For Raymond Carver
By Len Kuntz
He was already dead when I found him. There was no one to call. My stomach filled with acid, my head spun. So I sat down, right there in the bookstore row, and read—This Is What We Talk About When We Talk About Love—until my eyes bled.
I was spellbound.
This was before flash fiction even had a name.
Others had known him before me, and I found this disappointing. Couldn’t someone have introduced us? How is any fair writer supposed to make their way without Ray?
From him, I learned to take risks, break writing rules. I learned how to get lowbrow enough to seem highbrow, how to surprise a reader without gimmickry. Ray used small, soft words that could cut your heart out and apologize at the same time. He mentored me through print—stories, poems, essays and other scraps I dug up. He himself learned from Lish—how to edit and kern the way a leather artisan tools animal figures into a belt, getting the goat’s startled expression exactly wide-eyed, making the mare’s flared nostril’s sweat.
Who’s to say definitively where flash fiction originated? I do know that most of Carver’s stories—written before his death in 1988—came in under 1,000 words, four or five pages. They embody all the elements of great flash writing—urgency, compression, language with music in it, plots that take the turn you didn’t see coming, story starts that are immediately compelling such as this from Gazebo:
That morning she pours Teacher’s over my belly and licks it off. That afternoon she tries to jump out the window.
In just two sentences, Carver thrusts us into the action and kick starts our imagination. We at once have all kinds of questions: Who is this woman? How did she go from having a sexual (albeit kinky) appetite in the morning to nearly killing herself only hours later? What does the narrator think about all this? Was he the cause? And then there’s the specific mention of Teacher’s, which is the name of a liquor company that makes Scotch Whiskey. Why did Carver pick Teacher’s and not some other brand? Inherent in the name is symbolism, and so we’re left wondering what part that will play in the story.
Another example comes from the opening lines in Where I’m Calling From:
J.P. and I are on the front porch at Frank Martin’s drying-out facility. Like the rest of us at Frank Martin’s, J.P. is first and foremost a drunk.
Here we learn that two apparent friends are in rehab for alcoholism, and that the place is called Frank Martin’s. Why Frank Martin’s? How is this place different from other institutions? What circumstances compelled the pair to seek help? Was it their own volition, or did a marriage or career end due to alcohol abuse? Will they be successful in their recovery? Are they hopeful, despondent, angry?
In every piece, Carver is fixated on brevity and intensity, two keystones of flash fiction writing. This, coupled with the fact that most of his titles are compelling enough to catch a reader’s eye—The Third Thing That Killed My Father Off for instance, or The Furious Seasons—each of Carver’s works is as much a sizzling story as it is an instructional for any would be writer. From top to bottom, from title to conclusion, Ray teaches us about the best writing has to offer.
His characters, sometimes named, sometimes not, are always fully individualized, people we recognize at once, but don’t necessarily trust to do the right thing. It’s as if Carver is taunting the reader to Hang in there. Let’s just see what this character ends up doing. I think he’s going to surprise you. And so often he does.
In the late ’70s there were Mailer and Bukowski, and along with Carver, some tagged them a writer’s Rat Pack, but truthfully, Ray never fit in. He had the drinking part down, yes, but he was as shy as a breeze, soft spoken, whispering when he talked, the way one might to a lover. With his voice, as with his writing, he made you pay attention.
His stories shined a light on small town suffering and broke-down places. He was a quiet king, and anytime I sit down at a keyboard, he’s nearby, always, whispering in my ear, “Take your time. It’s all about making the words sing.”
Len Kuntz is a writer from Washington State, an editor at the online magazine Literary Orphans, and the author of I’M NOT SUPPOSED TO BE HERE AND NEITHER ARE YOU out from Unknown Press. You can also find him at lenkuntz.blogspot.com.