“Hello, sugar,” I’ll say when she answers. “It’s me.”
Cathedral sees Carver going even farther in the direction he went with the original manuscript of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. It probably rankled Carver on two levels to have Lish’s version of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love published. It wasn’t just that they weren’t his versions of the stories; it was also that he was now being acclaimed as a leading light of minimalism. So, in Cathedral he provides a batch of stories that are even more lengthy and dense than the stories in the Beginners manuscript and they’re more focused on human connection than anything Carver had done to that point. They’re still full of darkness, but Carver publishes his original version of The Bath from What We Talk About When We Talk About Love and it’s no accident that he does. It’s called A Small Good Thing and even though it’s a deeply sad story of tragedy and sorrow, it does end with a moment of real human connection between two antagonistic characters, that small good thing of the title. Where I’m Calling From, which would later give its title to Carver’s most famous collection of stories, is a raw, pained story of an alcoholic going through rehab and it similarly ends on a note of quiet hope. I don’t want to oversell this; these are still incredibly dark stories about people that are really lost, but Carver allows us to have moments where the stifling isolation of these characters lifts or even just promises to life for a blessed moment and, because these moments come in the midst of such darkness, they’re charged with incredible power. The title story of the collection, Cathedral, is the story that ends this book and I think by putting it in the final slot and titling the collection after it Carver is signaling that it’s the most important story in the book and it’s the one that really does kind of play to this theme the most and the most emotionally. It’s also the best story Carver had written by 1983 and, spoilers as to the rest of my Carver journey, I think it’s the best story he ever wrote full stop. The main character is deeply unlikable. When an old friend of his wife’s passes through town, he’s irritated by his wife’s affection for the man and, just to be frank about it, he’s creeped out and somewhat repulsed by the man’s blindness. An evening spent with the old friend goes progressively off the rails and so far, this is nothing new. But then there’s a surprising development and the story ends with the narrator and the blind man connecting in a powerful, beautiful and intimate way. The story is named Cathedral and while that does reference an element of the story, I think it also references Carver’s unspoken theme for this collection. In the darkness of a world where people have failed until they’re lonely, broken & sad, it is in the moments of actual human connection that we find the closest thing we have to faith. God is assuredly absent in the world of Carver’s stories or at least He has been. In this collection, He just might show up a time or two, hidden behind the face of a stranger, revealed for a small instant when two people manage to, at last, see each other as human. 4 stars.
tl;dr – Carver’s vision is still dark, but the prose here is beautiful; Carver allows for small moments of hope & human connection and his fiction has never been more powerful or brilliant. 4 stars.