Tournament of Short Stories: Patrick Ryan’s “The Dream Life of Astronauts” vs. Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”

Raymond Carver wins! Patrick Ryan beat out Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories in the semifinal round, but I don’t think anyone in the English-speaking world could have done better than the final three stories in Raymond Carver’s collection Cathedral.

For the last couple of years I have been reading short stories from different authors in competition with each other, a tournament of short stories sort of thing.  I choose a winner who advances to the next round while the other author, or book if it’s an anthology, goes back on the shelf for next time. This has worked for me as a way to read short stories.  I find it very challenging to read a short story anthology cover to cover.  The stories become repetitive the way novels would if you read 12 novels by the same author in a row.  So rounds of competing short stories in tournament fashion has worked for me.  This time Patrick Ryan and Raymond Carver are the two who made it to the top.

The final two stories in Patrick Ryan’s The Dream Life of Astronauts were “Earth Mostly” and “You Need Not Be Present to Win.”  “Earth Mostly” featured two characters from Mr. Ryan’s wonderful novel Send Me which everyone should read, believe me. However, as much as I love Send Me, I don’t think much was gained from revisiting the character  in this story.   But they do work here in the way the overlapping characters in David Mitchell’s terrific book Black Swan Green do.

The final story in Mr. Ryan’s collection “You Need Not Be Present to Win” was much better.  The structure is very simple.  A woman now living in a home for the elderly awaits the arrival of her son’s visit.  The son visits regularly though she is a very difficult woman. The son has something he wants to tell her, so he seeks a place where they can have some privacy. What he tells her will devastate him and had a powerful effect on this reader though his mother is past the point where she can be moved by his news. What happens if you betray someone who is no longer able to understand that she has been betrayed?

You Need Not Be Present to Win” was a winner, a story that illustrates why those of us who love Mr. Ryan’s work love his work.  More please.

Then there is Raymond Carver.

Raymond Carver is one of my big discoveries from 2016.  He didn’t make my year-end list of top ten favorite reads only because I didn’t finish reading Cathedral until yesterday but he’ll be on the list for 2017.  And I expect another of his collections will soon find its way into my tournament of short stories.

For this final round I read the last three stories in Cathedral: “Fever,” “The Bridal,” and “Cathedral.”  Wonderful, wonderful and Oh, my God that was something!

Mr. Carver’s stories tend to follow a standard pattern.  We’re introduced to one or two characters, usually a couple in some sort of long-term relationship. A new character or set of characters arrive.  The new arrivals have an impact, sometimes passing sometimes profound, on the original characters.  What makes the stories so wonderful is that they have the same impact on the reader.

“Cathedral” features a couple who have been married for quite some time, though they are still a young couple.  The wife has a long-term friend, a blind man, whom she once worked for.  For years she has exchanged cassette tapes with the blind man.  Eventually the blind man shows up on their doorstep as an overnight guest. The husband does not want the blind man to stay with them.  He is slightly jealous of the blind man’s close friendship with his wife and he does not think he will have anything to say to the blind man.

The three sit quietly watching television after a mostly silent dinner.  The husband and the blind man drink beer as they watch a television program about cathedrals.  The husband asks the blind man if he has any idea what a cathedral really is since he has never seen on.  The blind man asks the husband to draw a cathedral while they both hold the pen so he can get a sense of what a cathedral is.  The wife sits sleeping nearby while the two draw.

Then something happens.  The two men enter a kind of reverie that I still don’t really understand, but I was there with them.  The one draws, the other follows along.  It seems like they become each other for a moment in a strange type of understanding or empathy. As the blind man gains an understanding of what a cathedral is so does the husband. When they are finished drawing the blind man asks if this is what a cathedral really looks like.  The husband says yes but he has closed his eyes.  He sees what it is to see without vision through a physical/spiritual connection.  I don’t know. I’m not sure what has happened.  But that’s the case with so many of Carver’s stories.  I’m not really sure what has happened, but I have the sense that something has.

So Raymond Carver for the win.