This Week’s Column:


by Dennis Loy Johnson

July 1, 2001 — I first learned of Chuck Kinder's fabled manuscript at a party he'd thrown at his house in Pittsburgh for writer Tobias Wolff. Wolff was giving a reading at the college where I taught, and I was there to ferry him back.
   But Kinder insisted I join the party. His wife, Diane, gave me a beer, and then he took me on a tour of his house that ended in front of several fat notebooks book-ended on a table. "There it is," he said cheerfully. "That's my novel." My first guess — wrong, as it turned out, by two–thirds — was that I was looking at 1,000 pages. "It's the saga of me and my buddy Ray," he explained.
   "Ray" was the late, great short story writer Raymond Carver, Kinder's closest friend. By then, Kinder had toiled on their "saga" for almost fifteen years — he'd published two novels in the 70s, but nothing since — and the long–term project would eventually inspire one of his students at the University of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon, to write "The Wonder Boys," a novel with a protaganist bearing a strong resembling Kinder.
   Ten years later still, Kinder's "Honeymooners" (FSG, $24) has finally arrived, albeit trimmed to 358 pages.
   This is part one of our two-part talk about the saga of the saga . . . .

DJ: When did you start the book?

CK: We were gonna have a surprise birthday party for Carver. He knew people were coming over, but ostensibly not for his birthday. He wanted us to keep that a secret. Well, then Diane and I pretended like we got in a fight about what we were gonna cook. Neither of us were cooking dinner or doing a thing, and Ray kept getting more nervous, and he'd say, "Well, people are coming! Don't you care? Don't you have any class?" And we kept arguing, and I said, "No. Screw it, man. We're ordering pizza." And Ray said, "You're ordering pizza? It's a sit-down dinner party!" We had him all aghast. And the trick was everyone showed up with TV dinners. We had a rotten turkey TV dinner for him. So that was the first gag.
   The next thing was everyone had written either a poem or a little piece that parodied his work. So I wrote about an evening that my first wife and I had spent with Ray and [Carver's wife] Mary Ann on their seventeenth anniversary, when we went to this Greek restaurant, and after dinner and everyone getting kind of loaded, we, uh, decided to walk the check. In fact, that's a chapter in the book that's called "They're Not Your Characters," I think.
   Anyway, I read it and he laughed and wagged his old wooly head. And that was the start of it.

DJ: So it began as a short story?

CK: Yeah, and then it evolved into a larger chapter and then a smaller chapter and back and forth over the years. But that's what started it. It began, in essence, with a prank on the running dog, Ray Carver.

DJ: When was this?

CK: Seventy–seven, seventy–eight, maybe.

DJ: How did you two meet?

CK: At Stanford. We were both in the writing program. I'd seen him, sitting around in class He always wore shades, he had these big chopped–up sideburns, and dressed like a big goofy guy, like some kind of nerd, you know, courderoy pants and plaid shirts.
   But one day I needed a ride down to where I lived, and asked if anyone was going in that direction. And Ray piped up, "I am! I am!" And I said, "Oh, God."
   So we got out to his old Mercury convertible, an old rattletrap that looked like if we got in it would collapse around us. We got in, and he got it started, and it hopped a couple of times, and this bottle slid out from under the driver's seat. It was a bottle of cheap Scotch. And he looked at it like he'd never seen that before in his life. He said, "Whoa! Look, look at this here, what do you what do you know – Maybe we should have us a little drink." I said, "Okay. Let's have us a little drink." And it tasted like hair tonic, whatvever Scotch it was. And we bounced down the road. I made him let me out at the Taco Bell at the corner because I didn't want him to know where I lived.
   Then the next morning, I heard a rap rap rap on my door, and I peeked out and there's old Carver. He had two sacks in his arms, and one of 'em had books — some of the literary magazines that had published his poems and stories up to that date. The other had some more cheap booze. And that was it. By the end of the day we were best buddies.

Next week: Michael Chabon, Scott Turow, and a growing manuscript.

Last Week’s Column: THE HISTORY LESSON OF JOSEPH ELLIS A history professor lies in class, and many say his scholarship — as in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book — is unaffected. But is it?


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All material not otherwise attributed ©2001 Dennis Loy Johnson.