Alcoholics build defenses like the Dutch build dikes. I spent the first twelve years or so of my married life assuring myself that I "just liked to drink." I also employed the world-famous Hemingway Defense. Although never clearly articulated (it would not be manly to do so), the Hemingway Defense goes something like this: as a writer, I am a very sensitive fellow, but I am also a man, and real men don't give in to their sensitivities. Only sissy-men do that. Therefore I drink. How else can I face the existential horror of it all and continue to work? Besides, come on, I can handle it. A real man always can.
--from Stephen King's On Writing
Stephen King was one of my first writing heroes; at 13, I hid a copy of The Shining under my pillow because I knew my parents would confiscate it if they found it.
Raymond Carver came later, and I never felt any need to hide his books. Quite the contrary: By that time, I was in college, and carrying around a copy of Carver was de rigeur, a sort of secret writer's handshake that let other babywriters know you were one of the pack. I was never a huge Carver devotee, but I still remember the first time I read "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." I thought about the story for days afterward, and it still comes back to me any time I think seriously about marriage; the old couple that Mel describes haunt me. Are they true; are they possible? Or are they just an image of perfected love to taunt the rest of us?
And I still remember the experience of reading King's It, which remains the only book I've ever had to stop reading because it scared me so much. (I put it away for four months--I even put other books on top of it, subsconsciously trying to make sure the cover stayed closed--before I could get back to it again.)
They are different kind of shocks, of course, producing different kinds of tremors. But put King and Carver together, and hey, I'm there.
If you're interested in either writer, check out the New York Times' lead review today, in which King reviews a new Carver biography and a collection of his stories. It's full of fascinating, occasionally horrifying info about Carver, but also about the egomaniacal editor Gordon Lish, who seems to have shaped our idea of "a Raymond Carver story" and the Raymond Carver approach to writing, maybe more than Carver himself.
The discussion of Carver's short story A Small, Good Thing, which was completely transformed by Lish, interested me not only because the editor changed it into a much darker story, but because I realized that the version of it that ended up in Short Cuts, Robert Altman's film of interwoven Carver stories, is the version that Carver originally wrote. Yet another element of awesomeness in that discomfiting film, along with Julianne Moore's pants-free rant. (Bless Altman for using it, and don't blame him too much for Andie MacDowell, who is so cheesy in the cathartic scene of that story that she makes my teeth itch.)
For me, the review is fascinating in what it suggests about King as much as what the reviewed biography reveals about Carver. His take on Carver's alcoholism and his sympathy for the writer's first wife seems to come from a deeper personal space. Carver sounds hard to like, but at the end of the review, I liked King even more.