In his second collection of stories, as in his first, Carver's characters are peripheral people--people without education, insight or prospects, people too unimaginative to even give up. Carver celebrates these men and women.
Yet these stories bear careful re-reading, like any truly important and enduring work. For one thing, Carver is one of the few writers who can make desperation--cutting your ex-wife's telephone cord in the middle of a conversation, standing on your own roof chunking rocks while a man with no hands takes your picture--deeply funny. Then there is the sheer craft that went into their creation. Despite their seeming simplicity, his tales are as artfully constructed as poems--and like poems, the best of them can make your breath catch in your throat. In the title piece, for instance, after the gin has been drunk, after the stories have been told, after the tensions in the room have come to the surface and subsided again, there comes a moment of strange lightness and peace: "I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone's heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark."
Much of what happens in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love (1981) happens offstage, and we're left with tragedy's props: booze, instant coffee, furniture from a failed marriage, cigarettes smoked in the middle of the night. This is not merely a matter of technique. Carver leaves out a great deal, but that's only a measure of his characters' vulnerability, the nerve endings his stories lay bare. To say anything more, one feels, would simply hurt too much. --Mary Park
So why is this book Gordon Lish's? Check out the New York Times article "The Carver Chronicles" by D. T. Max, published in late 1998. Up until the publication of Cathedral, editor Gordon Lish hacked, slashed, and rewrote the endings of Carver's stories. The stories Lish edited do not even resemble the later revisions by Carver. In many cases, as Max cites in his expose, Lish cut more than 50% of what Carver submitted, often adding bleak endings that were never there. Nearly every story in this collection suffers from Lish's bleak outlook. Carver was never the minimalist; Lish was.
This collection may be worthwhile to some folks who want to see the relationship between an editor and a writer, or it may be useful to diehard Carver fans who want to see the changes Carver made in his later collections. Otherwise, unless you want to read Gordon Lish stories, stay away from this book and read Carver's later work.