The Raymond Carver stories that inspired Robert Altman's fascinating film, Short Cuts appeared in various places at various times, each documenting moments in the lives of people in the Pacific Northwest. In 1993, with the movie out on the big screen, they were collected for the first time in one place, a slender volume with an introduction by Altman. While the stories span Carver's career, the ones most central (and recognizable) in the movie come from his earlier work. All demonstrate the minimalism for which the author became known, sparse depictions of detached people leading lives of quiet desperation.
"Will You Be Quiet Please?" "So Much Water So Close to Home," and "They're Not Your Husband" all concern relationship difficulties, brought about by diverse circumstances. These stories form the backbone of the cinematic Short Cuts, and will be most recognizable to viewers of the film. "So Much Water..." involves a group of men who find a dead body on a fishing trip. They choose to complete their planned trip before reporting the corpse to the police. These actions have consequences for one man's marriage. His wife struggles with the meaning of her husband's decision. The disconnection, the sense of not knowing people or ourselves, of never understanding motives, runs throughout these stories.
"Neighbors" has one couple asking another to look after their house. The house-sitters begin taking an increasingly voyeuristic pleasure in their task, until they find themselves locked out, with private possessions in their hands and their tasks unfulfilled. In this case, their activities in the neighbors' house appear to have no connection with the protagonists' lives or assumed ethical beliefs. "'Maybe they won't come back,'" she says, "and was at once astonished at her words" (19).
"Vitamins," perhaps the oddest tale in the collection, takes us through several kinds of personal and sexual miscommunication in the lives of Patti, who sells vitamins, and her husband, who relates the story. A colleague, Shiela comes onto Patti; when Patti rebuffs her, Sheila wanders out of everyone's lives. The narrator goes out with a woman named Donna. They engage each other affectionately in a club, and then face a crude sexual proposition. When they leave, the reader overhears the following conversation:
"Look, Donna, don't get on a downer because of this. I'm sorry it happened," I said.
"I could of used the money," Donna said. "That's what I was thinking." (40)
"Jerry and Molly and Sam" involves a beleaguered but not entirely admirable man who tries to get rid of his family's rather dim-witted dog. He then regrets his decision. "Collectors" features an odd visit from a serviceman, and very few signs to indicate what we're supposed to take from the encounter. "Tell the Women We're Going" has long-time friends Bill and Jerry go off to cheat on their spouses-- or so Bill thinks. Jerry has decidedly more disturbing plans. Again, we receive only minimal clues to his motivation, and no indication of what consequences he will face. Bill, we're told, "never knew what Jerry wanted"(154). Carver leaves us to ponder the same question.
The book concludes with "Lemonade," a story in poetic form. A man reflects on his son's death, helicopters, lemonade, and the problem of first causes.
Short Cuts presents believable, everyday people in a strong, if sparse style. You won't likely (for the most part) experience strong emotion. Carver trades in moments, viewed through quiet detachment. Short Cuts serves as an introduction to his influential work, part of the chain linking Ernest Hemingway and Denis Johnson. The stories may be sought out by fans of the film, though they should know that Altman only loosely adapted the material, and wrought substantial changes.
Some alterations come about because of the shift in genre, and the blending of stories. The high school teacher from Carver's "Will You Be Quiet, Please" becomes the doctor from "A Small, Good Thing," while Doreen from "They're Not Your Husband" drives through "...Quiet..." long enough to set the plot in motion. A key incident from "Vitamins" occurs in the film, but to a different set of characters and as part of an entirely different tale. The crude customers from Doreen's story become the fishermen of "So Much Water So Close to Home," and so forth.
Some of the film's most memorable elements do not derive from the source material at all. Carver's Carol (called Lois in the film) from "Tell the Women We're Going" does not work in the phone sex trade, though that becomes a key, problematic element in movie. Both the clown and the cellist, important players in the movie, are original creations.
Altman's Los Angeles characters have been more exotified than Carver's northwesterners. Both book and film, however, peak in on plausible lives. Both eschew obvious trappings of genre, and both should be sought out, if only as an uncomfortable respite from the noisy, glitzy spectacle of mainstream popular culture.