What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver (1981): In praise of older books

Week 22: Julie Parsons on her favourite books

Raymond Carver’s short stories. Exercises in minimalism.

Stuart, Gordon, Mel and Vern go fishing. “(D)ecent men, family men, men who take care of their jobs.” They camp by the river. They see a dead body. A girl. “No clothes on her at all. She was wedged into some branches that stuck out over the water.” The dilemma: to hike back and find a phone to call for help? Or to carry on fishing, drinking whiskey, playing cards. After all, “the girl wasn’t going anywhere”.

Such dilemmas fuel these stories. How to do the right thing, whatever that might be. Men and women drink, smoke, have sex. Occasionally violence breaks through the crust of indifference.

Jerry and Bill were friends from childhood. Jerry married first, had kids first. Then Bill followed on. He and his wife visited on a Sunday.


“Then Jerry said, ‘How about a little run?’”

“Sounds good to me,” Bill said, “I’ll tell the women we’re going.”

They drive out into the countryside. They see two girls on bikes. “Bill had just wanted to f**k. . . He never knew what Jerry wanted. But it started and ended with a rock. Jerry used the same rock on both girls.”

Carver doesn’t write pretty sentences. He writes pain and loss and despair. He writes it the way he sees it. And he sees it cold and hard and brutal.

An estranged father and son meet at Sacramento airport. The son is passing through. The father is in confessional mode. He wants to explain. What happened.

“I kissed her then. . . I can feel her tongue out there rushing to get in my mouth. . . A man can go along obeying all the rules and then it don’t matter a damn anymore.”

So: what do we talk about when we talk about love? Mel, Terri, Nick and Laura are drinking gin and telling stories. Outside the sun beats down. Inside it’s dark.

“Gin’s gone,” Mel said.

Terri said, “Now what?”

Now what, indeed?