Vandals by Raymond Carver
In Vandals by Raymond Carver we have the theme of friendship, loyalty, responsibility, acceptance, letting go and paralysis. Taken from his Call If You Need Me collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story the reader realises that Carver may be exploring the theme or idea of friendship, what friendship may mean and what constitutes a friendship. Carver also appears to be symbolically linking the character Nick to both vandalism and terrorism. Nick’s name may also be important as Carver may be using irony to suggest that Nick literally ‘nicked’ or robbed Joanne from Bill Daly (Joanne’s first husband). There are also some striking similarities in the story to another Carver story, What We Talk about When We Talk about Love. In that story the action is also played out around a kitchen table and also involves two couples. Though thematically both stories are very different.
The link that Carver creates that suggests the possibility that Nick may be a vandal of sorts comes from the fact that Carver is associating the term vandal with the wrecking or destruction of a home. Vandals according to the man have burnt down the house which would be how Robert and Carol view Nick (as a homewrecker). They feel that Nick has vandalized or destroyed Bill and Joanne’s marriage. Carver also makes a strong link (through symbolism again) to the possibility that like the terrorists mentioned in the story from the Middle East Nick may also be responsible for terrorism, again against Bill. This manifests itself through the symbolism of Nick wearing a bandage around his head after he had an alcoholic seizure. Nick likens it to a turban, which would be a popular headdress in the Middle East.
The discussion that Robert and Nick have with regards to what should be done in the Middle East is also interesting. Nick tells Robert that ‘the guys I’ve talked to over here think we should have dropped a few more bombs, maybe, while we were at it.’ Though it is not openly suggested by Nick that this course of action should be taken there is a feeling that he does however agree with this statement. It is also through Robert’s response ‘Diplomacy. Economic sanctions. Let them feel it in their pocket,’ that the reader realises that this is not only Robert’s solution to the difficulties in the Middle East but it also appears to be his and Carol’s response to how they approach Nick himself (diplomatically). Throughout the story there doesn’t seem to be an acceptance of Nick by Robert and Carol. They appear to hide their dislike for his actions (causing the break-up of Joanne and Bill’s marriage) though remain polite to him. In some ways Carver is mirroring the tensions in the Middle East to the tension that may exist between Nick and Robert and Carol. It is also interesting that though Nick likes Robert and Carol he does not like any of Joanne’s other friends. This may be important as it might suggest that Nick has not been accepted by Joanne’s friends. They appear to remain loyal to Bill.
The idea or theme of letting go or rather the inability to let go is also evident in the story. There are several instances which suggest that Joanne is unable to forget or let go of Bill. When she comes back from Seattle after spending time with Robert and Carol, Nick senses that something may be wrong with her and considers that perhaps Joanne may have been thinking and talking about Bill when she was in Seattle. Also when Robert begins his story about Dr Harry Schuster, Joanne mentions Bill’s name. There is also the instance at the end of the story when Joanne tells Nick that ‘I think about him (Bill) every now and then, you know. After all, he was the first man I ever loved.’ Again this suggests that Joanne is unable to let go of Bill.
In some ways Joanne is still stuck in the past or paralysed. There are further instances in the story which suggest that some of the other characters are also paralysed or at least unable to move forward. As mentioned, the Schuster story not only highlights the inability of Joanne to let go of Bill but it also suggests that the teller of the story, Robert, also appears to be stuck in the past. The reader is also aware that Robert likes to reminisce about the past with Joanne, a past that the reader knows involves Bill. This would not only suggests a sense of paralysis for Robert but also suggests his inability to accept Nick as the new man in Joanne’s life. Again he would appear, like Joanne’s other friends, to be loyal to Bill.
How responsible Nick may be for the break-up of Joanne’s first marriage is noticeable at the end of the story. ‘Robert’s face was flushed, his expression stern, as if everything that had happened – arson, jail, betrayal, and adultery, the over-turning of the established order – was Nick’s fault and could be laid on his doorstep.’ This line may be important as it is obvious that Nick senses Robert is holding him responsible for what has happened (break-up of Joanne’s marriage). Nick is responsible for changing the dynamic of the friendship Robert had with Joanne and Bill. It is also at the end of the story that the reader realises that Nick in some ways has found acceptance. After Joanne tells him that Bill was the first man she loved, Nick continues to hold her in his arms. This in many ways suggests that though Joanne is unable to let go of Bill, Nick nonetheless accepts the circumstances he finds himself in. Just as he accepts that twice a year he must sit down and talk with Robert and Carol.