Kindling by Raymond Carver
In Kindling by Raymond Carver we have the theme of alcoholism, belief, revival, discovery, recovery and change. Taken from his Call If You Need Me collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and some readers may recognize the main character Myers from two other Carver short stories (Put Yourself in My Shoes and The Compartment). If Carver is indeed referencing the same character it is interesting to note that in Put Yourself in My Shoes Myers finds himself between stories while in Kindling he finds himself between lives. It is also interesting that Myers’ wife has left him for another man who also happens to be an alcoholic like Myers. Carver has previously explored this story line in Mr Coffee and Mr Fixit. Though in Kindling it is only briefly referred to at the beginning of the story. The opening line of the story may also be important as it is from it that the reader realises that Myers is going through a transitional stage, a period of change. He is fresh out of rehab and quite possibly fragile, still learning how to live his life without alcohol. In some ways Myers’ social deformity (alcoholism) is mirrored by Sol’s physical deformity. However it is interesting that Sol manages to participate fully in life regardless of his disability. This may be significant as symbolically through Sol’s disability Carver may be suggesting that Myers too can live a normal life now that he has stopped drinking.
How bleak or empty life is for Myers when he arrives at Sol and Bonnie’s home is noticeable by the lack of writing he does. He writes that ‘emptiness is the beginning of all things’ and the following day he writes one word, ‘nothing.’ Though Myers considers what he has written to be rubbish, the benefit to the reader of being allowed an insight into this writing is that it highlights for the reader the vacuum or void that Myers is feeling. Not only because of his separation from his wife but also possibly because he is starting to learn (with difficulty) how to live his life without alcohol. Though there is a vacuum in Myers life he still manages to write a little every day even if it is only a word or two. This may be important as Carver could be suggesting not only the therapeutic value of writing to Myers but also that Myers may be beginning to rebuild his life (revival). That things are changing for Myers. His daily writings in some way also act to reaffirm to Myers that he is indeed a writer with or without alcohol. In essence his writing allows him to believe in himself again to maintain that belief that he can succeed even if it is only one word at a time.
Carver also appears to be utilizing the scenery in the story to suggest the continuation of life. He describes the mountains to the reader at both day and night time. Again this may be important as it suggests a movement forward. In some ways, at least symbolically, Myers also appears to mirror the Little Quilcene River that is mentioned in the story. Sol tells Myers that the ‘river has the fastest per-foot drop to it of any river in the country.’ This line may be important as Carver may be mirroring the physical fall of the river to the fall or collapse of Myers’ life. We are already aware that his wife has left him and that he has previously struggled with alcoholism. Also Carver describes the river as ‘frothing and boiling over rocks and under granite embankments until it burst out of its confines at the mouth of the valley, slowed a little, as if it had spent itself, then picked up strength again and plunged into the ocean.’ This line may also be important as it would appear that Myers’ life too has slowed a little (only out of rehab and rebuilding his life). There is also sense throughout the story that Myers too picks up strength before joining the human race (ocean) again. Similarly the river ‘bursting out of its confines’ can suggest or relate to the twenty eight days that Myers spent in rehab.
The wood that Myers saws and chops in the story can also be seen as symbolic. It is possible that by splitting the wood Carver is highlighting to the reader the two pieces or sides to Myers life. That of the alcoholic and of the man in recovery. It is also possible that Carver is suggesting that through hard work, which the sawing of the wood appears to be, there is the opportunity of a physical and spiritual revival within a person. Also Carver may be suggesting that through hard work an individual will recover from addiction or alcoholism. Should they make the necessary changes in their life.
The title of the story and the mention of kindling may also be significant, particularly with regard to the theme of alcoholism. Kindling as a term can either mean small sticks or twigs used to start a fire or it can also refer to the increasingly severe withdrawal symptoms from alcohol in which each withdrawal from alcohol leads to more severe withdrawal symptoms. Either way it would appear that Carver is suggesting that any continued intake of alcohol by Myers may result in a sense of continued suffering for him. The story is also remarkably upbeat which is unusual for a Carver story. When Myers tells Sol and Bonnie that he is leaving the reader does not suspect that he will return to his old way of life (drinking alcohol). Carver may be suggesting, as previously mentioned, that by hard work (external and internal) Myers has found himself again. After the initial disappointment of discovering that his wife has taken up with another man and got a restraining order against him, Myers may have found or rediscovered himself during his brief stay with Sol and Bonnie.