King Salmon

In the 1980’s Raymond Carver was the scourge of creative writing professors.  It’s not that they necessarily had anything against the short story master; it’s just that too many of their students tried to imitate him.  Early in his career Carver was labeled a “minimalist.”  His style is sparse and deceptively simple.  He uses few figures of speech, and very little description.  Many of his stories are “dialogue heavy.”  Critics threw him into the same camp as Hemingway, the other end of the spectrum from Lessing or Pynchon.  Writing students ate him up.  He just seemed so easy. Carver never embraced the term “minimalist.”  He wasn’t into that “tip of the iceberg thing” Hemingway went on about.  He maintained that his “simple” style was an attempt to recreate the limited viewpoint of an alcoholic.  Like their creator, many early Carver protagonists struggled with substance abuse.  They wouldn’t bother to “see” a setting, or specific details.  Their minds are too preoccupied with the daily battle with the bottle.

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the typical protagonist showing his junk in a creative writing workshop wasn’t an alcoholic.  Students attempted to emulate Carver’s style for no other reason than it seemed easy.  But like modern painting, it’s not as simple as it looks.  MFA programs started churning out “cookie cutter” stories, composed by “cookie cutter” writers.  In 1989, C. Michael Curtis, then fiction editor for The Atlantic Monthly, visited my fiction workshop at Wichita State and implored us not to follow suit.  (MFA programs are still accused of producing an endless stream of writers that all sound the same.)

I like to think I took Curtis’s advice to heart.  Still, I love Carver, and there are glimpses of my admiration of him in Halibut Rodeo. Stylistically, “A Man Loves His Cat” comes closest to a Carveresque story.  But I pay most conscious homage to him in “King Salmon.”  This story within a story recounts one man’s relationship with the Slime-Line Queen.  Like many of Carver’s protagonists he is a recovering alcoholic.  At the beginning, he invites his sponsor over for a meal of King Salmon.  While they’re eating, I adopt the tone Carver uses in the dinner scene in “Cathedral,” justifiably his most famous story.  After the two men devour the fish, the protagonist relates his attempt to win back the Slime-Line Queen by driving from North Dakota to Homer, Alaska, diamond ring in tow.  Like so many of Carver’s anti-heroes, he doesn’t achieve his goal.   True understanding is often just out of reach for Carver’s characters.  The Slime Line Queen becomes an almost mystical character in the book, despite her harsh past.  For many readers of the book she is a favorite character, even though she never appears as protagonist.  Maybe even for me, her creator, she’s beyond full comprehension.

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