My favorite Carver story is “Kindling,” published posthumously in Call If You Need Me, a collection of stories, essays, reviews, and other prose penned by Carver. The story received a much-deserved O. Henry Prize in 1999.
“Kindling” tells the story of Myers, a man who has recently completed a 28 day stint at a drying-out facility. His wife has left him and placed a restraining order against him to ensure they don’t have contact. Myers decides to head for the coast and rents a room from a couple, Sol and Bonnie. They’re curious about their new housemate, but Myers keeps to himself, that is until he offers to chop wood for Sol.
What appeals to me most about the story is its restraint and simplicity. There’s clearly a lot going on in Myers’ mind, but Carver doesn’t indulge in it much. Instead, he sticks to the details of Myers’ daily habits and the tentative relationship he develops with Sol and Bonnie. In true Carver style, it’s the minimalist (or as Carver preferred, “precisionist”) approach that carries the story, letting us observe a snapshot of Myers’ life that is brief but rich and significant.
Carver also captures the locale of the story as if with a painter’s touch, illustrating the Pacific northwest region in a way that makes the scenery jump off the page like a pop-up book:
Through his window at the rear of the house he could see up the valley to a series of steep mountain peaks whose tops were covered with snow, even though it was August. Lower down on the mountains, timber covered the slopes and the side of the valley. The river coursed down the valley, frothing and boiling over rocks and under granite embankments until it burst out of its confines at the mouth of the valley, slowed a little, as if it had spent itself, then picked up strength again and plunged into the ocean.
Carver recognizes what many writers fail to grasp - if you’re going to describe scenery it must be compelling, not a throwaway detail. In the paragraph above, Carver doesn’t just invoke sight and sound, he gives life to the river and location. By the end of the story, having experienced the location seems to have had a profound effect on Myers.
But the heart of the story - and what makes it my favorite - is Myers. The story opens with “It was the middle of August and Myers was between lives.” Immediately we know that Myers is stranded, at a point in his life where the certainty of the past is matched only by the uncertainty of his future. The story unfolds and is told in a way that reflects Myers’ experience - slow, but purposeful. We watch as Myers spends time alone in his room. He jots down a few thoughts in his journal. He interacts a bit with Sol and then Bonnie, but mostly he just spends time alone, thinking, reflecting. We don’t always know about what, though we’re given just enough information to make a guess. And then he takes on the task of chopping the wood. A simple task, requiring some labor, sure, but not impossible. But it’s important. It matters to Myers. And when something matters, it becomes a part of us, changes us. And through that, Myers finds a way forward.
There is no intense display of emotion in “Kindling.” There is no breakdown or outpour of epiphanies from Myers. In fact, there is really nothing remarkable that happens in the story. And yet, every time I read it, I’m left in awe, and I want nothing more than to sit in a lawn chair and stare up at the moon, as Myers does on one occasion. When I read this story, I’m reminded to slow down, to appreciate the scenery around me, and to remember the things that matter.
Carver has so many terrific short stories. But for me, this one feels particularly, painfully, honest. It’s my favorite because like Carver’s earlier stories, there is so much happening beneath the surface. But like his later works, he’s not afraid to be poetic with his prose, to draw out the details in a way that’s textured and full. “Kindling” is a simple tale about a simple man, but nested deep within it, there’s a glimpse into the beauty of solace.
What’s your favorite Raymond Carver story? Tell us which one and why in the comments.