David
Carpenter 

 

What We Talk About When We Talk About Carver


 

The Great Hunters
Richard Ford, Raymond Carver, David Carpenter, Bill Robertson
Photo by Peter Nash

THURSDAY, SEPTEMBER 23, 1986
"Gettin kinda dark out," says Robertson.
        Honor leans toward me. "Bill says it's -"
        "I heard."
        "Oi," she says.
        "How do we know these guys can shoot?" says Calder. "Maybe they're as rusty as we are."
        "They can shoot."
        "Hey, Carp, isn't it gettin kinda dark out?" Robertson asks again.
        I mumble something and weave through the traffic on 11th Street, eyeing the dark gray horizon, then accelerate for an orange light. Honor clutches the dash.                 "Watch out," she says.
        "It's okay."
        In September, in Saskatoon, the evening light seems to vanish like a memory of August. Every fall this happens and every fall I get ambushed by the rapid change. You start thinking about winter for weeks before the Grey Cup or the World Series. It's unsettling. It makes me brood on the brevity of life.
        "What if someone hears our shots in the dark?" Robertson asks. He can't quite believe what's going on. "What if they call the cops?"
        "There's still some light," I counter.
        "Where?" Calder asks.
        Honor starts to laugh. The other two join in.
        Raymond Carver is coming to Saskatoon. He will arrive tomorrow with his friend Richard Ford. They are bringing their shotguns and expect to hunt with ... well ... hunters. I am determined that all of my hunters will make a good showing. They will act like Saskatchewanians. Bob Calder (a biographer) will re-discover that feeling of squinting down the barrel of a twelve gauge, and Bill Robertson (a poet) will cease to wonder how to work his safety catch. He's just bought his first shotgun, an old twelve gauge double, for twenty dollars. Calder last hunted in 1963. I am the veteran here. I last fired a shotgun four years ago.
        "Seriously though," says Calder. "It is pretty dark out."
        "Maybe we can use the headlights," I offer. My determination is still strong, but my voice sounds limp.
        My determination is strong because in 1982 I stumbled on Carver's stories and felt I just had to meet this guy. Bring him up here for a reading. The question was, how? Our English Department is strapped for visiting speaker funds. Then I read "Distance," one of Carver's stories in Fires, and I began to see a way. In this story a young man is about to go goose-hunting when his baby breaks out in a crying spell. His young wife suspects the baby is seriously ill, but neither parent knows for sure. She prevails upon her husband to stay home and he misses out on his hunt. The baby stops crying and soon recovers. This story comes to us twenty years later when the marriage is long over.
        An idea began to grow. I would invite Carver to read on campus (where I teach on alternate years). Art Sweet, a writer friend of mine, somehow dug up the address of Carver's agent. I wrote to Carver. Let the critics say what they will about "Distance" (... a poignant examination of lost bliss ... a portrait of the raconteur as exile in time and space ...), its ultimate meaning is a far more fundamental cry from the heart: Will somebody please take me goosehunting?
        On January 19, 1986 Raymond Carver answered my letter and said yes, we might be able to work something out.
        Honor turns to me. "Do you know the people who own the land?"
        "Sort of."
        "What are you going to say to them?" she asks.
        "I'll just ask them if they mind us firing off a few shells behind their house."
        "In the dark," Robertson adds.
        "They probably won't even be home."
        But the house in question has the lights on. It's a small cozy bungalow built among the aspens and willows. Through the front window I can see the man of the house helping his son with his homework, the woman and daughter kneeling by the fire. The man answers the door.
        "Hi," I say, thrusting my hand forward. "I'm Dave Carpenter. I used to camp on that stretch next to you."
        He shakes my hand, smiles, and holding his pipe he introduces me to his little foursome. I explain that Honor and I and a couple of friends want to try out our shotguns on a few clay pigeons, shooting into the dunes, of course. My neighbour, who has never seen me until this moment, glances nervously at some-thing in the kitchen. He seems to be gauging the distance between his front porch, where we stand, and his telephone. He strokes his chin, peers at my car.
        "Hmm," he says.
        But sanity prevails, or something, and my neighbour shows us where to drive out to the dunes in the dark. I take my little Toyota to the top of a small sandhill and point the headlights at a dune about seventy-five feet away. We will release the clay pigeons with a little hand launcher that looks like a long sling shot, aiming these at the small hill in front of us. There is no dwelling in this direction for miles, so the set-up seems safe, if a little unorthodox. I let fly with a few while my friends load up. The clay pigeons are black and yellow discs about the size of a small dessert bowl. They glide like accelerated Frisbees into the beams of light and out again. For about three seconds they are visible.
        "Gotta be kind of quick," says Robertson dubiously.
        He goes first.
        "Ready?" I call out.
        "Ready."
        I send one out a bit high. It skirts the very edge of the headlight's beams.
        "Try again."
        "Ready?"
        "Ready."
        I send one across the beam and this time Robertson manages to get his gun to his shoulder.
        "Little low?"
        "Yeah, try one medium height, straight away."
        "Okay, ready?"
        "Ready."
        This one wobbles in flight, but it's just where Robertson wants it. He fires and misses.
        Calder tries. The same thing happens. Robertson tries again. The night reverberates with shotgun blasts followed by “shit” or “Next time send er higher.” Honor tries and nicks one. I try, but no luck. Then Calder, then Robertson. The little yellow saucers pass in and out of the headlights, untouched, safe as UFOs. No one scores a direct hit, but after half an hour of this, we all have a feel for the gun's recoil, and where our safety catches are, and what not to do with a shotgun among friends, so we head back to town. When I've dropped everyone off I discover that my car doorjambs are sticky with dozens of rose hips.

SEPTEMBER 24
Raymond Carver is inspecting a hunting licence in my kitchen. "I am Lee Henchbaw," he says, "and I am from Sass-katchewan."
        "No," says Honor, 's's-katchew"n. You don't pronounce the first and last "a"."
Carver looks up from the licence. "My name is Lee Henchbaw and I am from Skatchewan."
        "S's-katchew'n," says Honor.
        "S's-katchew'n," says Carver. "I am Lee Henchbaw and I am from S's-katchew'n." He smiles. "Eh?"
        This is the first time I've participated in giving lessons in spoken Canadlan: the interrogative "eh" at the end of declarative sentences, the tightlipped "ou" sound that rings Scottish to American ears, the clipped syllables through a puckered mouth, the irresolute shift of the eyeballs as if to ask if life were a federal or a provincial responsibility.
        "Have the geese come south?" asks Richard Ford. His south sounds like sowth to my ears. There is a trace of Mississippi in his volce.
        "South," says Honor, "with the mouth contracted. Pretend you're ashamed of your teeth."
        "Sewth," says Ford.
        "Sewth," says Carver.
        "No, south. Don't open your mouth so wide."
        "Mewth so wide," says Ford.
        "My name is -"Carver peeks. "My name is Lee Henchbaw and I am from Sass-katchewan."
        "Fantastic," says Ford.
        "Oi," says Honor.
        A lot of geese are down, I tell them. Honor and I have heard them going over for the last three nights, wave after wave.
        "Now, Dave, how is this going to happen?" Carver asks. He and Ford are very keen. The thing that makes a spaniel strain at his choke collar is in these guys.
        "Pits," says Peter Nash. "A guy name Jake will dig them for us."
        Nash is a bearded physician I have known since I was six or seven.
Like Richard Ford, he's in very good shape. At every birthday party, Nash was the kid who had twenty-five per cent more laughs than anyone else. He is still that way. Becoming a father and an ophthalmologist have not visibly altered him. His preparation for this trip meant buying and reading all the books by Carver and Ford he could find in Vancouver. He's as keen as they are. There is an excitement here among us that keeps building. I know that I will scarcely sleep tonight.
        "You guys call em?"
        "Jake does. He knows what he's doing."
        Even though she isn't coming on the hunt, Honor's face is all aglow. She has lived in six states, and it seems to me she has missed the sound of American voices. As most Canadians know, Americans are anything but ashamed of their teeth.
        The deal is this: I will take Ford and Carver goosehunting if they will give a joint reading at the University of Saskatchewan for a drastically low fee, what you might call the best kind of free trade arrangement. I have written to the Saskatchewan Minister of Fish and Wildlife to waive Carver and Ford's alien status so that they can hunt in this area right after their joint reading, rather than wait around for six days with nothing to do. The reading is slated for September 25th, but around Crocus, Saskatchewan, Americans aren't allowed to hunt until October 1st. Duke Pike, the minister in question, is a circumspect man who believes the universities and intellec-tuals are out to get him, or so people have told me. Predictably, our request is denied. Mister Pike suggests we re-schedule the whole damn event, which at this point is impossible.
        I had to get two extra hunting licenses. Enter Art Sweet and Lee Henchbaw, both writers. They haven't hunted a day in their lives, but for the cause of literature, they put their asses on the line. Art Sweet, among other things, is a very fine one-handed guitarist. Emergencies seem to be his stock in trade. Lee Henchbaw is a possessed poet; he seems perpetually astonished by life. He handed me his hunting licence and announced his intention to write a Raymond Carver poem. Perhaps Carver will write a Lee Henchbaw poem. Lee is beset by verbal overload. He may burst before he jumps on his motorcycle.
        "I am Lee Henchbaw, and I am from Sass-katchewan," says Carver, all night long, through a bout of insomnia.

THAT'S THE PART I remember from Wednesday night. What Honor remembers is quite different. None of this talk about goosehunting. She remembers Nash at the stove frying a large batch of fresh-caught smelts in egg and bread-crumb batter. She remembers a series of confessions during our meal. Ford was first: "You know the last words my mother ever said to me? She was on her deathbed. She said, ‘Richard, will you please stop asking me all those questions?’" This remark inspired other confessions about pain, death and worry. Carver talked about how terrified he was when Tess Gallagher (his partner) had to have an operation for cancer. Nash told us about his fears upon discovering an advanced melanoma on his right arm. I'm sure I put in my two cents worth. In my youth I was very enthusiastic about pain.
Just before we fell asleep, Honor marvelled about the evening's talk. "Here's four guys, none of them trying to sound liberated, talking about their feelings." She was still all aglow. "I've gotta tell Lorna."

SEPTEMBER 25

From B.C. to Western Saskatchewan there is a hurricane warning, rare for these parts. In Lethbridge it has rained four inches; in Calgary it has snowed twelve. In Saskatoon the wind buckles the elm trees near the campus and dismantles election campaign signs. For the first time in Saskatchewan history, there are New Democratic Party signs on the lawns of the wealthy. The rain has turned to sleet, but not yet snow. Carver and Ford are having lunch down the street from my house, Nash and I making sandwiches for the road, when the phone rings.
        It's Honor at her studio. Jake's been trying to get hold of me. He thinks we should cancel the trip. I tell Nash. He can see I'm very worried; I've got that why-me look.
        "Let's not phone Jake," he suggests. "Let's pretend we never got the message. Let's just go."
        "Yeah." Desperate dilemmas require desperate solutions.
        We stare at each other. The reading is two hours away. Perhaps more than a hundred students, writers, profs and book lovers will be getting ready to brave the storm for this event. I am holding my head in my hands, moaning something about the unfairness of life. In Saskatchewan that often means weather. I rail for a while, and Nash, undaunted, counters with his own philosophy: that life is random, not fair or unfair.
        "The test is always how well we deal with the randomness!" he cries. He's in an impassioned state of inspiration, like the wind outside. We seem to be caught in the plot of a Russian novel here.
        We decide to phone Jake. Jake says exactly what I had feared: "Yiz guys better call the whole thing off, eh. I mean my brother an I we can't even get a four-wheeler into the field, dig the pits. You can't get no vehicle no-wheres near there."
        "Jake, I can't call this whole thing off. These guys have come a long way."
        "Well, I dunno what I can do. We got two inches a rain down here in the past twenty-four hours. Fields an roads solid gumbo."
        "Are the geese down?"
        "Yeah".
        "Could you show us where they're flying?"
        "Yeah, but yiz'll all have t'walk some."
        "What's the forecast?"
        "Pissin."
        I look at Nash, who holds a knife heaped with mayonnaise in one hand, a slice of bread in the other. He does not seem rattled. "Well, Jake, we're coming."
        This is one of those days when you simply worry your way from one decision to another. I will worry about the reading till it's happening, worry about not telling Carver and Ford that Jake wanted to cancel, worry about the condition of the highway, worry about the sufficiency of everyone's rain gear, hit the sack and worry about how to get to sleep. I will worry about setting back Canada/U.S. literary relations by twenty years and giving Saskatchewan a bad name. In my dreams my parents will tell me that they told me so, and I will worry about where they went wrong with me. I am leading five guys to their death. I will really worry about that one. Outside, the wind howls, the rain lashes, and life's randomness proclaims itself all day long.

THE CLASSROOM is full, hushed. People's foreheads, hair, and coats are streaked with rain. The linoleum is splattered with mud and yellow elm leaves. We can hear the wind outside, and this sound precipitates, it seems to me, a cozy smug feeling. The best writers and some of the best artists in the province are here. A contingent of twelve people has driven all the way from Regina against this wind and into the sleet. The classroom seems to bristle and glow. People are still gasping from that last dash across the quad. Guy Vanderhaeghe (My Present Age) is chewing a huge pink wad of bubblegum. Barbara Sapergia (Foreigners) huddles into her coat and breaks out in little shudders. Pat Krause (Freshie) and Byrna Barclay (The Last Echo) babble about how cars were swaying in the wind fifty miles south of Saskatoon. Anne Szumigalski (Dogstones) spreads her wool shawl out around her like a tea cozy, and she smiles her four year old girl's smile. Patrick Lane (Linen Crow, Caftan Magpie) looks straight ahead as several women talk to him. "You better believe it," he says. "You better believe it." Geoffrey Ursell (Perdue) strokes his beard, folds his arms, surrounds himself with reflective silence. Lois Simmie (Pictures) looks at Carver with undisguised adoration. Elizabeth Brewster (Selected Poems, 1944-1984) hurries in at the last moment, huddles into the last available chair. Lorna Crozier (The Garden Going On Without Us) is the last one in the room to stop laughing. Art Sweet (fiction writer, one-armed guitarist, poet) and Bob Calder (Rider Pride) look as though they are seconds away from opening kickoff. And (words bouncing off his brain like ping-pong balls) Lee Henchbaw is perhaps thinking, I am Raymond Carver and I am from Port Angeles. Nash's head goes around and around three hundred and sixty degrees so he can see everything. This is show biz and he knows it. Bill Robertson (Standing on Our Own Two Feet) gawks impatiently, as though he wants to get in a dozen windsprints before the reading begins.
        "Ladies and Gentlemen," I begin. My voice seems to be talking and I'm helpless to do anything with it. "I suppose I was hired on here because I am a regionalist. That means I'm interested in the writing that has been done around here. Well, angling for Raymond Carver and Richard Ford has been a very good exercise for me, because I'm now willing to admit that, yes, some very good writing is going on outside of Saskatchewan."
        Polite laughter.
        Get on with it, Carpenter.
        Carpenter (Jokes for the Apocalypse) gets on with it. A warm applause, at long last, for Richard Ford. He is lean, pale; his face flickers with sensitivity. (Elizabeth Brewster confides later to me that he certainly is "cute".) His voice has gathered intonations from all his wanderings, from the Deep South, to the industrial Northeast, to the Midwest, and to the Old West, where he now lives.

I was standing in the kitchen while Arlene was in the living room saying goodbye to her ex-husband, Danny. I had already been out to the store for groceries and come back and made coffee, and was standing drinking it and staring out the window while the two of them said whatever they had to say. It was a quarter to six in the morning.
This was not going to be a good day in Danny's life, that was clear, because he was headed to jail.

Thus begins "Sweethearts", Richard Ford's latest story in Esquire (August, 1986). For half an hour, the audience wraps itself up in Richard's story and wears his voice like a comforter as the wind buffets the window panes. It occurs to me that being read to is a great luxury, especially on a stormy day. The audience responds warmly, and I wonder if the public Carver can be half as captivating. On the page, of course, he is, but this is show biz.
        Raymond Carver stands six feet two, a bigbodied man apparently comfortable with his size. He has a way of going quiet and quiz-zical, and at such times reminds me of that awkward brainy kid in grade six. Or as an undergraduate, he would be the shy, dis-hevelled guy in the corner, lost in thought. A bit like Lee Henchbaw. They both have an abundance of curly hair which I envy, and it seems to announce something luxuriant in their minds that cannot stop growing. They are working class men right down to their cigarettes. Both recall hard times and domestic strife all the way back to childhood. But the man at the lectern has now become Raymond Carver, and Lee is perhaps fifteen years away from becoming Lee Henchbaw. His first poems have just appeared, but he is still young enough to ride a motorcycle. In a few years, he will be up there at the lectern, launching one of his books. In a few more, if he remains devout and disciplined, he will become a small part of literary history. Then fade with the rest of us. Clay pigeons flashing through the headlights of the Cosmos. The critics take their pot-shots in the dark, and usually miss, and then we all die. I wonder if Nash would agree with this. The weather breeds such ruminations.
        Carver is absolutely unhistrionic, soft spoken, humble by disposition rather than design. He begins by asking the people at the back of the room if they can hear. But perhaps they can't hear him yet, so they just stare back at him. He asks again. They stare back again. Carver is in Saskatchewan, where seldom is heard an extrovert's word. People in readings don't raise their voices if they are in the audience. That would be showing off. So Carver begins, plainly worried. He reads from one of his recent New Yorker stories ("Whoever Was Using this Bed," April 28, 1986). In about one minute, with the line, What in God's name do they want, Jack? I can't take any more! he has us. Soon, more than a hundred sodden people are howling with laughter. The characters grope through the night for words to put on their fears and their despair, but through-out the story there is this laughter. I can't help wondering, is this the man Madison Bell attacked (in Harper's, April, 1986) for being a "dangerous" influence on American short story writing? Another studiedly deterministic nihilist? Bell argues that the reader is drawn into a Carver story "not by identification but by a sort of enlightened, superior sympathy." The audience here goes from rib-aching hysteria to rapt attention as the narrator and his wife talk in bed at five or six in the morning about whether one would unplug the other from a life-support system if s/he were suffering unduly. Is this conver-sation the sort of thing the genteel Mr. Bell would call nihilistic? Am I missing something? When I read Cathedral (upon which Bell focuses his attack), did I miss out on all that impoverishment of the human soul? Maybe like Bell I should have been saying to Carver's characters, "I understand the nature of your difficulty; how is it you don't?"
I decide, at the moment of applause, that the genteel Mr. Bell suffers acutely from a superiority complex and that he wouldn't know a compassionate story if it goosed him in the subway. This, of course, isn't exactly a meditated judgement, only a reflex. But I can't escape the conviction that Carver is telling our story, however squalid or despairing, and we find ourselves having slept in his narrator's bed. The applause continues for a long, long time. You’d think Tommy Douglas had come back from the grave.
        The crowd ascends to the 10th floor coffee lounge and descends upon the Americans. They have to clutch their styrofoam cups close to their chins, and guard them with the other hand. Saskatchewan has come to pay court to them. The mood is suddenly effusive.
        In fact, for this place at least, it is wildly effusive. I feel like one of those Broadway producers who chews on cigars and shouts at the last minute replacement for the leading lady, "Go out there, Mabel, and break their hearts!" My God, I keep thinking, I've got a hit on my hands.
        An hour later it occurs to me that I have a hit and no pits. No pits, no geese. No geese, no reciprocity from us to them. Carver and Ford have waived a considerable sum in fees and expenses to come here and shoot. Which makes me (in collusion with the weather) one of the alltime welchers in Canadian literary history.

"SAY, AH, DAVID," says Carver in the front seat, "that's a heavy rain coming down. Is that normal for here?"
        "Well, no, Ray. Actually it's a real heavy one."
        He looks out at the countryside flashing by in the fading light. Ford is silent. Perhaps he is looking for geese. So far we have seen none.
        A minute later, Carver says, "Say, ah, David, that's a heck of a wind out there. Is that normal?"
        "Well, no, Ray. Actually it's quite unusual for up here." I've said nothing about the absence of goose pits or Jake's phone call. I've said nothing about the hurricane warning. The one blessing is that this pummelling wind is behind us.
        "About these pits," says Ford. "Aren't they likely to be a bit on the wet side?"
I tell a censored version of the grim facts. There may be no pits at all. There can't be any digging in the farmers' fields until they've managed to take in their crops. And in this weather, digging is impossible, walking "a bit dicey." I suppose my nervousness has begun to show through.
        "David," says Carver, "I'm excited. Richard here is excited. I feel I'm on some sort of adventure. If I even see some geese tomorrow and get a bit of walking in, that'll be fine. I'll have had my fun. So don't worry. Hell, we're all on an adventure here."
        I nod, very much relieved, and repeat Nash's words on contending with the randomness of life. This view, the kind of advice an ophthalmologist may have to give to a patient on occasion, rides well with us all the way through the storm and down to Crocus. Nash is no doubt spreading his gospel of adventure in Calder's vehicle. The six of us have become soldiers of fortune. We face the howling infinite together. This last statement probably sounds self-dramatizing. Such is the language of epic.

SASKATCHEWAN AND CARVER. Why the instant love-in? He's a fine writer, but many other fine writers (Margaret Atwood) and scholars (Northrop Frye) have bombed in Saskatoon. First we single out Carver's books for praise, then, in about two minutes of reading, we respond just as warmly to the man. Better readers (W.O. Mitchell, Erin Moure, Graham Gibson, Michael Ondaatje) have worked harder to warm up an audience. And wasn't Ford's story a bit tighter? It seemed so during the reading.
        Should we not, then, be more circumspect about Carver's books, such as Mr. Bell has advised? Some of us are no doubt aware of Carver's excesses even as he reads, but no one voices any critical disapproval later on, after the event. Is the Carver/Ford reading one of those obsequious moments, then, in which a bunch of Canadians grovel at the feet of someone who has made it big in America? I can't absolutely deny there was at least a trace of this feeling in the room. But I don't think the excitement at the reading was impelled by mere obsequiousness. I think much of the laughter, for instance, was that of recognition, that the agonies of Carver's two insomniacs, their dread of a prolonged death, were to a great extent our own.
Mr. Bell seems distressed over the language of many Carver stories, concerned as they are with "the predicaments of bluecollar workers verging on the skids." What rankles at Bell's sense of literary propriety "is a slightly artificial lowering of diction" to "describe a very sophisticated pattern of events."
        I find this argument irksome.
        I read Carver's stories for many things: among them that strange dependency of squalor and humour in the tone, the equally strange dependency between the ordinary and the numinous, and that way his characters have of telling us far more than they mean to. Who says this is an artificial lowering of diction? Is it artificial because plainspeaking people are not generally competent to talk about the complexities of their lives, or at least report their own stories in a suggestive way?
        Carver brings to Saskatchewan the suggestive richness of plain speech. Saskatchewan greets Carver with a tradition of plain-speaking. Our greatest works of fiction (Sinclair Ross's As for Me and My House, W.O. Mitchell's Who Has Seen the Wind, Wallace Stegner's Wolf Willow , Guy Vanderhaeghe's Man Descending, for example) are unapologetically realistic. Perhaps this adherence to the imperatives of realism doesn't seem surprising to readers unfamiliar with the Canadian West. But if we look at the finest Alberta fiction over the same fifty years (Howard O'Hagan's Tay John, some of Rudy Wiebe's Indian stories, most of W.O. Mitchell's Alberta fiction, and Robert Kroetsch's Badlands, for instance), we get myth, epic, tall tales and other kinds of comedy in the hyperbolic tradition, romance, postmodern satire-anything but realism. When Albertans were forging the Social Credit Party out of the remains of the United Farmers Movement and the biblical prophesies of William Aberhart, Saskatchewanians were creating the C.C.F. party. Compare the mythopoeic style of Aberhart's or Manning's speeches (in church or in the Legislature) with the hardnosed realism of Tommy Douglas' speeches, and you have a rough idea of what I'm talking about in the literature of these neighbouring provinces.
        Nowhere I know of are the niceties of middle-class diction, the borrowed jargon of deconstructionism, the linguistic excesses of romantic fiction less relevant than in Saskatchewan literature.
        And in Carver's stories, I suspect. There is a correlation here, and it shows up in the language: the rhetoric of hard lessons, limited expectations, toughminded compassion. We have known hard times and from this knowledge comes our regional pride. Western Albertans are mountain snobs, Vancouverites like to feel sorry for the rest of Canada, Victorians are flower garden snobs, Calgarians (to use some of W.O. Mitchell's distinctions) are horsey snobs, Edmontonians are sports and progress snobs. Saskatchewanians are for the most part endurance snobs. They are sure they can endure more drudgery, worse winters, more absurdities from Ottawa, worse droughts, a greater sense of nullity from looking at flat surfaces, more defeats to their football team, than anyone else in Canada.
        Saskatchewan literature, as Robert Kroetsch has said(perhaps lamented), is inward looking. The experiments of Marquez, Borges, or Barth or Calvino, which were emulated and imitated by so many writers in other parts of Western Canada, came to nothing in Saskatchewan. At their best, Saskatchewan writers like Lorna Crozier, Andy Suknaski, Guy Vanderhaeghe or Ken Mitchell preserve a strong connection to their regional origins. So have Sinclair Ross, John Newlove, and a number of eminent former residents. The language of postmodernism seems to be of passing academic interest, having so little to do with Saskatchewan idioms, in our mouths an artificial language. The complexities of our lives are rendered in a native language; the complexities of our collective imagination are rendered in terms that emerge from our own dreams of our place. We are stolidly unimpressed with whatever happens to language when it gets deflected and convoluted by life in the big city. There are some important exceptions to this overall picture (the poetry of Ed Dyck and Anne Szumigalski, the fiction of Geoff Ursell), but even these three mavericks have written extensively and successfully out of their Saskatchewan experience. There is still a grainy, marshy smell to some of their most adventurous work.
        For the most part, we are plainspeaking, and this explains to me the recent popularity of Carver's visit. He managed to affirm something about our own idiom by speaking so well in his.

ROBERTSON GOES from room to room in his underwear. Rallying the troops. "Five thirty tamorra mornin," he growls. He sits on anyone's bed, at home wherever he goes. "Hell," he says after a pause, "it'll be just like summer camp, first night. We'll all stay awake an talk about sex."
        The wind shakes the basement windows as we sit around, the rain seeps in and sprays anyone beneath the screens. We lay out our rain gear, our long range magnum shells. The geese will be flying high, spotting us easily. Carver and Ford, both insomniacs, will room together, Calder with Robertson, and I with Nash. Carver wants to be roused by five. He has a little coffee maker and wants to get it going so we can all have a shot. Nash warns me of his snoring, claims he can shake a building with it. He tosses me some earplugs.
        Maybe Robertson is right. It is a bit like summer camp. Nash sleeps like a baby, but I review the day, try to think about lying in mud, revel in the success of Ford and Carver's reading, blink and ruminate all night long. Perhaps I doze for half an hour, but when the alarm goes off at five, I'm as galvanic as an electric owl.

SEPTEMBER 26
Five o'clock in the morning. Ford mumbles, "Why the fuck do we have to get up so early?" He sounds very much like a boy in Mississippi embarking on his first hunt. He will demonstrate later that he is anything but a greenhorn.
        Ray makes pot after pot of strong filter coffee. Each pot is a cup. Each cup gets passed from room to room, from bed to bed. The empty cups come back to Ray and he has another to send down the line. Breakfast is doughnuts, several kinds. This is our gift to Ray, because apparently he is addicted to them in the morning. Our rooms are littered with crumbs and spattered with coffee. We drag on our clothes, layer after layer. I start with long johns, then thick pants and T-shirt, then K-ways top and bottom, then thick wool sweater, then canvas hunting coat and hat. Most of what I wear is what I've worn for decades on these trips. My pants are torn, my coat stained and stiff with goose and duck blood. Calder looks about the same to me, and Nash and Robertson. We reek of barley and odd prairie smells. An old fellowship seems to re-emerge with the donning of this brown canvas coat.
        Carver and Ford have newer waterproof clothes, and Ford actually looks dapper in his. We'll have to do something about that, I think, but I can't imagine what. Guns in hand, we lurch and waddle through the rain and mud to Jake's house. He meets us with a friend in his garage. It is brilliantly lit inside. He too has doughnuts and coffee, knowing of Carver's addiction.
        "She's colder'n a sonofabitch out there," says Jake. "Sock 'er down, eh? It's a long time till dinner."
        The garage is huge, full of duck-hunting equipment and all-terrain vehicles. The lighting is so intense that we stand around in embarrassed silence, yawning, savouring the last dry surfaces we will feel for many hours.
        Four of us go in Jake's jeep, three follow in Calder's truck. We take the highway about ten miles south past the town of Horizon, and Jake pulls over and parks on the shoulder. "Far as she goes," he says, knowing full well that nothing with wheels could get a hundred yards on the side roads.
        The sun makes faint grey streaks on the eastern horizon, but it's still dark where we sit in the jeep. Suddenly we stumble out onto the road, Jake in the lead, swearing. "Timed er wrong," he says. “Shit.”
        I hear choruses of falsetto barking, and then I see them: wave after wave of geese lifting off the slough and pouring over the road, low but out of range. The sky is exploding with them: greater Canadas, lesser Canadas, specklebellies, snows, and many ducks.
        We lurch down the road in single file. We are almost at the edge of the flight path, but it's getting lighter and there is no place to hide. The mud builds up around our boots until each foot wears ten pounds of Saskatchewan gumbo. Our breath comes hard. The wind and rain lash into our faces. My glasses need windshield wlpers.
        Jake and Ford and I manage to reach a point on the road about a half a mile down from the vehicles. Jake and Richard begin to blaze away, standing on the road. I have only a sixteen gauge, so I keep on trudging into the middle of the flight path, Nash right behind me. I hear guns going off but I keep on going till I reach a culvert I can hide behind. Nash and Ford fire down the road and double on their first goose. A lone duck tries his luck swinging low over the culvert, and I bag him. He falls on the road with a squelch and he's dead before I stuff him into my coat pouch. This is how you always want it to happen, a clean kill.
        Calder and Robertson are nowhere in sight. Jake has headed back into town. Carver and Ford lie in the ditch back down the road two hundred yards from me. Nash trudges slowly out into the north field and disappears over the edge of the world. It is every man for himself, and the birds are wise to our plan, such as it is. They spot us a mile off and fly high over our heads. We blast away and they keep on flying. This is called pass shooting. The geese pass, the hunters fail.
        By nine o'clock we still have only a duck and a goose, apparently dispatched by Calder as it tried to escape. This I learned later; Calder and Robertson are still missing in action.
        The wind has been playing with us as we lie in the mud. By ten o'clock it rises up like a Wendigo and blasts sleet and rain into our faces. To remain as innocuous as possible, Ford and Carver lie face down in the mud, and when the geese fly over, they leap up and try to fire as their feet slide beneath them. I shoot occasionally, but it's clay pigeons in the dark again, so I huddle down by the culvert to try and keep my back to the wind, checking every minute or so for new flights of geese. Nash reappears over the northern horizon like a perambulating scarecrow, then disappears. He moves to keep warm.
        At last the wind and sleet are unbearable, so I head for a clutter of grain bins out in the field. Crouching behind these bins is a bit better, but I'm still so cold my teeth chatter. One of the bins is actually an old wooden grainery. I peek inside. It is empty, which surprises me. But because of this weather, half the farmers haven't been able to harvest their grain, thus the empty bins. I turn the handle and go inside, and at last, with the wind shrieking all around the bins, I begin to warm up. From time to time I can hear geese flying over the bins but my gun leans against the wall. This soldier has bid goodbye to the wars.
        Then I smell something, an offering from below, sour and rotten. Skunk. I'm out of there in about four seconds and back to my culvert.
        By eleven Nash returns, three large geese and a duck hanging over his shoulder. He is tired, happy, and very wet. We push on down the road. Carver and Ford get up out of the gumbo, and I see now what they are made of. From lying face down in the mud, Richard has acquired a carapace of bluish clay over his face. His clothes are filthy. Carver is just as muddy, and he is bleeding rather badly from two cuts in his left hand. We look each other over for a while. We are the remnants of a defeated army, trench warfare, circa 1916 when the Americans entered the fray.
And the Americans haven't yet admitted defeat. First Carver, then Ford, then I, begin to build a large duckblind out of chaff. I gather the chaff, hand it to Richard, who gives it to Carver. Back and forth we go, the geese flying cautiously high. By noon we have what resembles a huge bird's nest, big enough for three hunters. Ford and I are puffing, Carver close to exhaustion.
        It's time for lunch. We shoulder our guns and slowly trudge the long mile to the vehicles. Robertson and Calder greet us by the truck. They've had no luck at all and seem discouraged, especially Calder. When he had to dispatch the wounded goose by wringing its neck, he discovered something about himself. Over the twenty-three years between this hunt and his last one, he had acquired a conscience about killing things. We discussed this later. We all shared a real affection for those geese we hunted--apart from their value as food or quarry. This affection is what Faulkner refers to as loving the creatures you kill. But Calder's conscience took him one step further. The killing felt unbearable to him and he had lost the hunter's instinct.
On our last fishing trip, Calder had always been the driving force, the keener, the strongest courier over the last portage. I had been the one to lose sleep worrying about bears and the first to tire after a portage.
        "Can't cut er," says Calder, plainly discouraged.
        "But Calder, you've been an administrator. You've been in the dean's office for God's sake. You're not supposed to have a conscience any more."
He gives me a sardonic grin. There is nothing more to be done. Like prehistorlc creatures who dimly feel the end of their epoc, we slither into Calder's camper and head home for lunch. Some of them curse Jake, though it's not his fault. We curse the weather and dream of showers and more hot coffee.
        While the others shower, I head over to Jake's garage and find him in the grease pit. Four other guys stand around talking with Jake as he works. I'm carrying the four geese and two ducks. "Where can I get these cleaned?"
        "Goose plucker's daughter," says an old fellow. "Over at Horizon."
        "Does she work fast?" I ask.
        Jake sticks his head out of the grease pit and smiles. "Oh, she's fast all right."
        The men chuckle.
        "You go t'Horizon, Dave. Doris'll take care of ya."
        Again, tribal chuckling from deep in the belly.
        "No crap, Dave, you're gonna meet a real pretty girl, eh?"
        By the time I get back to the motel, some of the guys are eating, some showering. When it's my turn, I simply hold my K-ways and canvas coat under the shower until the clay peels off and down the drain. The bottom of the shower is plugged with three inches of mud. Changing into dry clothes is a pleasure worthy of a voluptuary.
        Finally, after lunch, as the others rest, I load up the birds and take along Robertson for protection. This Doris woman sounds threatening to me. I've turned her into a monster of Gothic proportions in my own mind, and Bill is very curious. He assumes she is merely old or disfigured.
        Horizon is a ghost town. Two families remain. It used to have hundreds, but bad crops and large farm corporations seem to have driven out the residents. Doris' place is a one story frame shack next to a demolished house and barn on the edge of town. Her back yard is the endless prairie.
I think of Mrs. Bentley from As For Me and My House, how each day she would listen to the wind and dust sift through her house. At one point she calls the wind "liplessly mournful." I don't understand this phrase, but it haunts me.
        I knock on the door.
        Doris answers. She is about five foot two, ash blond, twentyfive, her makeup a bit on the heavy side, barefoot, and gorgeous. "Hi," she says with a bright smile.

AT THREE o'clock, fed and rested, we cram into Calder's camper and try our luck again. We park the truck by the road again and off go Nash, Ford and Robertson. Nash will stick to his perambulating; Ford and Robertson will crouch in the duck blind.
        Carver tries the muddy road again, but it's no go. He has a torn muscle or a charlie-horse in his left groin, a bum right leg, a swollen left toe, and from compensating all day long, a bleeding blister on his right foot. We've helped him bandage up his hand and his foot, but the man is on his last legs, sweating and hobbling in the mud. "You know, Dave, I think if I try this road again I'm just not gonna make it. I think maybe I'll stick by the highway."
        We stop and look around. The other three have gone on ahead and disappeared. The rain has almost stopped but the wind persists. "I think I'll stick by the highway," he says again. "I think I'll try my luck here." A while later he says, "I tell you, Dave, I could sure use a Coca Cola. Where do you think we could get one?"
I have the keys to Calder's truck. There is Horizon and Bean Coulee just a few miles down the road, and of course Crocus in the other direction. We head for the truck.
"If I could have a Coca Cola," says Carver, smiling painfully, "I think I could maybe make it through the afternoon." Perhaps this is how Carver talked about booze in the bad old days before he took the pledge. I too am thirsty. Before us looms a huge frosty bottle of Coke. The prairie has become a desert, and that ultimate American symbol, the Coke machine, our oasis. By five o'clock or so, we are beat but we simply will not acknowledge this. Like I say, Horizon is a ghost town. We discover it has no store. Bean Coulee hasn't even a Coke machine. We head back toward the muddy road, thirsty as hell. But before we reach it, Carver spots a huge wedge of geese flapping over a gravel road. A gravel road. This means it can be driven. We try it out. The truck moves slowly down the road; wet though it is, the tires grip. We drive beneath another large flock of honkers. Carver clambers out and checks the ditch. It's almost too dark to shoot, but we have tomorrow morning. Carver and I discover ample patches of weeds and standing grass, deep patches where we can hide in the morning. There is a light in Carver's eyes, a youthful look. "Goddam, David, this is it. We can come here tomorrow morning. Five o'clock. This is the place. Would you like to join me here tomorrow morning?"
        "You bet," I say. "If they're flying low, I'm with you." My gun is built for close range stuff, so we seem destined to try our hand at this new road. To the north are several huge fields of swath. To the south across the road is a large slough, and string after string of geese pouring into it from the fields. The whole dark sky is honking.
"You bet," says Ray. "This is it. This is the place. You know what? I'm comin here tomorrow morning. Would you like to come?"

WE ARRIVE AT DARK on the mud road to pick up Nash, Robertson and Ford. The latter two are waiting with big smiles on their faces. They each have four geese. Ford has been coaching Bill. These are his first geese ever. Robertson is the most talkative man I've ever hunted with, but as he loads his geese in and helps with the others, a strange aura of silence has fallen over him. Like his little two year-old boy, Jesse, he just grins a lot as though the world has come to honour him.
        Nash is a mile in again, and I have to go and get him in the dark. The more the mud balls up around my boots, the more tired I get. It's dark out now, but at least the rain is gone and the stars are out. We meet on the road where Nash has been listening to the geese. He has long since given up shooting. The flocks are pretty much all back on their water. Nash has been counting strings of geese. He figures there may be as many as fifteen thousand in a slough of scarcely more than a dozen acres. Goose shit surrounds the slough like cigarette butts at a race track. And the sound is incredible: falsetto cackling, like a convention of auctioneers. When I yell to Nash across the road, he can't even hear me.

THAT NIGHT in the bar we have a pizza supper. We're all sleepy, so the talk has hit the drowsy stage by the time we reach the presentations. Calder and Robertson present Carver and Ford with official Crocus tractor caps. Nash presents them with Wayne Gretzky tractor caps. I toss them each a bag of Saskatchewan books and deliver a little speech. The idea is, if one of their literary colleagues says, "What? Serious writing in Saskatchewan?" they are to respond either with violence or one of the above-mentioned books. Ford and Carver are visibly touched by these presentations but even more moved by their need for sleep. We all hit the sack before ten o'clock.
        By this time Doris has done twelve geese and two ducks for us. They've all met her and been smitten. She sits in a shack in a ghost town and flies through our dreams. Not too long from now, we will read each other's stories or poems with Doris as the muse. All through the storm, I imagine, she is listening to the wind. All day long we've been lying in the mud or shooting off boxes of shells at the indifferent gods, unaware that the muse was waiting for us....Amused by the muse...abused by the muse...but none too clever to...refuse the muse? These things dribble from my lips as I fall asleep to the thunderous applause of Nash's adenoids.

SEPTEMBER 27
Five o'clock, still pitch black out. I knock on everyone's door. Carver makes coffee, but this time there are only a few crumpled two-day-old donuts for breakfast. Calder is going to give it one more go. He heads out in the truck with Nash and Robertson. Ford and Carver come with me. Ford managed to bring down five geese, and he feels Carver should try his gun. Richard has generously decided to sit this one out. Neither Carver nor I have managed to bring down a goose, and Ford is eager that we do well this time. We drive out to the gravel road; the others return to the mud road. The stars are out and the dawn tilts slowly like a warm cup of tea. There is not a trace of a cloud. Ford coaches Carver on the handling of his gun and leaves in my car to pick up our plucked birds. Just as I'm settling into the ditch behind a telephone pole, the first wave comes over Carver's head two hundred yards down the road. He fires twice and two geese fall. One is only winged and takes off across the field flapping frantically over the swath. Carver leaps out of the ditch and gives chase. I race over to help him--after all, he has become one of the walking wounded--but Carver has suddenly regained his youthful legs. When I get there he sports two large specklebellies and an enormous grin. "Boy, isn't that something," he says.
        We hurry back to our separate positions in the ditch, and over they come again. Carver knocks another goose down, this time a young Canada. A pair of specklebellies come at me from the sunrise, just in range. I stand up so that my body is shielded by the old telephone pole, lead the bird on the left, and fire. It seems to stop in mid-air and climb straight up. I fire again and down it comes, my first goose in four years. Carver waves. Minutes later a large chevron of honkers passes over our heads out of range, then another flock, this time lower. Carver fires first, knocks one down, and then I fire and down comes my first lesser Canada. We chase our birds into opposite fields, bag them and lurch back into the ditch. It's about nine thirty, the sun is climbing and hangs in a blue sky over a stubble field filled with thousands of speckle-bellies, Canadas and snow geese. The geese tend to feed with their own kind, and so the snow geese stand out among the darker specimens in blotches of white. Thousands of geese are still in the slough to our west, and all day they will cross in waves of a hundred or more from slough to stubble, from stubble to slough. They fly high now, and Ray and I are extremely visible. What the hell.
        Ford returns in my car, and with our instinct for show biz still proclaiming itself, we manage to meet him carrying our geese. He is ecstatic. He wants to shake our hands but of course they are filled with goosenecks.
        "Oh boy!" he yells to Carver. "You liked it?" he asks, pointing to his gun. That one gun has accounted for nine geese so far this trip. "And you shot two of these?" he says to me. "You got two geese?"
        I say, "Aw."
        The six of us have brunch in Crocus and gas up for the long ride home. The woman at the pump asks us how we did and we tell her twenty geese, two ducks. The weather has been so bad that hardly anyone else has been able to get to where the geese are. The woman at the pumps tells us another group of five hunters picked up six geese, but we apparently were the only ones to do half decently. This for me is a source of enormous pride. I'll be telling this story for a long time to come. The sleet will become snow, eventually a blizzard; the edge of a hurricane will become the eye of a hurricane; the bag will grow from twenty-two to forty-four; Carver's cuts on his left hand will become an ugly gash on his left arm....
        "Doris took care of yiz, did she?" says the young woman at the pump.
        "Yep," says Calder.
        "Oh, the hunters really appreciate Doris," she goes on.
        Calder's ears perk up. All of our ears perk up.
        "Oh, Doris really pulls in some extra money in huntin season," says the woman with all the innuendo she can muster.
        "No kiddin," says Robertson.
        I can see a poem flapping across the ditch as Robertson gets back into the truck: "The Gooseplucker's Daughter" by William B. Robertson. How will Carver handle this one? Will Ford beat him to the punch? Will I?
        "There's a dance on tonight," says the woman. "You guys should come along."
        "We have planes to catch," says Nash.
        "Too bad," she sings. "Doris'll be there."

CARVER HAS A COFFEE and cigarette at the Crocus Hotel café while the other guys get their gear together. He's in his reading duds again, surprisingly dapper: a beige raincoat he bought in London, brown turtleneck and tweed jacket, civilized shoes and slacks that seem out of place in Crocus. He looks pleasantly tired, a lot like that author whose pictures are on his dust jackets.
        "You look like Raymond Carver," I tell him.
        I can now confess to him that Jake had phoned just before his reading to cancel the trip. He likes that: the fact that we risked our hides against strong odds to come down here and be boys again.
        For most of us, I dare say, the trip amounted to an adventure of non-heroic propor-tions. It was six guys wallowing in the mud and struggling with other things as well: Carver with physical pain, Ford with the unusual cold, Calder with his feelings about killing things, Robertson with his old/new gun, and on it goes. It was six guys unaccustomed to mud and hurricanes trying (metaphorically at least) to shoot pigeons in the dark. Above all, trying to help each other get through the day. Ford coached Robertson in the duck blind; Nash and Carver bolstered my courage when it looked bad for the trip; Calder wired on a muffler by lying under his truck in a mud puddle so we could all go in the first place; I ran around being host for several days and worried for everyone; Carver made something like twenty cups of coffee from his tiny pot at five A.M.
        At the airport, Carver tries to thank me for a great hunt and gets choked up. I try to tell him that such rewards are his due because he happens to write well, but my words come stumbling out for want of sleep. Carver and Ford both want to come back and stay longer. We're already dreaming of next fall when great cackling legions of geese in flocks as wide as Saskatoon will once more descend from the North to fatten up on the grain fields, reminding us (who shoot at clay pigeons in the dark) that we were once Lee Henchbaw and we are from Sass-katchewan.

 


 


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