By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Where I’m Calling From’ is a short story by the American writer Raymond Carver, originally published in the New Yorker in 1982. The story is about a man trying to give up alcohol dependency in a rehabilitation centre, and his attempts to call his estranged wife and current girlfriend, hence the story’s title, ‘Where I’m Calling From’. The story takes in the themes of loneliness, alienation, and the need for human connection and friendship.
‘Where I’m Calling From’: plot summary
The story is set over the course of three days at a ‘drying out’ clinic or rehabilitation centre for people with an alcohol dependency. The unnamed first-person narrator tells us it is his second time in such a facility, where he befriends a first-timer, a man of around thirty years old named Joe Penny (or ‘J. P.’). The narrator is a little older than J. P. On the porch of the building, they strike up a conversation.
Shortly before this, a man nicknamed Tiny, who was showing signs of improvement and looking forward to going home for New Year, collapses and has to be taken to hospital, although he is discharged the next day. Nonetheless, the incident has left a mark on the narrator.
As they sit on the porch, J. P. tells the narrator about an incident when he was twelve when he fell down a well. He then begins to tell the narrator about his volatile marriage to Roxy, whom he met at a friend’s house where she had turned up to clean the chimney. The two started dating, J. P. tells the narrator, and soon they had got married and had children, with Roxy teaching her husband about chimney-sweeping so he could work for the family business.
Although he says he was happy with his life, J. P. has a drinking problem, which soon grows out of hand and threatens to destroy his marriage. He and Roxy both fight – physically as well as verbally – and then J. P. learns that his wife is having an affair. In a fit of drunken rage, he wrenches her wedding ring from her finger and cuts it into pieces with a wire-cutter.
The next day, he is caught drink-driving and arrested. He has almost fallen off the roof on another occasion, and knows it’s only a matter of time before he broke his neck. He loses his driving licence, and Roxy and her father take him to the treatment facility, where he meets the narrator. At that point in his narrative, J. P. breaks off when the owner of the facility, Frank Martin, joins him and the narrator on the building’s porch. Martin tells them that in the distance the home of the American writer Jack London can be glimpsed; London died as a result of his alcohol problem and that, he tells them, should be a ‘lesson’ to them.
The narrator tells J. P. his story: he is estranged from his wife (who brought him to the facility the first time) and this time around, his girlfriend brought him in after the two of them went on a drinking binge over Christmas. The next day, after this first conversation between the two men, is New Year’s Eve.
The narrator attempts to call his estranged wife but nobody picks up. He tries again later that day, with the same result. He then tries his girlfriend, but thinks better of it as he is in the process of dialling her number. We learn that she has recently been tested for cancer and he isn’t ready to hear any bad news. He also doesn’t even know whether she got home safely after driving home (while drunk) when she’d dropped him off at the centre.
On the next day, New Year’s Day, the narrator and J. P. sit on the porch again and talk. Roxy arrives, and J. P. introduces the narrator to her as his ‘friend’. The narrator is so touched by the warmth between the married couple, despite their problems, that he finds his own mood improving. He asks Roxy for a good-luck kiss (a kiss from a chimney-sweep is said to bring good luck), and although she says she hasn’t worked as a sweep for years, she kisses him. When Roxy and J. P. have gone, the narrator finds his mind wandering to a pleasant memory involving his wife, when they were woken up one early Sunday morning by their landlord starting work on painting their house outside.
He resolves to call both his wife and his girlfriend, recalling a Jack London story, ‘To Build a Fire’, in which a man lost in the Yukon territory has to build a fire in order to survive the extreme cold. But when snow falls on his fire, it goes out. The narrator thus resolves to build a ‘fire’ in his life by reconnecting with the two women in his life.
‘Where I’m Calling From’: analysis
Raymond Carver’s work is often associated with the term minimalism, a literary technique marked by a simple descriptive style (often utilising short, clipped sentences) and spare dialogue. Carver himself expressed a dislike for this term, but we can certainly see a line between someone like Ernest Hemingway and Carver’s own short stories.
Nevertheless, although ‘Where I’m Calling From’ may be written in a style that is ostensibly plain and direct and easy to understand, there are many aspects of the story that remain ambiguous and open to interpretation and analysis. Even the title is allusive: although it appears simply to refer to the narrator’s attempts to call his wife and girlfriend from the rehabilitation facility, the references to Jack London in the story summon a different kind of ‘calling’ from the act of telephoning.
It’s worth remembering that London is best-known for writing a book with the title The Call of the Wild: the book which Frank Martin refers to when he strikes up a conversation with J. P. and the narrator. Just as the narrator tries literally to call the women in his life, so Jack London’s life and writing call to him and are called up by him.
Carver also leaves the ending of ‘Where I’m Calling From’ open to interpretation. ‘Where I’m Calling From’ is largely narrated in the present tense. The literary critic Ruth Robbins has argued that the past tense (or ‘perfect tense’) is unsuited to some modes of fiction because it offers the ‘perspective that leads to judgment’: because events have already occurred, we feel in a position to judge the characters involved. Present-tense narration deters us from doing this so readily, for two reasons.
First, we are thrown in amongst the events, experiencing them as they happen almost, so we feel complicit in them. Second, because things are still unfolding seemingly before our very eyes, we feel that to attempt to pass judgment on what’s happening would be too rash and premature: we don’t know for sure how things are going to play out yet. Carver, we might say, wishes us to suspend judgment of the characters, at least while we are still reading the story; but as we don’t know how things will play out after the story has finished, perhaps we are being invited, not to judge, but merely to observe and to sympathise.
The characters are deeply ambiguous, too. Neither the narrator nor J. P. is at the facility against their will: they are not prisoners there, but willing detainees, wanting to get their lives back on track. But the world outside is hardly a squeaky-clean one. When the narrator’s girlfriend drives him to the facility, she is drunk herself.
Roxy, meanwhile, starts an affair rather than address her husband’s drink problem directly. They are both violent towards each other. This all lends the ending a greater sense of uncertainty: how well do we rate the two main characters’ chances on the outside, given they will be returning to lives they had before they were brought to the facility? Is the drying-out clinic a temporary respite from their addictions, and nothing more?
The setting of the story is also significant. In situating their conversations on the porch of the facility, Carver keeps the narrator and J. P. on the threshold of the building and, by extension, implies that they are unsure of their commitment to ‘drying out’ and effecting a change in their lives. When Roxy suggests she and J. P. go outside somewhere to eat, he is reluctant to do so, as he feels he hasn’t been in the facility long enough ton be ready to venture back out yet.
Thresholds of other kinds are laden with symbolism, too. The narrator’s memory of the landlord outside his house, while he is indoors with his wife in bed, is a happy one, because he remembers how glad he felt to be who he was, and to be where he was, rather than being his landlord out there painting the house.
Recalling this memory from inside a quite different space, the rehabilitation centre, the narrator is prompted to count his blessings and hold onto what he has. The threshold of the bedroom window functions as a connection to the outside world, but in the memory he wishes to escape back indoors to his domestic life, whereas in the drying-out facility he wants to reconnect with the world outside.
Whereas Frank Martin offers Jack London’s alcoholic decline as an example to his patients of how not to live your life, the narrator of ‘Where I’m Calling From’ takes inspiration from London’s writing. In both cases, however, London’s example is offered as something to avoid: the narrator realises that he must work harder to ‘build a fire’ than the character in London’s story if he is to survive.
This is significant because it points up the need to feel connected to others, not just for our own wellbeing but for theirs. Earlier in ‘Where I’m Calling From’, the narrator had had second thoughts when going to phone his girlfriend, in case she has bad news to tell him about her cancer diagnosis. Self-preservation comes first, but this leaves his girlfriend to deal with any potential bad news on her own. By reconnecting with her, he offers a chance for them both to support each other.