As with all reviews of Carver, the twin stories are Carver’s mostly alcoholic life and his relationship with heavy-handed — or creatively instructive — editor Gordon Lish.
Everyone agrees. Carver’s alcoholism = bad. And mostly the psychology of the Lish relationship = bad.
But almost everyone’s reactions become more complex when asked which stories they prefer, the Lish versions, the manuscripts that Carver submitted to Lish, or — and this is less mentioned — the stories as recovered by Carver during his final days like those in Cathedral say.
King and I agree that the difference between “A Small, Good Thing” (a story that Carver recovered and re-extended and made deep) better than “The Bath” (the ruthlessly edited Lish version). The fact that we had access to both versions for a long time, that they illustrated the two public presentations of Carver’s work, and the quality of both stories were the reasons that I chose “A Small, Good Thing” for the Health Anthology. Great stories to talk about Carver, his public reception, the role of the editor, minimalist fiction and the changing relationship of the author to his own work.
The contrast between “The Bath” (Lish-edited) and “A Small, Good Thing” (Ray Carver unplugged) is even less palatable. On her son’s birthday, Scotty’s mother orders a birthday cake that will never be eaten. The boy is struck by a car on his way home from school and winds up in a coma. In both stories, the baker makes dunning calls to the mother and her husband while their son lies near death in the hospital. Lish’s baker is a sinister figure, symbolic of death’s inevitability. We last hear from him on the phone, still wanting to be paid. In Carver’s version, the couple — who are actually characters instead of shadows — go to see the baker, who apologizes for his unintended cruelty when he understands the situation. He gives the bereaved parents coffee and hot rolls. The three of them take this communion together and talk until morning. “Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this,” the baker says. This version has a satisfying symmetry that the stripped-down Lish version lacks, but it has something more important: it has heart.
Where we, and many others, disagree is over Carver’s most famous story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” which Carver presented to Lish as “Beginners.” Lish’s editing was ruthless as a restoration of the manuscript published online by the New Yorker shows. King compares the two, citing the highly different prose styles. The work Carver presented “consists of dense blocks of narration broken up by bursts of dialogue.” While the version we saw as WWTAWWTAL as edited by Lish, “there is so much white space that some of the stories…look almost like chapters in a James Patterson novel.”
While King does, as seen in the quotes above, pass judgment on the Lish edited stories in WWTAWWTAL, King doesn’t exactly pass judgement on the title story itself. I personally still after many rereadings prefer the story as edited by Lish known as WWTAWWTAL to Beginners. That makes my own thoughts about the Carver/Lish relationship more complex. When the editors of the Health Anthology substituted WWTAWWTAL for “A Small, Good Thing,” I felt a little like Carver. What the hell were they thinking! But I agree WWTAWWTAL is a very good story, a better story, the story that we know Carver–the public Carver of a certain period–by. I am wondering now is WWTAWWTAL more instructive or less so than ASGT?