Simply true

Call If You Need Me: the uncollected fiction and prose

Raymond Carver <em>Harvill, 312pp, £15</em>

Ernest Hemingway, in his introduction to Men at War, wrote that a "writer's job is to tell the truth. His standard of fidelity to the truth should be so high that his invention, out of his experience, should produce a truer account than anything factual can be." This latest collection, which brings together five previously unavailable stories with all of the author's uncollected fiction and non-fiction prose, confirms that Hemingway's diktat was imprinted on Raymond Carver's heart.

Although there is considerable overlap between this new volume and the uncollected writings published in 1991 as No Heroics, Please, taken together, they provide a richly textured sense of the author's personality and his acutely unsentimental world-view.

The new pieces in this book were written in the years immediately preceding Carver's death, at 50, from lung cancer. In each, his clean, unadorned prose draws us into the intimate lives of ordinary men and women. Three are about marital breakdown. In "Kindling", a recovering alcoholic, separated from his wife in his middle years, takes a room with a blue-collar husband and his wife in a small town. Myers, the new lodger, is in pieces, and Carver conveys his inner torment with metonymic beauty: as he takes the room, his new landlady "went over and turned down the covers on the bed, and this simple gesture almost caused Myers to weep". In "What Would You Like to See", another middle-aged couple agree to separate, which requires them to leave the house they have been renting. Like Pinter or Chekhov, familiar pleasantries are swollen with unarticulated meanings and, in the quietly dramatic rendering of their last hours together, the pair's surging feelings of attraction and repulsion overflow, threatening to engulf the reader.

A number of things in this book demonstrate the extent to which Carver, in T S Eliot's phrase, is "much possessed by death". In his final essay, "Friendship", it sneaks up on the reader from nowhere. One moment he is gently exuberant, describing how much fun he and his fellow writers Richard Ford and Tobias Wolff had during a reunion in London in 1988. (The description is accompanied by a picture of the three men, arms linked, beaming at their audience from a stage.) Then: "Chances are that two of the three friends in this picture will have to gaze upon the remains - the remains - of the third friend, when that time comes. The thought is grievous and terrifying. But the only alternative to burying your friends is that they will have to bury you." Although it is Carver himself who will be dead before the year is out (which he must have known when he wrote this), he retains in this essay his commitment to truth and aversion to fatalism and slush.

In Call If You Need Me, Carver's generosity and fidelity to his characters shine from every page. His stories proclaim the possibility of redemption, his characters grappling, as he puts it, with "love, death, dreams, ambition, growing up, coming to terms with your own and other people's limitations".

The American literary tradition that fuses idealism and pragmatism, with its belief in moral progress, friendship, self-reliance, truth to oneself and the redemptive power of nature, can be rediscovered again and again, yet shorn of sentiment, in Carver's work. Not for him shiny surfaces and gaudy descriptions: his flawed creations are embedded in their surroundings, and they experience physical trauma when disconnected from them.

If you have never read Carver, but have seen Short Cuts (Robert Altman's shattering on-screen realisation of nine of Carver's best stories), or just wondered what the fuss is about, this book is as good a place to begin as any. In his style, Carver may have affinities with Hemingway, but his portrayal of relationships between men and women is deeper and more nuanced than anything the old bullfighter ever committed to print.

This article first appeared in the 04 September 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - Cheated of their vodka and cake