Raymond Carver masters the art of effective story telling in this poignant collection of fictional short stories and one poem. He artfully demonstrates a twist on the proverb, “Nothing in life is free,” as his characters reveal that “short cuts” don’t exist: short cuts are actually dead ends and rotaries disguised as easy exits. Carver’s stories, though seemingly simple, illustrate the intricacies of human relationships, the complicated grids that bind and sever us. Amazingly, Carver affects this end without relying on heavy imagery or backstory; instead, his themes prickle through carefully executed dialogue, simple but meticulous telling, and the occasional inner monologue. Certainly, Carver is one of the few authors who cannot only get away with, but who excels in his craft by “telling” rather than “showing.”
Because Carver wastes little time on introductory exposition, his stories seem to start with the tension that accompanies the near-closing of rising action; the climax, the mess that defines humanity, is never far from the start of a Carver story. The stories in this collection include characters who experience every type of normal human difficulty; what makes the stories unique is Carver’s microscopic view of the characters’ aggravatingly simple and thus nearly surreal motivations. Carver serves untainted truth where many authors choose to focus on surface sentimentality, on superficial cause and effect. It is for this reason-the fact that honest stories are so difficult to find-that the harsh and weird realities in Carver’s stories seem at times surreal. His stories make readers itch with indignation and squirm with newly impressed awareness as he knocks humanity from its pedestal and does not apologize; Carver’s stories imply that humans are more simple than they are complex but also that human simplicity is complex. I challenge another writer to pull off this theme as exceptionally as Carver does. Furthermore, I challenge readers to accept their flaws, to admit to the sinful short cuts that they have attempted.
Carver brings people’s shameful behaviors to the forefront with a blunt honesty that compels readers to scrutinize their own potholed lives. Though Carver’s stories may inspire change, that is not his main intent; rather, his stories seem to admit that even the so-called “normal” people engage in disgraceful behaviors and that these behaviors may not be entirely extinguishable. However, admitting to these behaviors’ existence may be the first step to forging stronger, more honest lines of communication with loved ones. These tales of broken communication serve as a warning; if humans do not strive toward honesty with themselves and with one another, they will surely discover that their avoidance of truth has been a “short cut” to nowhere.
There are no Hollywood endings in this collection. There are no “short cuts.” In a Carver story, when a wife cheats on her husband, he will resent her, and she will take on a different meaning for him; the couple will not take the easy way out by glossing over their mistakes with a make up kiss. Doctors will misdiagnose, loved ones will die against the odds, the survivors will lash out in their grief. These are stories of adulterers, fetishists, workaholics, eccentrics, bums, alcoholics, lovers, and murderers-stories about love, control, fear, betrayal. These are stories about normalcy, stories of people who make mistakes. These are the stories of people who live the only way they know how, stories of our neighbors, our friends, our family, ourselves. These are stories about how short cuts lead us into unexpected construction zones and scary, dark inner city blocks or haunted woods. These are vignettes about growth where each story introduces a painful truth about humanity. It is painful to learn that only in Hollywood does “love conquer all”-painful to read about men who are so worried about what other men think of their wives’ appearances that they prod their wives into unhealthy diets, painful to read about men slaughtering children.
Carver attacks every human vice – pride, lust, envy, gluttony, covetousness, anger, and sloth – in his quest to reveal the truth that humans are not perfect and that we sometimes do unexplainable or regrettable things. Ultimately, his stories attract for their disturbing and relatable truths, for their courage to explore that darkest side of humanity which we so often try to slough off or pretend does not exist. To read this collection is to bite into Eden’s forbidden fruit, is to know our own shortcomings, is to marvel at Carver’s mastery of human complexity; to pass by this book is to pretend that hit and runs do not happen to children, is to pretend that strangers don’t murder strangers, is to pretend in “happily ever after[s]” and short cuts.