MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
When Raymond Carver died in 1988, the Times of London dubbed him the American Chekhov. Carver is still considered one of the greatest modern short-story writers. Now there's a new, nearly 600-page biography called "Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life."
Author Susan Jane Gilman has this review.
SUSAN JANE GILMAN: Confession: The first time I read a Raymond Carver story, I didn't get it. It was so spare, so lacking epiphany, I thought, huh? But then I read his story "A Small, Good Thing" and "Cathedral" and "Neighbors." I read his collection "Where I'm Calling From" and then I got it. Carver's stories are unadorned tales of ordinary people. Their very simplicity and elegance packed a deep, emotional punch.
This is why Carver's often extolled as a master of minimalism, which is ironic, because according to "Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life" by Carol Sklenicka, Carver's own life wasn't minimalist at all. It was stunningly chaotic.
Ray, as he was known, was like many of the characters he wrote about: A working class boy in Yakima, Washington, he married his sweetheart, Maryann Burk at age 19. They had two children in less than two years and lived hand to mouth. Maryann often waitressed and juggled jobs so Ray could write. And they moved around. A lot.
Until he was 41, Carver never held down a job for more than 18 months. The only constant was his writing. Rejection slips mounted, but he started to publish. He and Maryann drank and fought violently, though. And their lives spun out of control. Twice they filed for bankruptcy. At least once Ray almost landed in jail. And at least once, Maryann was rushed to the emergency room after Ray beat her.
Unlike many famous writers, however, Carver managed to stop drinking. Although he died at age 50 in 1988, in the last decade of his life he achieved sobriety. With this came unprecedented literary success and redemptive love with the poet Tess Gallagher. His own story ended with a measure of grace.
Given this, it would be easy for Sklenicka to write a dishy, sensational bio or a hagiography. Thankfully, she does neither. "Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life" is a sober, sensitive portrait of an often drunken and complex man. Sklenicka clearly adores Carver's work, but does a fine job of portraying his poignant contradictions. He's funny and abusive, insecure and dogged, nervous and passionate.
She's careful to distinguish the man from his writing. Even when she draws parallels between his life and his fiction, it's to illuminate his creative process. "Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life" is an honest portrait of a man's messy, triumphant literary struggle. It neither condemns nor exonerates him.
In this way, the book is an ultimate tribute to Carver. As a writer, he was, after all, revered for being both unflinching and tender. And Sklenicka's biography is exactly this: unflinching and tender. It is a big, good thing.
BLOCK: Susan Jane Gilman reviewing the new biography "Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life" by Carol Sklenicka. Gilman's latest book is a memoir called "Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven."