When I was in high school my English teacher had us read, Moby Dick. The next book assigned was, The Great Gatsby. His plan was simple: Get the class acquainted with two of the great American novelists, and present two significantly different writing styles. While Melville’s story came to life through densely worded, intensely descriptive passages, Fitzgerald drove his narrative forward at breakneck speed with highly streamlined language.
Moby Dick weighed in just over 206,000 words, while The Great Gatsby was right around 47,000. Interestingly, I wouldn’t say the former is too wordy, nor would I say the latter is lacking in substance.
It’s not exactly an apples to apples comparison, as Melville was a 19th century author, and Fitzgerald’s work was a product of the early 20th century. Certainly the English language is constantly in flux. The 1900’s ushered in the Industrial Revolution, and perhaps the faster pace of life contributed to the demand for a faster paced novel. Whatever the reason, and likely there were many of them, I have always found something very appealing about the concise, direct use of language in storytelling.
You can imagine how amped up I was when I finally found out about Raymond Carver (who was likely influenced by Fitzgerald and Hemingway). I was a sophomore in college by then, and I was fascinated by his writing. Talk about word economy. Carver had an extraordinary ability to convey immense feeling in a few paragraphs. The trick, it turns out, is to omit any detail that is not absolutely necessary to the story – sometimes even omitting much of the story itself. Scholars sometimes refer to this writing technique as, The Tip of the Iceberg. The reader is presented with only a minimum amount of information above the surface, but he or she understands the vast majority of the substance must exist below the surface. The reader is then free to inject their own meaning into the sparse framework of the narrative, resulting in a highly personalized experience.
It’s not an easy technique to pull off, and in my opinion, Carver is the undisputed champion of this writing style. If you’re not familiar with him, check out some of his work: Cathedral, What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, and A Serious Talk are good stories to start with. I have read his work dozens of times now, and I take away something new from his stories each and every time.
Some years ago, as an exercise in creative writing, I attempted a short story in the spirit of Raymond Carver. Since the whole point of this blog is to reach out to others interested in creative writing, I am going to include the story beneath this post. It contains typical Carver themes: A fractured relationship, drinking/substance abuse, and marginalized people. I tried my best to omit everything that is not critical to the narrative, while still giving the reader just enough direction to find their way out of the woods. At least that was the goal I had in mind. As always, questions and comments are welcome.
The Search For a New Spice Route
by Hawkelson Rainier
“You know what your problem is?” Al asked, stirring his vodka and cranberry.
“What’s my problem?” Phil asked back.
“You need to get laid,” he said as he produced a pen from his coat and jotted down a name and a number on a bar napkin. “Here. This girl’s good. Her name’s Nikki, with two k’s. Tell her I referred you.”
“Jesus, Al, I don’t know.”
“What don’t you know?”
“I’ve never had a hooker before,” Phil whispered.
“Good. Hookers are filthy animals – this is a call girl. Very classy. Very hot.”
“You’re welcome. And that reminds me,” Al said, straightening his tie. “I can’t keep the ladies waiting much longer.”
“All right, see you Monday.”
“Take care of yourself, Phil. Maybe you should request some time off now that things have slowed down in our department.”
“And call that number,” he yelled over his shoulder as he turned up his collar and walked into dying autumn afternoon.
Phil knocked back his single malt and made the short walk home. After almost an hour, he dialed the number.
“Hello,” a woman’s voice said.
“Yes. Can I help you?”
“I was wondering if you’re free this evening.”
“I have an opening. Are you alone?”
“Because I only see one guy at a time.”
“What’s your name?”
“How’d you get this number, Phil?”
“My colleague from work. His name’s, Al.”
“Oh, Allen. He’s a real trip, huh?”
“All right, where should I meet you?”
Phil gave her directions to his apartment.
“It’s three hundred for the hour,” she said.
“I have cash.”
“Is eight thirty good?” she asked.
“Yes,” he said.
“All right. See you then, honey.”
“See you then.”
At ten to nine Nikki rang the buzzer from the front lobby.
“Come on up,” Phil said. “It’s apartment 421.”
“Sorry I’m late,” Nikki said as she stepped inside. “It’s really raining out there, and traffic was a mess.”
“It’s okay. Here’s the money,” Phil said as he fumbled with his wallet.
“Just put it on the table, baby. You haven’t done this before, have you?”
“Just relax. I’m going to freshen up in the bathroom. Can you pour a couple of drinks?”
“Do you like wine?”
“I love wine.”
Nikki kissed Phil on the cheek and took the money into the bathroom with her. She came out with her hair down, and they sat on the couch trying to manufacture conversation while sipping a nice Cabernet Sauvignon. After their glasses were empty, she ran her fingers through his hair.
“How do you want me?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“Tell me, baby. This is your fantasy.
“I just want somebody to talk to.”
“You should have called a shrink – it would have been cheaper. So, what’s botherin’ you?”
“My wife. She left me. Fourteen years, and she just packed up and left.”
“I’ll never understand people,” Nikki said.
“I thought she was happy. She said she still loved me, but there was no passion anymore. I don’t know what she expected. I worked hard. I bought her a big house, a nice car, jewelry.”
“How was your love life?” Niki asked.
“It was great, at first. Like in any marriage. But you get into a routine, you know?”
“Yeah. It’s hard to keep the spice,” Nikki concurred.
“Exactly,” Phil said. “Did she think every night was going to be like our honey moon in Hawaii?”
“A lot of women think it’s a fairy tale. The white dress, slow dancing, a beautiful cake by the Champagne fountain. They never think about what comes after.”
“I don’t want to do this anymore,” he said.
“You want me to leave?”
“I don’t mean that. I just want out. I want out of everything, but I’m a fucking coward,” Phil said as he stood and shattered his wine glass against the faux fireplace.
“You’re startin’ to scare me. I think I’m gonna get goin’.” Nikki backed away and grabbed her purse off the end table. She kept a snub nose .38 revolver in there. If he came after her she’d empty the entire cylinder into him.
“I don’t blame you. I know I seem crazy,” he said as he collapsed back onto the couch.
Nikki sat down next to him and rubbed his shoulders. “I don’t think you’re crazy. You’re just lonely.”
“Thank you. You’re very kind to listen to all this.”
“I’ve got other appointments tonight,” Nikki whispered in his ear, “so if you want anything else let me know now, okay?”
“I don’t know.”
“What are you afraid of?”
“I’m not afraid. It’s just . . .”
“Just what?” She undid his belt buckle with one hand, effortlessly, like a master pick pocket. The button and the zipper went next. “Now that I have your attention, why don’t we go to the bedroom.”
“I’d like that,” he said.
Afterward, Nikki listened to Phil breath as he slept. He didn’t stir when she got out of bed and dressed in the half dark. She filled her wine glass and dissolved twenty pills into the blood red liquid. She drank it down as the rain wept against the windows.
Phil didn’t feel the cold muzzle of the .38 as she pressed it gently against his temple. She held it there a long time – maybe a minute. “I’m sorry,” she finally whispered, “I can’t help you.”
Nikki put the money in the nightstand drawer and left quietly through the front door. She drove until she found the freeway and parked on the shoulder. The chemicals began to pull her under, like a leviathan dragging a ship into the dark fathoms.
Phil woke late the next morning. The rain had stopped and the sun was out. He felt pretty good so he fried up a few eggs. Then he splashed on some Tabasco for a little extra spice.