Dave Newman’s Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children is about getting over the life you thought you were supposed to live, so that you can get on with living the life you have. On the surface, the story is much the same as the story in Bukowski ‘s Post Office: A guy gets a job. He doesn’t like the job. Sometimes he shows up drunk and sometimes he doesn’t show up. Then he gets fired. The End. What’s different is that Newman’s Dan Charles has something Bukowski’s Henry Chinaski never had—a family he’s determined to stick it out with.
Dan Charles, the narrator/protagonist, is a dangerous alcoholic. From the start, I kept waiting for everything in this guy’s life to fall apart—for his wife to stab him, for him to get caught committing some terrible crime, have some crippling accident, kill a busload of school kids, something. Dan Charles is bad news waiting to happen and he seems oblivious to the danger.
He gets plastered and goes out shoplifting with his even more plastered friend. His loaded friend scares his five-year-old daughter so badly, she falls backwards down a staircase and has to get stitches in her head. He has a drunken one-night-stand with a stranger out of town. He goes to Toys R Us to buy presents for his kids, but he’s so drunk he’s sick and has to sit down in the bedroom furniture department. He’s hanging out in beer joints and strip clubs and puking in parking lots when he should be at work, even though he and his wife have severe financial problems.
He’s a non-tenured college instructor who teaches creative writing, but he finds his students uninterested and uninteresting. All of his friends are fellow alcoholic writers who work at the university, and some of Newman’s best writing is drinking stories about Dan’s friends. We get a glimpse into how Dan’s drinking started and what it does for him now:
Drinking was there before I read and wrote. Writers didn’t exist. There was no Hemingway or Gerald Locklin or Richard Brautigan. It was all school work. It was exams. It was part-time jobs and born-again Christian parents. So I drank in fields. I drank in cars. I drank with old men at the Irwin Hotel and any other bar that would serve me and everyone knew my name. I drank for fun. I kept drinking for fun. I got drunk and punched the fun right out of it… When I started reading and writing, the drinking became something else, a celebration, a reward. It’s what I like to do when I get away from work or when I’ve done good work or read well or taught well or my kids are jumping on my head and I need to be happy and not angry, then I drink. I drink so I can talk to my wife and hear her voice and not the world.
So, Dan recognizes that he was a hopeless alcoholic in the past, when he had nothing to live for, but now that he’s got a wife and family, and he’s writing, it’s okay because he’s drinking to be happy. He’s living in an inebriated fantasyland. He’s seriously fucked up, not thinking straight, and making horrible life decisions. It becomes clear, in an encounter with his wife, that he’s about to blow it, but that only makes him angrier.
If she could take me in a fight, she would.
But she can’t.
I would block her punches and take her in my arms and speak quietly and squeeze until she couldn’t breathe.
I say, “Don’t look at me like you want to punch me.”
She points her keys at me and swallows whatever she was about to say.
I say, “Yeah, exactly.”
She says, “Stop it.” She says, “I’m dying here.”
I say, “But you’re not.”
She says, “I am, I am,” and drops her keys and bends to pick them up and stumbles and says, “Fucking great. Now I’m dizzy.”
She could be dizzy. She is not dying.
The stress in our life is not as great as the stress she creates by being miserable with our stress…
He regresses further into alcoholism. He starts skipping his classes, looks for reasons to skip classes, more than he’s ever skipped before, and he doesn’t even pretend to care. Raymond Carver was an alcoholic writer who abandoned his wife and kids. Although Dan hasn’t packed his suitcases, he abandons his family via alcohol.
Then, Dan’s wife, Lori, gets a job offer in Alaska that could alleviate their financial problems, but she turns down the job. Her decision clarifies for Dan what’s wrong with their lives. He finally starts to claw his way back to reality. He gets a job in a hubcap factory. It’s heavy physical labor, but it offers Dan the dignity of honest work. He cuts back on the booze and renews his commitment to his family and his writing and his home. They move to a less expensive neighborhood.
One of the things that makes Dan’s conversion believable is Newman’s sensitive and realistic depictions of Dan’s children. There’s an amusing scene of a kids’ basketball game in which he’s proudly watching his nine-year-old son play. No one on either team can dribble, pass, or shoot. The final score is 4-2, and his son scored both baskets for his team. In another scene, Dan helps his five-year-old daughter with a puzzle, pushing pieces around so she can find them herself. There’s empathy and mutual love in this family.
I enjoyed this book. In addition to the scenes of Dan with his children and drinking buddies, Newman’s presentation of the politics of academia had me laughing. When his 78-year-old department head, one of his drinking buddies, finally croaks, and is replaced by a feminist Korean lesbian, Dan knows his days are numbered. I like Newman’s edgy sense of humor. He’s done a good job creating a dark character trying to feel his way to the light.
Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children