Sunday, May 30, 2021

"They're Not Your Husband" (1973)

This is one of Raymond Carver's stories that Robert Altman adapted for the Short Cuts movie. It's quite recognizable as the couple, Earl and Doreen, are played memorably by Tom Waits and Lily Tomlin. The movie characters had some details that came from elsewhere, not necessarily Carver, but this is the one where Earl sees his wife, working as a waitress, being ogled and commented on by men who don't know he's her husband. The moment is more poignant in the movie the way Waits plays it with Buck Henry and Huey Lewis, and in the story Doreen is more grotesquely ugly. The story is full of great Carver touches—the waitressing work, Earl's unemployment, the uneasy marriage—but it's also a little harsh and verges on unpleasant in Earl's treatment of Doreen, which is not really comical at all except in sardonic ways. Earl is "between jobs" and has a couple of interviews in this story, which don't seem to pan out (but you never know). His days are empty. His pushy insistence that Doreen lose weight, buying a scale and making blunt remarks to her, and his obvious shame about her appearance, are not in the movie as much and it makes the story edgy and nervous. In a later scene Earl is more of a creep at the restaurant, trying to egg remarks about Doreen out of a man who's not inclined to talk to him. With another waitress he acts like he doesn't know Doreen. The final scene is a moment of withering humiliation. On balance Earl and Doreen seem largely benign but I get some sense Carver has it in for them somehow, Doreen for her looks (much like Earl, in fact) and Earl as a pathetic nebbish. In Carol Sklenicka's excellent biography, Raymond Carver, there's a great comment from one fellow writer and/or student along the way. He says Carver is writing about working-class characters but really they're all graduate students—that's what Carver knew. I see some of that here in Earl, scrounging for generic work, chronically poor, depending on a partner to support him, but capable of attacking a problem like weight loss systematically, buying the scale, keeping track of the numbers, and analyzing and mulling them over—and doing it all to right a very minor perceived wrong. This one sports another great story title too.

Raymond Carver, Where I'm Calling From (Library of America)

1 comment:

  1. I've followed your 2021 revisit of various stories from Where I'm Calling From with interest, Jeff. I re-read my own matching copy of that anthology this spring, and agree with your reviews of each story you've covered thus far. I was really taken with your quote above, from a commenter in the Sklenicka biography, that "Carver is writing about working-class characters but really they're all graduate students—that's what Carver knew." That truly hits home for me, as I'd wondered all along in Carver's stories in which his male protagonists theoretically have jobs, why there's so little detail what kind of work they're doing -- it's all vague and abstract. Now we know -- a grad student might have a similar income status, but wouldn't really be "working class" in the classic sense of that term. Interestingly, the protagonist in "What's in Alaska?", with his detailed expertise about what snacks and drugs to serve, could well be revealed as a graduate student. Carver always got at everyday reality in his own way.

    -- Richard Riegel