Jane Alison on Raymond Carver
and Tobias Wolff
Two Close Readings: Wavelets
A North Carolina beach where I sometimes rent a small carousel house in the dunes meets both ocean and inlet: it’s at the bottom tip of an island, where seawater rushes into a bay. Atlantic waves break on the ocean side, but at the mouth of the inlet they keep rolling on, sculpting that edge of the island. Depending on tides, that edge can drop steeply into a fast current of slicing water, or it can be fantastically corrugated, low tide’s repeated ripples creating gentle ribs of sand. This rippling pattern = waves in miniature; when you fly over the ocean you see the same seemingly small undulations. Once I translated the dramatic arc to a wave, I began to think that energy in narrative might also flow in smaller waves, wavelets. Dispersed patterning, a sense of ripple or oscillation, little ups and downs, might be more true to human experience than a single crashing wave: I’m more likely to feel some tension, a small discovery, a tiny change, a relapse. The same epiphanies every week . . .
Raymond Carver’s “Where I’m Calling From”
I first noticed narrative rippling in Carver’s story, where we inhabit the uncomfortable mind and body of an alcoholic—a “wet brain,” his estranged wife calls him—trying to dry out at a facility in (where else?) the desert. Days pass in a sober routine of eating, talking with fellow inmates, being counseled by the proprietor, Frank Martin, thinking about the past and how he landed where he is, trying not to think of the parched future. The fellow he talks with most is a former chimney sweep named J.P., who tells N (the narrator) his story, which in part reflects N’s own. A few singular things happen in the story’s present—one of the inmates has a seizure, J.P.’s wife visits—and the story ends, in Carverian manner, with only a slight hint of change. What’s at stake, though, is N’s survival, only possible if he surrenders drinking for dryness. But just barely visible through the story’s surface of minor incidents, as subtle as the pale bands in an Agnes Martin painting, is a series of ripples or stripes that alternate between wet and dry. I think that this structure of alternation expresses, more than any dramatic action, the story’s main tension and movement.
Here are the story’s spare opening lines:
J.P. and I are on the front porch of Frank Martin’s drying-out facility. Like the rest of us at Frank Martin’s, J.P. is first and foremost a drunk. But he’s also a chimney sweep.
In this bone-bare opening, Carver begins to lay the pattern of the story’s oppositions: drying-out/drunk/chimney sweep. Dry/wet/dry. There’s more dryness a few lines later, as N tells us that in his version of the shakes a nerve jerks in his neck and his “mouth dries up. It’s an effort just to swallow then.”
After this opening comes a passage that’s largely wet: a fellow inmate named Tiny—damp from a shower, with hair slicked back and freshly shaved face nicked and bleeding, a man who’s dreaming of drinking hot chocolate at home on New Year’s Eve—tells drinking stories at the table as the other men eat scrambled eggs and drink coffee, when suddenly he has a seizure. “Give him air!” Frank Martin orders. Wet, then dry.
After Tiny’s story we return to the narrator sitting with J.P. on the porch; the two smoke, coal bucket for an ashtray, and J.P. tells about falling into a dry well as a child:
[ J.P.] hollered himself hoarse before it was over He’d sat there and looked at the well mouth. Way up at the top, he could see a circle of blue sky. Every once in a while a white cloud passed over.
He heard wind blow over the well mouth, and that sound made an impression on him.
His throat hoarse as he looks up at the well mouth and hears wind blow over it: this is a sense of dryness as a drunk sees it—a threat. Parchedness, the desert, felt in the mouth, the swallowing throat. Yet at the same time, there’s the blue sky, so both J.P. and the reader might sense that in dryness, no matter how threatening, is promise—a notion of hope that grows when, in the next paragraph, J.P. describes meeting Roxy, a chimney sweep who kisses him and makes his lips burn. The upside of dryness, again felt in the mouth.
But after this passage offering two ways of feeling dryness (desert vs. salvation), we move to the opposite: as J.P. and N sit on the porch, it rains, and now J.P. tells the story of how, even though he married Roxy, he drank ever more, and soon his life began dissolving:
For a long time he drinks beer and beer only. Any kind of beer—it didn’t matter. He says he could drink beer twenty-four hours a day. Then . . . he makes the switch from beer to gin-and-tonic [Soon] he’d go to work with a thermos of vodka in his lunch pail.
In this passage Carver reifies: the words drink, beer, or gin-and-tonic come nearly twenty times, just about drowning a reader.
Soon we’re back to a dry zone: it’s cold, the men wear sweaters, they smoke cigars or cigarettes and toss the stubs into a coal bucket, smoke drifts from their mouths, J.P. hardly breathes, there’s a puff of cigar. All of these nouns, these details, are perfectly naturalistic, but the effect is cumulative and consistent—all the more so when in the next section N recounts his own journey to this place. The night he arrived, he and his girlfriend had driven through a rainstorm, drinking champagne; she’d just had a bad Pap smear, which got them drinking: wine, Bloody Marys, bourbon. Wet and wet and wet.
And so on, back and forth between wet and dry—but in a way that is just barely perceptible, something felt more in the mouth and throat than consciously registered in the mind: a form of embodied cognition. In this story’s subtle figurings, breath is akin to smoke, to wind, and the men themselves are tantamount to dry wells or ashen chimneys, through which air and smoke flow. And here is the problem: to be a dry well or a chimney—to be dry—feels dead. It feels ashen. Something cancerous about feeling your throat as a chimney, coal-dusted and wrong. But to survive N must go dry, the very thing that feels like dying. A terrible paradox. “Part of me wanted help,” he says. “But there was another part.”The double note is often struck within sentences but is clearest in micro-incidents, where the impulse toward empathy hits its opposite.
The problem, visible through this wet-and-dry rippling, becomes explicit at the end. A book Frank Martin recommends to the men is Jack London’s Call of the Wild. The narrator hasn’t read it, but at the end of the story, after he’s had a lovely memory of a morning with his wife when he was suddenly glad to be himself—a single moment of affirmed life—he thinks about another Jack London story, “To Build a Fire”:
This guy in the Yukon is freezing. Imagine it—he’s actually going to freeze to death if he can’t get a fire going. With a fire, he can dry his socks and things and warm himself.
He gets his fire going, but then something happens to it. A branchful of snow drops on it. It goes out. Meanwhile, it’s getting colder. Night is coming on.
I bring some change out of my pocket. I’ll try my wife first. If she answers, I’ll wish her a Happy New Year. But that’s it. I won’t bring up business. I won’t raise my voice. Not even if she starts something. She’ll ask me where I’m calling from, and I’ll have to tell her.
Until now, in the story’s stealthy logic, fire would mean the ashen deadliness of dryness. But no: now it’s life. The narrator knows this, knows what’s at stake: he’s undergoing, perhaps, “some change.” In a way this story is classically energetic (back to Aristotle via Gardner): a situation with potential is actualized. Yet the drama’s muted to near silence, as life often is. The system of changes is small and psychological, rendered not through dramatic incidents but through these alternations between zones of wet and dry, a subtle tension that seems finally resolved when the two zones meet in the London story. No dramatic arc: the story advances, and slightly resolves, through this pattern of rippling.
Tobias Wolff’s The Barracks Thief
It took a few reads to diagnose the strange energy pulsing through this novella, the low-level tension that keeps every page agitated, until full drama swells at the center. It’s a steady nervous conjunction of two opposite impulses: intimacy and trust vs. anger and separation. Wolff strikes this two-toned note at once, as Philip’s father watches his sons sleep while imagining the evil that might find them. In even the most intimate space—boys in bed beneath their father’s gaze—a blade glints, because that father does the damage himself.
What kind of man turns his back on his own kind? is the novella’s central question, as we saw earlier, the question itself striking that double note: turns his back/his own kind. I hear it again when Philip learns to get along without his father, “mostly by despising him.” Love and intimacy: infected. The double note is often struck within sentences but is clearest in micro-incidents, where the impulse toward empathy hits its opposite. Look at this brief scene, for instance, when Philip is angry at how the family has collapsed since his father left:
One night, coming in from a party, [he] shook [his brother] Keith awake with the idea of having a good talk, but after Keith woke up Philip went on shaking him. . . .
“You’ve got to do your part,” Philip said.
Keith just looked at him.
“Damn you,” Philip said. He pushed Keith back against the pillow. “Cry,” he said. “Go ahead, cry.” He really did hope that Keith would cry, because he wanted to hold him. But Keith shook his head. He turned his face to the wall.
Philip repeats the pull-push with a high school friend: they’re driving together, talking, when he suddenly realizes the two are no longer friends. To punish—the boy? himself? his life?—he starts throwing rocks at windows. The friend is horrified, and Philip grows remorseful; he apologizes, but the boy won’t accept it; so Philip must strike again, now insulting his friend. Soon after, Philip’s father, Guy, terrifies the family by trying to force his way into the house, and Philip tells him to stay away. A choreography with hands ensues—lots of hand choreography in this book: Guy puts his hand on his son’s cheek; Philip stares down at the counter; Guy takes his hand away. Guy then presents his son with a gift: a folding bicycle. In showing how to ride it, he falls. “Give me a hand, son,” he says from the ground. Philip doesn’t move; his father asks again; Philip walks away.Interestingly, brutal Lewis gets closest to human connection in this book, even if it’s soon displaced by repulsion.
This intimacy-contempt happens again and again, most starkly several years later, in the central incident at the ammo dump at Fort Bragg, where Philip is one of three new guys he doesn’t know but doesn’t like.
“The last way I wanted to spend my Fourth was pulling guard with Lewis and Hubbard,” Philip says. “We had arrived on the same day and avoided each other ever since. I could see that they were as lonely as I was, but we kept our distance.” Precisely because they are the same “kind” they turn their backs on one another. But at the dump that day, as Lewis guards the fence, Philip and Hubbard talk: Hubbard misses his friends back home and asks Philip what he’d be doing were he at home himself—a clear note of empathy from a young man who later talks about a game he played called “Picture It,” which is precisely about imagining others. Philip pulls up a memory of July Fourth from years earlier, a night spent with his family at a motel:
[T]he memory was an old one. But it didn’t feel old. It felt fresh and true, the starry night, the soft voices from the open doorways around the pool, the water so warm you forgot about it, forgot your own skin. Shaking hands with Keith underwater and looking up from the bottom of the pool at the rockets flaring overhead, the wrinkled surface of the water all ashimmer with their light. My father on the balcony above, leaning over the rail, calling down to us. That’s enough, boys. Come in. It’s late.
Paradise: gone. Look at the choreography in this memory and the opening scene. In both, a father looks down at his boys, but in this “fresh and true” memory, he doesn’t picture evil coming their way but cares for them, as a father should. And the brothers share a watery handshake; one doesn’t shake the other in rage. But only a few pages after this delicate, empathetic dissolution of boundaries—a dissolution that’s both remembered by Philip and experienced in the wistful conversation with Hubbard—we oscillate back to isolation. Hubbard has now been guarding the fence, and when he returns, Philip is happy to see him. Hubbard waves, Philip waves back, but Hubbard gives him “an odd stare,” and Philip realizes that Hubbard had been “flapping some mosquitoes out of his face.”
Hands continue to signal both joining and pushing away: two civilians approach the dump’s fence to warn the boys about a fire that could kill them if a spark drifts their way. These men make the mistake of resting their hands on the fence—for which the boys have been told to shoot. Lewis is first to tell the men to back off, but suddenly something flares between him and Hubbard, and Hubbard does the same, pointing his rifle at the man’s head. The three boys join in this reckless, rageful act whose power comes above all from closing ranks: intimacy can happen only in rage against others.
Afterward, they “didn’t want to go away from each other.”
“I was in the middle,” Philip says. “I didn’t think about it, I just reached out and put my arms on their shoulders. We were in a state. Every time we stopped laughing one of us would giggle and set it off again.” More brief moments of unity-against-others follow, finally the one that focuses this system of micro-tension into the book’s main drama: when Philip closes ranks against Lewis.Aeschylus gives us all of this in the Oresteia, where the dire system can end only when spirits of primal rage—the Furies—are denatured
Interestingly, brutal Lewis gets closest to human connection in this book, even if it’s soon displaced by repulsion. A schoolteacher who’s giving him a ride from camp to town notices his swollen hand and ends up taking Lewis to his house, where he rubs Lewis’s hand with calamine lotion:
The burning skin drinks up the lotion. The teacher shakes more out, directly onto the back of Lewis’s wrist. Lewis leans back and closes his eyes. The room is cool, blue. A cardinal is singing outside, one of three birds the teacher can identify. He rubs the lotion into Lewis’s hand, feeling the heat leave little by little, the motions of his own hand circular and rhythmic. After a time he forgets what he is doing. He forgets his stomach which always hurts, he forgets the children he teaches who seem bent on becoming brutes and slatterns, he forgets his hatred of the house and his fear of being anywhere else. He forgets his sense of being absolutely alone.
So does Lewis.
Then the room is silent and gray. The teacher has no idea when the bird stopped singing. He looks down where his hand and Lewis’s are joined, fingers interlaced. For once Lewis is still.
A dissolving moment—like brothers shaking hands in a pool, soldiers throwing arms over shoulders—a moment that can’t last because repulsion and rage are stronger.
A final instance of this oscillating: Lewis steals money to visit a prostitute, who’s even more brutal than he. After rough sex in which she “governs him,” they sleep:
When he wakes, her eyes are open. She is watching him. Hey there, he says. He reaches out and touches her cheek. He says the same words he was saying before he dozed off. I love you, he says.
She pushes his hand away. You garbage, she says. She slides off the bed and finds her purse where she dropped it on the floor and takes out the knife.
What sort of man turns his back on his own kind? Lewis in stealing money from his fellows, Philip in rejecting Lewis’s hope to be pals, Guy in abandoning his sons. Crime, retribution, crime. As dire and grinding as an ancient saga launched by a curse: one man roasts his nephews and serves them to their father, and the injured father must be avenged, and the one who punishes him must be punished, and so on for generations. Aeschylus gives us all of this in the Oresteia, where the dire system can end only when spirits of primal rage—the Furies—are denatured, turned into the Kindly Ones. In The Barracks Thief, the men in the barracks simply, brutishly, continue the pattern, beating Lewis in a ritual called the “blanket party.” Just before they throw the blanket over his head, Lewis seems to stare at Philip:
Lewis’s eyes seemed huge. Unlike an animal’s eyes, they did not glitter or fill with light. His face was purely human.
He sat without moving. I thought that those eyes were on me. I was sure that he knew me. When the blanket went over his head I was too confused to do anything. I did not join in, but I did not try to stop it, either. I didn’t even leave, as one man did. I stayed where I was and watched them beat him.
Joining; not joining. Touching a face, soothing a burning hand; pushing that hand away. Longing for intimacy in bed—where else? But even bed is violent. Moving through the novel, I feel myself pass repeatedly through ripples of joining or repulsion. One gives way to another: the grim feedback system might never stop. In Philip’s case, it doesn’t. The oscillations that began that night as a little boy in bed, abandoned by his father, continue until the end: he becomes a man who will neither join nor leave; a man who has neighbors, yes, but ones who are glad he’s not their friend. Carver’s wet-brain narrator reaches a point of “small change”; Philip remains a site of deadly ambivalence.
Copyright © 2019 by Jane Alison, from Meander, Spiral, Explode: Design and Pattern in Narrative. Reprinted by permission of Catapult.