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Carver's latest stories: still laconic but more satisfying

Where I'm Calling From, by Raymond Carver. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press. 393 pp. $19.95. Raymond Carver has a good ear, a good memory, an affinity for down-home folks, and a terse style. The 25 years he's spent putting these talents to work has resulted in a large batch of stories that have influenced a whole style of writing.

In his latest collection of selected and new stories, ``Where I'm Calling From,'' his characters include a sawmill laborer, a baker, a waitress, a vitamin saleswoman, a chimney sweep, and a postman. His people, named Doreen or Earl, say things like, ``Can do,'' or ``Who wants what to drink?''

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There's an authenticity to these characters. He's met them, worked with them, and is true to them. For years he wrote on the lam, between working blue-collar jobs and trying to keep his young family together. Like him, his people are broke, have too much time on their hands, and a bottle too close by. Usually they're trying to figure out why life or love has just slipped away from them. And usually it's hard for them to put into words what's happening to them. In ``Whoever Was Using This Bed,'' the husband says, ``We're into something now, but I don't know what exactly.'' That sums up a lot.

This sounds like minimalist land: all form and little story, inconclusive endings, and inarticulateness. And Carver has been touted as one of the fathers of minimalism. But for all their laconic numbness, Carver's people care a lot. Especially when it comes to marriage, a territory he plows deeply: What makes it work? Why does it fall apart or go away? Is it just a dream?

A lot of the material is as gray as the Pacific Northwest locale he writes about. But some stories, and moments in some stories, reveal a fight to regain that which has slipped away. His people don't give up love easily, and they mourn what they've lost.

He's particularly good with the small occurrences that make people change their lives. In ``Feathers,'' a husband and wife reluctantly agree to have dinner with a couple they barely know. Much to their surprise, they have a lovely time. The couple have a very ugly baby, a peacock that's part of the family, and a dental impression of some crooked teeth, a relic of the wife's unhappy past. What the visitors learn about true-blue love in this odd household charges them into starting their own family. This borrowed charge does not transform their lives. It fizzles, as, in the end, does their marriage.

Carver bootstrapped himself through college, hooking up with fiction writer John Gardner, who encouraged him to go to the University of Iowa's prestigious Writing Program. Carver's work was recognized early on. These stories, from four collections, have appeared in The New Yorker and a bundle of literary magazines, including The Atlantic, Esquire, Harper's Bazaar, The Iowa Review, and the Paris Review.

One can track the strengthening of his writing as well as his personal concerns through these chronologically arranged stories. The first, ``Nobody Said Anything,'' about a young kid dealing with puberty and his parents' fighting, has an almost pugnacious quality. The middle ones are perhaps the most stripped down. And the last ones, written after he gave up drinking, have a generous feel; they shine with humor and tenderness.

In ``Fever,'' a man pours out the story of his failed marriage to an elderly woman, a supremely competent baby sitter in a sea of airheads. She settles his kids down, lets him ramble, and every once in a while says some of the clich'ed things people say. But the steady love undergirding her words soothes him into peace.

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In Carver's stories people work through something. In many of the early works you're left with the sense that something has shifted, but you're not quite sure what it all means. The newest ones end much more satisfyingly. In ``Elephant,'' a man who's been lending out money to deadbeat relatives and is pretty sore suddenly comes to terms with it.

``I started walking alongside the road, and it was then, for some reason, I began to think about my son. I wished him well, wherever he was.... And my daughter, God love her and keep her. I hoped she was doing okay. I decided to write her a letter that evening and tell her I was rooting for her. My mother was alive and more or less in good health, and I felt lucky there, too. And my former wife, the woman I used to love so much. She was alive, and she was well, too - so far as I knew, anyway.... Just now, of course, things were hard for everyone.... But things were bound to change soon.... There was lots to hope for.''

Catherine Foster is on the Monitor staff.

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