Wednesday, May 12, 2010


It is interesting how things come together, seemingly haphazardly, but connected in some way. Ann and I decided to celebrate our 40th wedding anniversary by taking a cruise in the Western Caribbean, places we’ve been before so we intended to spend most days on board, relaxing and reading, donning our formal wear for our special evening but otherwise, one could find us in a bathing suit and a book in hand.

I suppose that is the value of a Kindle or an iPad, being able to take a number of “books” with you, but for one week I figured one good novel and my half finished Library of America edition of Raymond Carver’s short stories would do. So part of the fun planning the trip was selecting the novel, finally choosing one by a favorite author, Anne Tyler, her recently published Noah’s Compass.

One review commented that she “plunges us into the troubled hearts of her characters and allows us to recognize in their confusions our own riven selves.” Since at times I feel particularly riven, about the past, about my interests; I prepared to be plunged!

Tyler is a master of the tragic comedy, seeing the sadness and the humor in the minutiae of ordinary families and their relationships. The lives of Tyler’s frequently quirky characters are compelling in their own way. And Noah’s Compass is no exception to the winning Tyler formula. And as she moves into a later stage of her own life (we are about the same age), her writing reveals an increasing obsession with time, time spent (on what?) and time passing more quickly through the unrelenting hourglass.

So it is no surprise that Tyler pulled me into her novel immediately and although I am no Liam Pennywell (love her protagonist’s name) in my demeanor, I am, like Liam, struggling with my memories and in fact just reading this novel, while celebrating our 40th anniversary, sparked a discussion while on the cruise as to what exactly happened that day.

We remembered that I spent the night before in my apartment at 66 West 85th Street and Ann at hers at 33 West 63rd Street (although we were already living together on and off). We also recalled that we took a one-week trip to Puerto Rico a couple of weeks before we were married which, unknown to us at the time, was our honeymoon in advance. I was between my first job in publishing where we first met and the one I would occupy for the rest of my working career (like Tyler’s characters I kept my shoulder to the wheel). I returned to my new job in Westport and shortly after, Ann placed a call to The Ethical Culture Society’s leader, Jerome Nathanson, the man she wanted to marry us. He had only one date open in the next seven or eight months: a Sunday in April, exactly one week away. We looked at one another and said let’s take it.

Consequently, Ann began hasty wedding arrangements, including ones to fly her mother and Aunt in from California, picking out a dress for herself and mother to wear, hiring a caterer and picking out flowers. We chose the list of attendees, mostly our immediate families and closest friends, including a few colleagues from work and of course, my young son from my previous marriage. Ann’s brother and sister-in-law offered their home in Queens for the informal reception. Everything had to be done on a shoestring and obviously with a sense of urgency.

The ceremony itself was what one would expect from a humanist minister. A substantial part of the service captured our enthusiasm for the then victorious New York Knicks, with names such as Bill Bradley, Dave DeBusschere, Walt Frazier, and Willis Reed sprinkled throughout our wedding vows. Later that night we returned to my 85th Street apartment. We both had to go to work the next morning, my driving to Westport, while Ann took the subway downtown.

So the broad strokes were clearly remembered but, unlike most married couples, we do not have a wedding album to detail much of the specifics of that day. My father was a professional photographer, but my mother did not want him to be very much involved on that matter. (She did not “approve” of the wedding.) Instead, he hired a freelance photographer. I clearly remember our shock when presented with black and white contact prints a week after the wedding. This was 1970 not 1930 and my father’s business specialized in producing color prints! We refused to order enlargements and those few contact prints were filed away. Forty years later, and we had nothing more than contact prints, postage size photos, and in black and white only, a tease of the past, never to be fully viewed (except for a few color Brownie shots taken by relatives).

Fortunately, the brave new digital world offered some remedy, and I was able to scan and enlarge some of those black and white postage size contacts. It was a fine balance, getting something recognizable, not enlarging them to the point that they were not just a bunch of fuzzy digital shadows. The resulting grayish specters became our fragile wedding album of that late April 1970 day.

Liam Pennywell (back to Tyler’s novel) finds himself out of work in his early 60s, out of touch with his children and ex wife, and soon after downsizing to a smaller apartment comes the first twist in Tyler’s plot, as Pennywell is knocked unconscious by an intruder during the night and wakes up in the hospital, banged up with no memory of the incident. He is intent on remembering (and in so doing conjuring up other memories of his past life as well) by pursuing someone he thinks can serve him as a “rememberer.” This turns into a romance, something he clearly neither expected or even wanted. Liam is directionless, and explaining the Noah’s Ark parable to his grandchild says: “There was nowhere to go. He was just bobbing up and down, so he didn’t need a compass, or a rudder, or a sextant.”

Later, Liam thinks, “We live such tangled, fraught lives…but in the end we die like all the other animals and we’re buried in the ground and after a few more years we might as well not have existed.” But finally he realizes that “if the memory of his attack were handed to him today, he would just ask, Is that it? Where’s the rest? Where’s everything else I’ve forgotten: my childhood and my youth, my first marriage and my second marriage and the growing up of my daughters?” Tyler intercedes: “All along, it seemed, he had experienced only the most glancing relationship with his own life. He had dodged the tough issues, avoided the conflicts, gracefully skirted adventure.”

This wonderful story is told with Tyler’s touching sense of humor, giving her characters the attributes and failures of us everyday folks. Unfortunately for me, while on this trip, the story was so compelling, I blew through the book in the first two days and I was concerned that I would also finish the Carver short story collection I also brought. Then, I would go crazy not having anything to read!

So, before turning to the rest of the unread Carver short stories, I made a visit to the ship’s library. There I found a well-stocked library of remainders, potboilers, mostly titles I never heard of, and certainly nothing I would choose to read. Consequently I was prepared to finish the Carver short story collection and start reading them all over again!

On my way out of the library, a large book caught my eye. What a shock to see one of the titles on my “must read” list, and how serendipitous it should be Carol Sklenicka's biography, Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life. I can’t imagine why or how this magnificent work joined the pop culture potboilers that made up the ship’s “library,” but I resolved to devour its 500 pages for the remainder of the cruise.

The book reminded me of my introduction to the literary biography genre, Mark Schorer’s Sinclair Lewis: An American Life (1961), a reading experience I never forgot because of Schorer’s incredible attention to detail. And there are similarities between Lewis and Carver, their struggle with alcoholism and their keen observations of ordinary American life.

Equally impressive is the detail packed into Sklenicka's biography of Carver and her ability to integrate Carver’s life and work, a biography by someone who clearly loves her subject. I particularly appreciated Sklenicka's relating specific poems and short stories to incidents in his life. Remarkably, Carver defined his career as “writer” while he was still in high school and never looked back. He was dependent on two women in his life, his first wife Maryann Burk and his second love, the writer Tess Gallagher who he married months before his death. They saw his genius and staunchly supported him, through his alcoholism and his early death from lung cancer (Carver was a militant smoker).

His inscription to his first wife in his last work, published only months before his death, but years after they had separated and divorced, says volumes about their relationship: “To: Maryann, my oldest friend, my youthful companion in derring-do, my mid-life companion in the same, my wife and helpmate for so long, my children’s mother, this book is a token of love, and some have claimed obsession. In any event, this is with love always, no one knows, do they, just absolutely no one. Yours, Ray. May 1988”

Still, he was equally devoted to Tess Gallagher for the last years of his life and after he realized the tumors in his lungs had returned they were married in Reno in June 1988, as an expression of their mutual love and as a means of ensuring that she would manage his remaining literary rights as his survivor.

I called this entry “Confluence” as everything came together reading this biography, Sklenicka writing: “When Richard Yates came to Tucson to promote A Good School…Ray finagled the opportunity to spend most of a day with the writer who’d been his hero since he was stopped ‘dead in his tracks’ by Revolutionary Road in 1961. To mention that novel, Richard Ford writes, ‘is to invoke a sort of cultural-literary secret handshake among its devotees.’” I am one of those devotees, not to mention a devotee to the works of Richard Ford (a life-long friend of Carver’s), and John Cheever with whom Carver ran around at the University of Iowa’s Writer’s Workshop. Carver and Cheever had a mutual admiration society, two of our finest short story writers who were both, at the time of their closest association, serious alcoholics.

Thinking of Sklenicka’s work, I wondered, if I were to write an autobiography, whether I could come up with the details of my own life. (Where’s everything else I’ve forgotten: my childhood and my youth?) It is a testimony to Sklenicka’s love of her subject and her prodigious research that A Writer’s Life should emerge exactly as the subtitle promises.

In Carver’s story Blackbird Pie a man’s wife has left him (this wonderful story was greatly influenced by Carver’s feelings towards his, then, ex-wife, Maryann). He’s bewildered and is trying to make sense of it all, the first person narrator concluding: “It could be said, for instance, that to take a wife is to take a history. And if that’s so, then I understand that I’m outside history now…Or you could say that my history has left me. Or that I’m having to go on without history. Or that history will now have to do without me – unless my wife writes more letters, or tells a friend who keeps a diary, say. Then, years later, someone can look back on this time, interpret it according to the record, its scraps and tirades, its silences and innuendos. That’s when it dawns on me that autobiography is the poor man’s history. And that I am saying good-bye to history. Good-bye, my darling.” Sklenicka is that “someone” who has looked back at that time and “interpreted” it according to the “record.”

And for Carver, he “took another history,” as did I, although mine can be explained only in autobiography and to the extent that memory serves.