Brand building through storytelling

Wife of the legendary writer and drunk

The difference between Raymond Carver and your typical bad-boy writer, boozing and bedding his way to premature decrepitude, is that Carver, pushing 40, got scared enough to dry out—a decision that rekindled his sputtering creative fire and made him a grateful man who viewed each day as a gift. In his last poems, written before he died of lung cancer at 50, he celebrates the emotional centre of this extraordinary transformation—a late-blooming romance with poet Tess Gallagher.

I’ve been reading Carver’s short fiction and poetry for decades, and I can’tChrysanthemumresist a true story of second chances seized in midlife. So for Christmas I treated myself to Carol Sklenicka’s insightful, richly detailed biography, Raymond Carver: a Writer’s Life. To my surprise, the character who most intrigued me was not Carver himself but his first wife Maryann—his pregnant child bride at 16, his muse and first reader, his ardent, unflinching champion through poverty, rootlessness and two bankruptcies. Sklenicka leaves no doubt that if not for Maryann’s heroic but self-destructive devotion, her husband would have drowned the gifts that made him a titan of the modern short story.

When Maryann married Ray, a penniless nobody of 19, she put her college plans on hold and abandoned her hopes for a law career. Even then, in 1958, her working-class parents understood that this was a dangerous path for a bright, vivacious young woman who had always excelled at school. Her subsequent life became a feminist cautionary tale of a wife’s energy and opportunity sacrificed on the altar of her husband’s unsung talent as the young Carvers drifted from town to town, campus to campus, looking for Ray’s next break while dodging bill collectors. Formidably resourceful, she packed fruit to buy Ray’s first typewriter and became an ace waitress. The Carvers got halfway across the country—in a broken-down car, with no money—thanks to waitressing stops in which Maryann would work just long enough to feed her two kids, both born before her eighteenth birthday.

They looked a lot like the married couples in Ray’s early stories, feckless and befuddled yet capable of awe at powerful connections they could neither escape nor explain. He later said, “I really don’t feel that anything happened in my life until I was 20 and married and had the kids. Then things started to happen.”

They caroused; they kept on trucking through monumental hangovers (somewhere along the line, Maryann followed Ray into addiction). They had harrowing fights in which Ray turned violent, once nearly killing Maryann after severing an artery near her ear with a broken bottle. Yet they still gave off the heat of a couple in love.

All this would be as predictably pathetic as a second-rate country-and-western weeper if not for the complexities of Maryann’s character. She had her own gifts, and she knew it. Despite constant moves (often in the middle of the night) and escalating domestic chaos, she managed to complete graduate courses at Stanford and become a respected English teacher at one of California’s best public high schools. She eventually quit her job to follow Ray somewhere. In the harsh and isolated country of the Carvers’ marriage, the only law held that Ray’s art came first. It was not enough for Maryann to appease his demons with her own aspirations. Tragically, she became complicit in the destruction of her kids’ childhood. Perhaps it’s something of a miracle that only one of the two Carver children became an alcoholic.

When Ray finally achieved the fame and prosperity that been the joint project of his 25 years with Maryann, she  waived her claim to a share of his estate. Her astonished lawyer compared her life to “a bag of doorknobs that wouldn’t open any doors.”

Today Raymond Carver is an icon and Maryann, still making do at 69, is studying religion and philosophy while supporting her family with odd jobs that include delivering pizzas. I haven’t read her memoir What It Used to Be Like: a Portrait of My Marriage to Raymond Carver. I wonder if it answers the question on my mind: how such a brave, talented, intelligent and essentially decent woman could so lay waste to her own life with such flagrant abandon.

Among many excruciatingly poignant anecdotes in Carol Sklenicka’s biography, I find an account of a long letter Maryann sent Ray after their split. It recounted their entire story from her point of view, and she hoped he would one day use it in a novel. That’s my answer, I guess: she saw no greater glory for herself than being his muse. If I had a daughter who made choices like Maryann Carver’s, I would rage at her and weep for her. And yet, as a reader, who am I to say that she was wrong? Or that she got nothing of value for her pains?

Terminally ill, Ray sent Maryann his latest book with this inscription: “To Maryann, my oldest friend, my youthful companion in derring-do, …my wife and helpmate for so long, my children’s mother, this book is a token of love, and some have claimed obsession. In any event, this is with love always, no one knows, do they, just absolutely no one. Yours, Ray. May 1988.”

As many of my online friends already know, my mother also married an alcoholic, the artist Max Maynard, and justified terrible sacrifices on his behalf. Click here to read one of my favourite posts, “A writer’s guide to drunks.”


Posted by Rona

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