My favourite Carver stories are 'A Small, Good Thing' and 'Why Don't You Dance?' Both are excellent examples of his lean, spare prose style, and seem to me to be masterpieces of the short story form. (plot spoilers coming up! don't read on if you want to go in blind! though I wouldn't worry: the beauty of Carver is in in the telling, not the tale.)
'A Small, Good Thing' is a wonderful investigation of love and grief. It tells of a couple trying to come to terms with the coma and eventual death of their young son. Like so much of Carver's work, the great poetic beauty of the tale arises out of what seems like an incidental concern: the baker who made the couple's son's birthday cake phones to try and get them to collect the cake, and becomes angrier and angrier when they fail to do so: when he finally makes an abusive call, they go to see him in rage, and tell him of their fate. The baker, a childless man, is instantly filled with remorse: he does anything he can to help them. He gives them hot rolls:
‘You have to eat and keep going,’ he says. ‘Eating is a small, good thing at a time like this.’
And they sit, and eat, and talk with him, and are comforted. We may be reminded of Levin's realisation at the end of Anna Karenina that life's meaning comes from the small moments, from the small good things, and that all we can do is deal with here and now, and that this is enough.
'Why Don't You Dance?' is a much shorter story, but no less affecting. It tells you everything with such economy and gentleness that the ordinary is made beautiful. Again, we witness a poetic moment in mundane lives. Pinteresque dialogue between nameless characters reveals far more by omission than by presence. The story details a yard sale, which provides the narrative's extraordinary central, controlling image: a bedroom and sitting room, reassembled in the front yard. We find a recently divorced man having little luck selling his possessions (and who doesn't seem to care) dances with a young woman who has come with her partner to find cheap furniture for their apartment. After the event it takes on a kind of symbolic importance for her:
She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.
This is a story about loneliness and coping and age and youth and love and loss and ordinariness. Above all, Carver understands ordinariness, understands the importance of each individual life, or story.
There is something beautiful and melancholic here, but it is difficult to say exactly what. Carver deals in moments. He is the master of the minimalist snapshot. To read one of his stories is to feel subtly but definitely changed in some way: how, exactly, may not be obvious, but that is beside the point. You have witnessed another life, at it's most poetic and important moment, and it is impossible not to feel privileged and moved.