A Small, Good Thing

The US is often pictured as the land of wealth, success, and fame. Celebrities, TV, books, music, movies, etc. and the entire oeuvre of Hollywood culture is used to propagate this myth. The lives of ordinary people in the US are draped behind the curtains of a fantasy. And too oftenly, the reality of their lives are taken for granted.

Works of fiction such as those by Raymond Carver shows us the other side of the American dream. His short stories often touch on unemployment, deadening work, disenchantment, divorces, and alcoholism – problems symptomatic of a dysfunctional system driven by consumerism and individualism. They show the little things that undermines the illusions of the capitalist myth.

I recently finished Carver’s Cathedral, a short story collection and the first from him that I’ve read. I like Carver’s sparing prose. The style reminds me of Hemingway. Some of Carver’s stories are funny, but most are sad. All, however, were approached with a cool attitude towards the narrative that ironically led me to identify with the characters more.

I particularly love the scene in the title story, “Cathedral,” where a blind man guides the hand of a man with clear eyes to draw together a cathedral on a blank page. Now who was really blind? The simple story makes one reflect on the many sides of blindness.

Another of my favorite in the collection is “Fever,” where an art teacher reels from the effects of his wife’s leaving; he juggles his time for work and his children while still expecting his wife to return. A reliable old housekeeper relieves his domestice burdens. In the end, the housekeeper had to go but the man gradually accepts his wife’s absence.

The story I like the most is “A Small, Good Thing.” It begins with a young mother buying a birthday cake for his son from a crabby baker. On his birthday, the boy got hit by a car. The woman and his husband watches him die in the hospital. With the cake forgotten, the baker repeatedly calls the couple’s phone to harrass them about their order. Infuriated, the two pays the baker a visit and explodes against his insensitivity. This is defused, however, by the apologies of the baker:

“Listen to me. I’m just a baker. I don’t claim to be anything else. Maybe once, maybe years ago, I was a different kind of human being… Now I’m just a baker. That don’t excuse my doing what I did, I know. But I’m deeply sorry. I’m sorry for your son, and sorry for my part in this… I don’t have any children myself, so I can only imagine what you must be feeling… I’m not an evil man… Not evil, like you said on the phone. You got to understand what it comes down to is I don’t know how to act anymore…” (p. 82)

The baker then treats the two to his pastries. The two haven’t eaten much in their few days stay in the hospital: it was a small, good thing. The baker’s actions were put in perspective. While something terrible happened, I was lifted up by the conclusion and even felt good after reading the story: humanity triumphs over despondence and cynicism. ■



  1. Carver has a large following among the universities faculties in the US. Creative writing professors love to praise his work, at least when I was in school. And I liked his spare, restrained prose, as in “What we talk about . . .” or “Cathedral”, but he doesn’t remind me of Hemingway. He reminds me more of John Cheever. You can tell that Carver emulates Chehkov, not only in style, but in the moral dimension as well. He wants to refrain from judgement, from the subjective, but that very restraint creates a judgement in itself as no art is completely objective. Carver succeeds within the miniature worlds of his short stories but never, in my opinion, gives us the fullness of vision or the abundance of situations and stories of a Cheever or Chekhov.

  2. Lethe: Thanks for the informed comment. I myself haven’t read any Cheever yet, making the comparisons I can draw from narrower. And funny of me to have forgotten to mention Chekhov. I believe he’s one of the greatest writers ever. Once more, thanks for the comment.

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