Monday, November 07, 2016
Raymond Carver puts on a clinic in modern short story fiction writing with this story from his Cathedral collection. "Fever" is less often anthologized than other stories in Cathedral, which also includes the title story, "Where I'm Calling From," "Vitamins," and others. But Carver made it his contribution to the anthology American Short Story Masterpieces, which he edited with Tom Jenks in 1987. That might indicate some feeling he had for it. In many ways it's typical of Carver, focused on a family at the moment it crumbles and full of incidents that are just out of control, like bad dreams. The first-person narrator, Carlyle, is a high school art teacher. He tells how his wife Eileen unexpectedly left him and their two children at the end of the previous school year, in early June. Now it's September, the start of the new school year, and his life is in total disarray. He has spent the summer attempting to come to terms with the loss, which he believes is only temporary. Eileen has left him to live with a former colleague of his. The school year is starting but Carlyle still has not made arrangements for day care of the children. At the last minute, he hires the first person he finds, a "fat girl" named Debbie who is 19. A few days later he comes home to find his children unattended on the front lawn, except by a dangerous-looking dog. Inside the house, Debbie is partying with three teenage boys. So it goes. Carlyle still talks to Eileen but he is beginning to hate her. She is full of nonsensical touchy-feely recovery talk. Eileen sends greetings from Carlyle'a former colleague every time they talk. There's more, with the same extremes of ups and downs, as coping proceeds. It's hard to convey the feeling of reading it—it's so immediate, so vivid. Carver was expert at plumbing these emotional pivot points inside people. No one, not even Debbie, is entirely unsympathetic, and everyone is capable of turning inward and doing the right thing. And the wrong thing. The pathos and confusions of the situation—a divorce, with young children involved—are captured well. There's even a nice and simple revelation that powers the story, as Carlyle shifts from believing his marriage can be saved and isn't over, to accepting that it is. This is a great example of what makes Carver so good.
American Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Raymond Carver and Tom Jenks
Cathedral by Raymond Carver