Alcohol Ruins Lives

1 January 2017

When We Talk About Love is a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver. Named “One of the true contemporary masters,” by Robert Towers of The New York Times Review of Books, Carver creates fiction that opens the reader’s eyes to a seldom spoken of, but all too real, part of American life. Alcoholism, and its ability to destroy families and escalate domestic disputes into violence, was a common theme throughout Carver’s short stories.

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Though there are many equally powerful themes in all of the stories, alcoholism is the driving force behind most of the misfortune in “Gazebo” and “A Serious Talk. ” “Gazebo” opens with a married couple whose relationship is on the brink of collapse. Both alcoholics, Duane and Holly struggle to maintain a motel that they had decided to manage years earlier. Duane, probably as a result of his alcoholism, had gone outside the marriage with a maid named Juanita.

As a result, Holly had lost all her will to be married to Duane, as well as her will to live. Carver describes the couple, locked in one of the motel rooms, drinking and arguing over each others’ faults and marital discrepancies. The story ends when Holly reminisces about a time when Duane and she had visited the house of an elderly couple that they didn’t know to ask for a drink of water. She remembers how Duane and she had imagined that someday they, too, would grow old and have a house of their own.

Then perhaps some young couple would come to call on them for a glass of water just as they had done. “Gazebo” shows just how many hopes and dreams alcoholism can take away. Illustrating this point, Carver writes, “There was this funny thing of anything could happen now that we realized everything had” (27). By writing in the first person from Duane’s point of view, Carver shows how Duane feels that their lives have been expended, that any plans they might have had were now so far out of reach that they are impossible.

The couple’s drinking problem is the obvious culprit, as Carver describes the couple’s usual decision making process: “Drinking’s funny. When I look back on it, all of our important decisions have been figured out when we were drinking. Even when we talked about having to cut back on our drinking, we’d be sitting at the kitchen table or out at the picnic table with a six pack or whiskey” (25). Since most of the couple’s important life decisions were made under the influence of alcohol, any of their sober aspirations remain impossible unless they change their lifestyle.

With Duane’s betrayal destroying their marriage, any hope of restraining their drinking habit is probably long gone, and the story leaves the couple drowning in their own misery. Though the story is sad, just as most of Carver’s stories tend to be, it really sheds light on alcohol’s ability to destroy lives, as well as perpetuate actions that drive people to drink more. Alcohol addiction even leads one to consider drastic actions such as suicide; just as Holly tries to jump out the window in “Gazebo. ” Howard C. Becker, Ph.

D, author of a paper published by the Alcohol Research & Health division of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, attests to alcohol’s life destroying and addictive nature. In his paper titled, “Alcohol Dependence, Withdrawal, and Relapse,” Becker focusses on the viscious cycles that alcoholism can lead one into. According to Dr. Becker, heavy drinking not only perpetuates a dependence for alcohol, but also increases a heavy drinker’s likelihood to relapse as a reaction to stressful situations when compared to light or non-drinkers.

Clinical studies demonstrated that alcohol­dependent people are more sensitive to relapse-provoking cues and stimuli than nondependent people” (Becker). Such behavior is of the sort that people like Duane and Holly allowed to grow until consuming alcohol became not only an obsession, but their entire life purpose. Becker delves deeper into the research and writes that “[F]or some dependent individuals, the fear that withdrawal symptoms might emerge if they attempt to stop or significantly curtail drinking may prominently contribute to the perpetuation of alcohol use and abuse” (Becker).

With this in mind, it is clear that it can be all too easy to fall into the same sort of alcoholic cycle as Duane and Holly, and that without help, addicts like them may never escape the clutches of alcoholism. To elaborate on what can be done to help people with the disease of alcoholism from a pharmaceutical standpoint, Becker writes: The relationship between withdrawal, stress, and relapse also has implications for the treatment of alcoholic patients. Interestingly, animals with a history of alcohol dependence are more sensitive to certain medications that impact relapse­like behavior than nimals without such a history, suggesting that it may be possible to develop medications that specifically target excessive, uncontrollable alcohol consumption. (“Alcohol Dependence”)

With the possibility of drugs capable of suppressing the urge to consume alcohol in addicts, many people who normally would not be helped by a simple 12 step program, could use such drugs in combination with standard treatment in the future to help combat their addiction. Carver’s “A Serious Talk” is another short story that perfectly demonstrates the damaging affects of alcohol addiction on both the addict and those who surround them.

In the story, a woman named Vera is visited by her ex-husband Burt, who arrives to give his and her children Christmas gifts. “Vera served sodas, and they did a little talking” (Carver 106). Here, Carver uses inconspicuous props such as sodas to show the emphasis of the absence of alcohol in this particular scene. Carver implies that the adults of the house are usually drinking something far stronger than soda. Vera also likely served soda as an attempt to prevent Burt from having a relapse or alcoholic episode in front of their children.

Later on in the story, Burt puts the entire bundle of logs into the fireplace just before leaving, not thinking about the amount of fire that it would create. Carver describes the mantle as being charred and covered in smoke stains. The next day, Burt returns to apologize for his actions the night before. After being allowed entry, Burt asks vera for a drink, and she tells him there’s vodka in the freezer. Burt drinks the vodka with juice and asks Vera about her smoking habits. The phone rings and Vera takes the call in the other room, telling Burt not to listen to the conversation.

Burt takes a large knife and cuts the phone line, ending the call out of jealousy, anger, or some other suppressed emotion. When Vera finds the phone cord cut, she screams for Burt to leave and he threatens to throw the ashtray but takes it with him instead as he leaves. Burt walks out to his car fuming with anger that he still failed to have a reasonable conversation with Vera, “The thing was, they had to have a serious talk soon. There were things that needed talking about, important things that had to be discussed” (Carver 113). Anger seems to both drive Burt’s rash actions and prevent him from doing anything too violent.

Burt’s alcoholism is made apparent by his morning vodka drinking and is the definite cause of the couple’s separation. Vera tells Burt of the last straw that ended their marriage, “ ‘Do you remember Thanksgiving? ’ she said. ‘I said then that was the last holiday you were going to wreck for us. Eating bacon and eggs instead of turkey at ten o’clock at night’ ” (Carver 108). Actions like the destruction of the family’s Thanksgiving are examples of alcoholism’s role in marital disputes, and Burt’s actions – in particular the wielding of a large, heavy ash tray at his ex-wife – are clearly out of desperation and regret.

Burt probably struggles on a daily basis to keep his drinking in check, but for him and all alcoholics, being sober just makes him irritable and leaves him desperate for some sort of drink. An important point to note is that regardless of the emotional and psychological torment that is ravaging Burt’s mind, he holds it back, acting tough and manly around his ex-wife, only wishing secretly to have a sincere conversation. This implosion of emotion and acting against his true feelings is one of the underlying reasons that Burt is an alcoholic in the first place.

If he had been taught how to express his emotions, than he might have avoided this tragedy and still have a family. Michael Hemmingson, in his review of Carver’s “A Serious Talk,” writes about the motifs of Carver’s fiction, and how this story in particular not only has all of said motifs, but is a summation of Carver’s entire writing career. “[T]he failed marriage, the drunken exploits, the other lover waiting in the wings, the children having to deal with a broken family, smoking and drinking, doing regrettable things, and not saying the words that are inside the heart” (Hemmingson).

Here, Hemmingson’s work drives home the importance of expressing one’s fears, regrets, and addictions. Without expressing these powerful feelings due to the need to feel strong and masculine, many men like Burt, particularly those who are alcoholics, are forced into violence. Simply because being violent is the only means to express their anger and other feelings whilst retaining their masculine appearance. Helping such people learn to express their pent-up feelings is not as much difficult, as it is borderline impossible. Burt for example, is not about to go to his neighborhood shrink and talk things out until he feels better.

Men like Burt are far too concerned about their masculinity to notice the damage they are doing to those around them, at least until it is too late. Masculinity, in the traditional sense of Carver’s fiction, is men’s role as the economic provider of the family, showing only a tough as nails attitude, and having control over the household and their wife. As times began to change in the 1960s and to today, gender roles changed and men and women became more equal than ever before. This upset many men of the time period, who had been raised by traditional, controlling and masculine fathers.

These men are unintentionally responsible for domestic violence and marital disputes of which Carver so accurately portrays in his writing. Raymond Carver has an astounding ability to not only capture the reader within his fiction, but put them in the driver’s seat when it comes to filling in the details. Having to use one’s imagination where Carver has intentionally left out details makes reading his short stories both vivid and enthralling. By leaving out details, Carver allows the reader to envision the scenes of his short stories as if they, or their family, were a part of the conflict.

This style shows how Carver to not only writes to any audience, but also teaches the reader important life lessons such as the consequences of alcoholism. In “Gazebo,” and “A Serious Talk,” Carver throws the reader into the battleground of destroyed marriages. Themes such as suppressed male anger and alcohol addiction make the stories as serious as they are realistic. Duane, Holly, Burt, and Vera become characters as familiar as those in a novel, showing just how much power Carver has condensed into these short stories. Carver’s stories are not just words on paper, but a protest to his own experience.

Carver himself, born in the 1930s, grew up knowing the masculine image he – as a man – was supposed to keep his entire life. Carver became an alcoholic and through near death experiences and a willingness to express himself and change his ways, overcame the disease, adding years to his life and inspiring works as influential as “Gazebo,” and “A Serious Talk. ” With such a personal experience inspiring his works, the accuracy of Carver’s short stories is unquestionable and the writing itself is nothing short of extraordinary.

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