How good was Carver? Very good, at times, and five stories in this collection belong with the best in American fiction: “Are These Actual Miles?,” “Careful,” “A Small, Good Thing,” “Blackbird Pie,” and “Boxes.” His prose is simple and inviting, but he always tried to say something of significance. His characters are mostly male losers, either alcoholics or recovering alcoholics; their relationships with women are going badly, as are financial matters. I believe these people are worthy of attention, their predicaments are important. Carver treats them in a non-judgmental way – after all, he was one of the losers. Some of his later stories dwell on his guilt and remorse concerning his first wife, and in “Blackbird Pie” he makes those feelings palpable; the ending is wrenching. When Carver tried for profundity (which he had a tendency to do, as in the message-laden “Cathedral”), his work suffered; he was at his best when he dealt with the hard facts of dead-end lives. It was then that Carver could tell us what he knew.
The Healing Art - A. N. Wilson
What doesn’t work in this novel? Let me count the ways. I saw through Wilson’s manipulations (on page thirty-five I suspected that the X-rays had been switched; I was right). The religious angle is leaned on too heavily. The way Pamela reacts to her impending death is implausible. Wilson’s characters are stridently odd, and there’s no basis for plot twists (such as the sexual liaison between Pamela and another woman). When John arrives on the scene – another oddball – I had enough. The author is presumably promoting redemption and love (as he did so successfully in Wise Virgin), but in this book he’s notably mean in some of his portrayals. Also, the sex scenes are grubby. The old question arises for me: How can an author’s work vary so radically in quality?