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Raymond Carver – A Small, Good Thing

 
10pm, on the way home.
 
The bus jostled to a stop at every traffic light. In between traffic lights, it sped over rain-slick tarmac. Impatient, I guess, to beat the next light. I hardly noticed the start-stop bus. I was reading a short story by Raymond Carver. It was called ‘A Small, Good Thing’.
 
This story – 30 pages of it – devoured me. Essentially, it starts off with Ann Weiss ordering a cake for her son (Scotty). Some time later in the day, Scotty was knocked down by a car. He fainted, was sent to hospital and, despite the reassurances of the doctor that he was not in a coma, Scotty refused to wake up. Each time, the doctor reassures them that Scotty ‘will wake up anytime soon’ while sending him for more tests. In the meantime, the baker makes prank calls to the couple. Scotty dies upon waking up. The couple is still harassed by prank telephone calls. Ann figures that it’s the baker and they rush off to confront him. The confrontation escalates. The baker threatens, the couple gets angry. Ann tells the baker that Scotty is dead. The baker is remorseful. They sit together. They eat bread. The baker tells them of his loneliness, the couple supposedly tells him of their sadness. The story ends as the sun comes up and they are still there.  
 
It was written simply and clearly, just like Ernest Hemingway. Carver’s economic use of words made the ‘turns’ so much more startling. Read this. "They were passing a bag of potato chips back and forth and the birthday boy was trying to find out what his friend intended to give him for his birthday that afternoon. Without looking, the birthday boy stepped off the curb at an intersection and was immediately knocked down by a car. He fell on his side with his head in the gutter and his legs out in the road." The sudden change in momentum, from munching potato chips to getting hit by a car (or carefree joy to time in ICUs) was breath-taking. Actions and consequences only; to hell with long-winded babble about inner states, insecurities and joys.
 
It was easy on the ear as well. It sounded like a seasoned drunk speaking over gins and whiskies. Also, the paragraphs and sentences flowed the same way. The story stopped here and there with a teaser, a cliffhanger – the dunk’s gin is almost done. Curiousity grows. Curiousity becomes obsession. Then you buy one more drink for him to finish the story. Each time, he leads you on until, finally, there’s no more left to say.
 
Unlike Hemingway who tend to romanticise events, Carver sympathised the depressing and despairing. His characters were working class stiffs who drank themselves into the ground; were abused and abused; chimmney-smoked; marginalised and forgotten. Most likely modelled after people which popped in and out of his stints in reform houses, full-time alcoholism and menial jobs.
 
Given his prediliction, it was odd that ‘A Small, Good Thing’ started off happily with a birthday celebration in the offing. Two pages into the story, things went according to his tastes, Scotty gets hit by a car. From there, it resembles a Kafka-esque situation: the couple are blown off by people in charge; they fret and worry but can do nothing; midnight prank calls are made to their home. It culminates in Scotty’s death and yet anotehr prank call made to the couple. The story could have stopped there. Carver could have ended it bleakly.
 
He did not.
 
Instead, he gave a sliver of hope. The couple, isolated by Scotty’s death, and the baker, bitter at the lonliness caused by his work, broke bread together and pulled each other through the literal and figurative night into the morning. It was probably the second story of his which had hope at the end.
 
I got off at my bus stop. On the way home, I decided to write about this story. A crittique or a review or something in between. It didn’t matter. ‘A Small, Good Thing’ was brilliant and this is my writing of it.
 
If you like this one, try his other stories: Cathedral  
 
Book Title: Where I’m Calling From – A compilation of selected short stories
Publisher: Random House Inc.
Published in: June 1989
Call No.: CAR-[SH]
 
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Categories: Books
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