” Where I’m Calling From” – Raymond Carver
In Raymond Carver’s short story ” Where I’m Calling From,” the effects of addiction on those who become addicted to them are illustrated in tragic and familiar detail. The unnamed protagonist is shown to have many of his problems come from addiction, whether it be to alcohol, to drugs, to sex and even emotional attachment; those around him also feel its effects in their own lives. The impact of addiction on the unnamed main character is shown to have tremendous difficulty shaking his addictions, which manifest themselves in several ways. The end of the story shows him growing somewhat, making gestures toward recovery but still having a long way to go.
The first sentence tells the audience that the protagonist refers to the rehab clinic as his ” drying-out” facility (p. 581). Here, despite the fact that becoming sober is ostensibly a good thing, the protagonist uses such a strange, nasty synonym to describe the rehab facility. ‘Drying-out’ is a phrase commonly associated with aging, at least when applied to humans; it implies decaying, losing one’s verve, one’s energy. With this in mind, it is possible that the protagonist has a hostile and contentious relationship with the drying-out facility. The narrator is nonchalant about his continued presence at Frank Martin’s; he has been here ” once before. What’s to say? I’m back.” The narrator accepts his addiction as part of him, and the constant push-and-pull of recovery has become second nature to him.
Over the course of the story, the narrator hears many different stories about addiction from his friends J. P. and Tiny. In absence of alcohol and other things to do, the stories become the narrator’s currency, his thing to do to pass the time. At one point, when J. P. stops, he begs, ” Keep talking, J. P. Then what?” (p. 583). The narrator knows that he must absorb himself in something lest he feel compelled to drink again, and so he chooses the tales to keep him occupied. Whenever the stories are interrupted by other conversations or input, the narrator constantly joneses for J. P. or Tiny to continue.
He is addicted to new stories in much the same way he is with alcohol; at another point, J. P. stops talking because of the fights, and the narrator thinks to himself, ” It’s helping me relax, for one thing. It’s taking me away from my own situation” (p. 586). He eggs J. P. on a bit more, and J. P. relents and continues the story. The conversations he has with J. P. serve to provide him with a much-needed distraction, and it also demonstrates the nature of addiction – one doesn’t necessarily stop being addicted to something, that addiction is simply transferred to something less physically harmful. The narrator is shown to have an addictive personality, as he obsesses over what is in front of him at the moment with a passionate intensity and attention. While this is a healthier outlet for him than alcohol, it still shows his obsessiveness and impatience with whatever his focus is – he is constantly urging J. P. to finish his stories, almost out of desperation.
The fact that this is the second time the narrator has been in Frank Martin’s is less important than the individuals who brought him there each time – first, it was his wife, who was sick of his drinking, and then it was his girlfriend, who served as an enabler and had her own baggage to deal with. ” I think I would have heard something if she hadn’t made it back. But she hasn’t called me, and I haven’t called her. Maybe she’s had some news about herself by now” (p. 598). This included a bratty young child (whom the narrator hates) and a potential cancer diagnosis. The girlfriend in particular is shown to also be a drunk, and in a way, it is the narrator’s way of connecting with her. ” She’s in my car. She’s drunk. But I’m drunk, too, and there’s nothing I can do” (p. 587).
The narrator himself has a tremendous time with the guilt of his mistakes – he always seems to want to shirk and escape his responsibilities. At one point he sees two guys escorting J. P. in, signing the check to Frank Martin and getting out as fast as they can. ” They couldn’t seem to get out of this place fast enough. It was as if they couldn’t wait to wash their hands of all this. I didn’t blame them. Hell, no. I don’t know how I’d act if I was in their shoes” (p. 587). Identifying with them, or at least the terror and discomfort of their situation shows just how familiar he is with playing the victim, the one in trouble, the one other people need to take care of. He never has to be the uncomfortable two men dragging the poor drunk into Frank Martin’s – he just has to be the poor drunk.
Remembering a story from his early days with his wife, the narrator remembers what it is like to feel better than someone, or to look down upon someone. He sees his landlord, a disheveled old man, painting the house, and ” at that minute a wave of happiness comes over me that I’m not him” (p. 593). However, once it is revealed that he is naked, he shrugs that off and reaches an understanding with the landlord (as he recognizes and is given tacit permission to sleep with his own wife) – ” I can see the landlord nod to himself as if to say, ‘Go on, sonny, go back to bed. I understand’” (p. 594). This moment is defining for the narrator, as he learns to not judge others so harshly, and that he cannot think himself above humiliation and embarrassment before getting better.
In order to finally conquer his addiction, he has to be able to overcome this fear of responsibility and duty and actually take care of himself. This final gesture comes from the possibility at the end of the short story that he will call his wife and/or girlfriend. In this moment, he likens his decision to the short story ” To Build a Fire,” by noted alcoholic Jack London, who is mentioned earlier in the story. In that story, the main character has to survive by getting a fire going. He works hard to start this fire to survive, but the slightest mistake and fallen snow extinguishes this hope. The narrator of this story is building a fire by calling his wife and girlfriend; any number of things could go wrong and extinguish his chances to get better, but he knows he has to try. He knows that, in regards to his wife, doing better involves not getting angry or raising his voice – ” Not even if she starts something” (p. 594). Being honest about where he is – ” She’ll ask me where I’m calling from, and I’ll have to tell her” – is another part of building this fire (p. 594). This particular call is about burning bridges and burying hatchets, making things right with his relationship to his wife. After that, however, he has to connect with his girlfriend, with whom he is still closely attached. She is one of his biggest enablers; one wonders if this move isn’t just the snow that will extinguish the fire, instead of the fire itself. Either way, at the end of the story, the narrator chooses to find a way to climb out of the muck and into sobriety. ” I won’t bring up business. I won’t raise my voice. Not even if she starts something” (p. 594).
In conclusion, the narrator of ” Where I’m Calling From” has to deal with his own addictions as a means of escaping responsibility and the guilt for his actions. Whether it is alcohol, stories, or anything else, the narrator is very afraid of taking responsibility for himself and for others. He looks down upon and pities those who have to take care of others (the men bringing in J. P.) and those who ask to divide his love’s attention (his girlfriend’s child). However, he does recognize and accept by the end that he has to make changes in himself by breaking old habits and acknowledging his faults – this comes at the decision to ” build a fire” for himself in order to survive. The story ends ambiguously, only telling us what the narrator plans to do; there is no way to really tell just how successful he becomes at this endeavor.
Carver, Raymond. ” Where I’m Calling From.” The New Yorker, 1983. Print.