a kind of dark charge from trespassing on another couple’s intimate space and, at the same time, feeling a sad kind of envy. But even as these characters intrude on someone else’s intimate space, Carver reserves judgment; these are just people, just regular people, and Carver has no room for any condescension. This is kind of the basic template of a Carver story: something very mundane, of seemingly no real import, happens and it causes a strange sort of upset or turmoil in the main character of the story. When this works, it really, really works; in Fat, a woman decides her life has to change after something as simple as her husband making fun of a fat man; in Sixty Acres, a man discovers a couple of kids trespassing on his land and realizes that he’s deeply unhappy with his lot in life; etc. At their best, these stories are brilliant portraits of attempted, mostly failed human connection. In Collectors, a vacuum cleaner salesman arrives at the house of a man who’s unemployed; they find a strange sort of connection when the salesman decides to go ahead and give the full vacuum demonstration even though he knows the man won’t buy anything. Night School is a great story about a guy who picks up a couple of girls in a bar, but then really doesn’t know what to do at that point. Put Yourself in My Shoes is probably the best story; a married couple tries to have a nice evening getting to know their new landlord and his wife, but things very quickly turn sour and the confrontation that develops is painful and stark. Carver has a real gift for the way people talk; his dialogue rings absolutely true, stripped down, blunt and often aimless. He’s capturing something really powerful here, a sense of disenchantment and uncertainty in the lives of everyday people. He sees the deep meaning behind the seemingly small events that make up the mostly unremarkable lives these people live and he tells these stories with a real since of verisimilitude. This style could very easily devolve into a parody of itself, but this book only has one story, The Father, that does this; it’s the shortest story in the book, at only two pages and it has a really terrible ending. For the most part, though, Carver’s instincts ring true; these stories are just minimal enough to feel real and yet well-crafted enough to feel meaningful. I’m looking forward to continuing on the journey with Carver. He has the simple craftsmanship of a true artist; the details of everyday life he gets so right. 4 stars.
tl;dr – Carver’s debut short story collection is brilliant, minimal exploration of everyday people, unremarkable lives and the deep meaning behind the simplest things in life. 4 stars.