In most of these 22 short fictions, the objects of Raymond Carver's close attention are men and women out of work, or between jobs, at loose ends, confused and often terrified. If they are kids, they play hooky. Husbands and wives lie beside each other in bed, touch cautiously, retreat, feign sleep, lie, each bewildered by what has just happened and by what might happen next. The stories themselves are not at all confused; they have been carefully shaped, shorn of ornamentation and directed away from anything that might mislead. They are brief stories but by no means stark: they imply complexities of action and motive and they are especially artful in their suggestion of repressed violence.
No human blood is shed in any of these stories, yet almost all of them hold a promise of mayhem, of some final, awful breaking out from confines, and breaking through to liberty. In the title story a man extracts from his wife the confession that years earlier, following a drunken party, she betrayed him with a friend. The husband goes on a bender, returns to his house and stands above his sleeping wife. He is capable now of anything: "How should a man act, given these circumstances? He understood things had been done. He did not understand what things now were to be done. The house was very quiet."
In the event, he and his wife make love. Such turmoils are, as in all of these stories, elliptically revealed, and potent with division as well as coupling. They are menacing, as are the spells of quiet and tensed apprehension that characterize Mr. Carver's method. His prose, for all its simplicity, carries his mark everywhere: I would like to believe that having read these stories I could identify him on the evidence of a paragraph, or at most two. His effect, which suggests but does not in any way duplicate the effect of Harold Pinter, is a function of accumulation. No single sentence lodges in the memory, but, taken together, Mr. Carver's locutions, exact and suggestive as they are, insinuate themselves into a reader's imagination and provoke startling, even shameful, expectations.
In his choice of plots and materials Mr. Carver is in the modernist train of Kafka. Odd and threatening messages come as though by magic through the mails or by telephone. Strangers invade one another's lives and offer preposterous challenges to one another. In the customary literary execution of such procedures, identities shift, characters are misled into taking enemies as friends, conspiracies develop or are, at the least, apprehended. Mr. Carver, by contrast, anchors his men and women, his children, even his dogs and cats, in stable identities. With a speed common to all his stories he fixes the special tic or manner he wishes to develop: "I was out of work," says the narrator of "Collectors" in the story's first sentence. "But any day I expected to hear from up north. I lay on the sofa and listened to the rain. Now and then I'd lift up and look through the curtain for the mailman."
That rain and lassitude, the dangerous quality of expectation and delay, is "Collectors'" signature. A vacuum-cleaner salesman invades the house, moves busily through it and occupies it. The salesman's disjunction is revealed by a few phrases and gestures. He wears slippers: "He saw me staring at the slippers and said, W.H. Auden wore slippers all through China on his first visit there. Never took them off. Corns." In its context, the observation is comical, but for some entirely magical reason, having to do with Mr. Carver's control, it is also terrifying, and in this conjunction of the comical and the ominous these fictions resemble Thomas Pynchon's.
Except that Mr. Carver is more sparing in his reliance on the surreal; once only, in "What's in Alaska?", conventional causalities are upset: "Carl set the glass on the coffee table, but the coffee table smacked it off..." And in this comic turn, drugs have disrupted the predictable flow of action and consequence, as they have jumbled language and correspondence of every kind. And once again Mr. Carver's tact and precision are marvelous: he indulges in no psychedelic effects, no light shows or undersea swims, no anti-gravitational hocus-pocus, but rather a clean shearing off of sequence.
Mt favorites among these stories are "Why, Honey?" (notice how often the titles form questions), about a governor who may have been a murderer as a child and whose mother fears for her life so long as her son knows where to find her, and "Nobody Said Anything," a perfectly realized story about a kid faking sickness to give the slip to school and spend a day fishing. This story has in its few pages two wholly realized characters, a suggestion of potential murder, accurately adolescent dialogue and one of the best erotic sequences (unrealized sexuality, as usual here) that I have ever read. Also it has an ending that is both astonishing and just. But the essential Carver curtain-close is that in "Ducks": a husband tries to awaken his wife beside him in bed: "She kept on sleeping. 'Wake up,' he whispered. 'I hear something outside.'" What he hears, what it means, what will happen next, is for you to imagine. Mr. Carver's work here is done, and wonderfully. http://www.nytimes.com/books/01/01/21/specials/carver-quiet.html