Cathedral by Raymond Carver

cathedralThis book is called Cathedral: Stories but probably it ought to be called Alcoholism: Stories given the content it explores.

As I mentioned in my review of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Carver explores a white working class life familiar to my childhood that very few authors write about. At least not well. The practical but inimicable relationship to hated jobs, the centrality of an always-on television, a grim fatalism that can’t quite eliminate hope from the equation. But my family had this weird sort of asceticism: the dependency of the drinking class was basically absent. My grandfathers would drink a light beer in front of the TV and that was about it. My parents only started drinking, sparingly, in the last few years. Forget MJ or any hard drugs. So this collection doesn’t resonate as well, and despite being superb (Carver prose = magic), I think personal-familial musing aside, it’s just not as strong as the other collection.

Alcoholism in Cathedral is a demon. The demon. It unmans men, invokes violence and cruel madness, puts people in an early grave. Wives are willfully destroying marriages, husbands are hiding their 9am 2nd bottle of champagne behind the toilet, fathers are slapping their sons around. It’s effective, and the influence on Infinite Jest’s black comedy/horror scenes of AA meetings where people admit horrific-to-the-point-of-hilarious abuses due to the drink is crystal clear. But it does start to repeat a bit, in a less than compelling way. 

The first story is the best story; a man brings his wife to meet his work buddy, at the latter’s country ranch where he has a pet peacock and an ugly new baby. It shows us guileless, pure love, and then flips the switch to this helpless melancholy triggered by missing out on that same love, even when you tried pretty hard. It feels like maybe you only get once chance to get it right.

A shorter story from WWTAWWTAL appears here as well, except about four times the length. The first collection leaves us in a hospital with a dying child, this one kills him and shows us the aftermath, which involves repeated calls from a baker who made the dead boy’s birthday cake that no one picked up. Actually you know what? The stories about love are better than the ones about alcohol. My favorite boozing story — a couple, divorced due to the man’s alcoholism, gets together for one last magical summer — merely uses the drink as a backdrop. 

I’ve also heard this collection is supposed to be when Carver got happier and injected hope into his stories. While I guess this collection is slightly brighter, as it contains a whole two stories with hopeful endings (after a whole bunch of other bad stuff happens), it’s hilarious to call this collection happy or hopeful. It’s not happy! It’s grim! Grim with shades of survival.