A Recollection

I first met Ray Carver in New York in early September 1984 at a publishing dinner to launch Gary Fisketjon’s Vintage Contemporary paperback series. Many of the new VC authors and their friends were there: Richard Ford, Toby Wolff, Jay McInerney, Tom McGuane, Jim Crumley, and Ralph Beer—a distinctly male crowd, and what struck me most was that, as we geared up to move to a nightclub, Ray, amid teasing about running off somewhere to see a woman, put himself in a taxi and headed for his hotel room alone. By the ginger way he got himself into the cab and laughingly ducked the barbs all around him, there was no doubt he meant to keep himself out of trouble.

But he was fair game for the friendly taunts that followed him into the cab. We were witnessing the Good Ray, but we all knew about the Bad Ray, the one who used to be Lord Misrule himself. Reformed, Ray was fast becoming the most famous short story writer in the world, and the facts of his life were well known, partly because they were often the stuff of his writing and because fame brings a peculiar public intimacy.

At the time, I was an editor of Esquire and had made Ray’s acquaintance through the mail and on the phone. I had published some of his work and knew him somewhat, and as I watched him slip away in the cab, I imagined him going back to his hotel room (it was early yet—ten o’clock) and telephoning Tess Gallagher at their home in Syracuse. Each evening they set aside the hours beyond ten o’clock to spend with each other. He was, in a sense, running off to see a woman.

A year and a half later, I visited them in Syracuse. During the days, Ray and I read stories for a book we were working on and at night we watched TV. One night, we were watching a PBS version of Wuthering Heights, and Ray began to tell me about another night of TV: the night the blind man for whom Tess once worked had come to visit. Tess told her side, too—how Ray was uneasy about the man’s visit, uncomfortable with his blindness and his familiarity with Tess, a mild jealousy rising in Ray. Their evening was slow and tedious, and ended with the three of them watching PBS, just as we were. But on the night the blind man was visiting, Tess had fallen asleep, and then a program about cathedrals came on. The blind man had no idea what a cathedral looked like, and, in the end, Ray sat on the floor with him, holding his hands, drawing a cathedral so the blind man could sense the miracle of the shape.

Ray had written this story and titled it “Cathedral.” Tess, who with Ray’s encouragement had recently begun writing stories, had her own version, titled “The Harvest.” She gave me a copy, humorously telling Ray, “Watch out, I’m nipping at your heels.” Their good-natured competition and openness was rare in my experience of writers, many of whom are cagey about the intimate, personal connections in their work.

The more I got to know Ray, the more I saw his unreserved friendliness—the product of a decision to live each moment fully. I also saw other sides of him—the ghost feelings of pain from his bad years, his instant withdrawal from situations and people he didn’t like, the obsessive craving that sometimes still touched him. Having given up alcohol, he never missed a meal, and if he had to wait to eat he became anxious.

Ray’s generosity, his willing suspension of disbelief (even to the point of gullibility), made him a good listener. The other side of it was that he couldn’t keep a secret if it meant not telling a good story. I discovered this the hard way.

In late 1985, I sent Ray the manuscript of a book I’d been editing, Hemingway’s The Garden of Eden. The book would be a sensation when it came out, and I wanted Ray’s reading to test the book’s merit apart from commerce. I swore him to secrecy, not telling him that I was prepared to destroy my edit of the posthumous novel if his reading, with others, indicated the material was unworthy.

Ray phoned within a few days, and his first comment was rueful and humorous. “There sure is a lot of drinking in it, Tom.”

As we laughed about it, I could see Ray gingerly ducking into the taxi away from the party. Hemingway had aroused a thirst in Ray. But the book, Ray said, had masterful stuff in it, great passages, a good story.

About a week later, I received a phone call from Toby Wolff, Ray’s neighbor in Syracuse, who spoke in a kind of serious hushed tone. “Tom, I thought you ought to know there was a party at Ray’s last night, and he stood up on a chair and announced he had a manuscript of the Hemingway book on the counter in his kitchen.”

I could just see Ray grandly making the announcement, and I worried that he had let his guests read the book.

“No, I don’t think so,” Toby said. “But there were a lot of people there. I thought you ought to know. You can’t tell Ray anything you don’t want everybody else to know.” And sure enough, later the same day I received a phone call from John Blades, the Book World editor of the Chicago Tribune who had heard the story from someone at the party. And while I had to tell Blades at least a dozen lies to keep the book out of the news until it was ready to go, there was never any point in reproaching Ray. In some things, he was shameless.

Originally published in Remembering Ray, 1993