Jefferson Chase trawls through another downbeat bar. This time courtesy of Raymond Carver
When director Robert Altman adapted several of Raymond Carver’s short stories for the silver screen in 1993, he called his film Short Cuts. A better title would have been Drinking Stories.Born in Clatskanie, Oregon in 1938, Carver devoted the majority of his life to a prolonged bender, before quitting the sauce and becoming one of America’s most highly regarded short-fiction writers, who won both a Guggenheim Fellowship and two awards from the National Endowment for the Arts.With their sparse style and amoral tone, Carver’s stories often read – at least at first – like anecdotes from his drunken decades.This is certainly the case with Vitamins. In it, the first-person narrator describes one of his favourite, after work drinking holes, as well as its unusual house speciality:It was a place called the Off-Broadway. It was a spade place in a spade neighbourhood. It was run by a spade named Khaki. People would show up after the other places had stopped serving.They’d ask for house specials – RC Colas with a shooter of whiskey – or else they’d bring their own stuff under their coats, order RC, and build their own. Musicians showed up to jam, and the drinkers who wanted to keep drinking came to drink and listen to the music. Sometimes people danced. But mainly they sat around and drank and listened.The first-person narrator works in a hospital. His wife is a door-to-door vitamin saleswoman, who complains that her life is going nowhere. The Off-Broadway is where he takes one of her employees and best friends, Donna, on what he describes as their “one and only date.”No sooner has the pair of illicit lovers sat down and made themselves cosy, than an acquaintance comes by with a pal who has just returned from Vietnam:Nelson had his red eyes fixed on me. He said, “What I want to say is, do you know where your wife is? I bet she out with some dude and she be seizing his nipples for him and pulling his pud for him while you setting here big as life with your good friend. I bet she have a good friend, too.”“Nelson,” Benny said.“Nelson nothing,” Nelson said.Ouch. Note to those with wandering eyes: If you’re out for a bit of slap and tickle, you might want to avoid juke joints like the Off-Broadway.As it turns out, the evening isn’t about eyes but ears. To wit: a human ear that the marvellously psychotic Nelson cut off a as a souvenir. And as if the situation weren’t squeamish enough, Nelson proceeds to offer Donna $200 – half for her and half for her date – to go out with him to his car in the parking lot.So much for the romantic evening. The only thing left to do is cut losses and drive the woman home:I opened the door for her. I started us back to the hospital. Donna stayed over on her side. She’d used the lighter on a cigarette, but she
wouldn’t talk.I tried to say something. I said “Look, Donna, don’t get on a downer because of this. I’m sorry it happened,” I said.“I could of used the money,” Donna said.“That’s what I was thinking.”Double ouch. Carver himself had a notoriously turbulent marriage, but readers should be careful about treating his stories as biography. Part of Carver’s talent was to conceal his art within the stripped down, ironically repetitive cadences of everyday speech, so that his figures seemed to be taken straight from real life. Or as he himself put it, somewhat cryptically, in an interview: “You are not your characters, but your characters
are you.”The great irony of drinking stories is that while they are among the best stories there are, you can only tell them properly after you’ve sobered up. Carver produced the majority of his works between 1978, when we went on the wagon, and his death in 1988. His strangely desperate and bemused star has risen ever since.Vitamins is available in the anthology Cathedral, most recently published by Harvill Press.
Subscribe to Our Magazine
Published in print 8 times each year, Whisky Magazine is the perfect drinking companion for all who enjoy the water of life.
Subscribe to Whisky Magazine