In piecing together the life of one of my literary heroes, one thing was always missing: a specific picture of Raymond Carver's first marriage, when poverty and alcoholism coincided (or perhaps collided) with his rising reputation. What It Used To Be Like begins to fill in this gap.
Raymond Carver's first wife clearly loved and supported him long past the point he deserved it. Maryann Carver is honest about their troubled marriage. At the height of her husband's drinking, he was physically abusive and unfaithful, and often was unrepentant about his actions. Several times, when life began to get better for them, Carver would uproot the family.
Maryann Carver's portrait is also tender. Even through most of the rough times, she remembered the sometimes generous and thoughtful boy she fell in love with. She played the part -- to a fault -- of a devoted wife who sacrifices her own ambitions and dreams so that the great writer could fulfill his. And while in some passages she unsuccessfully suppresses her bitterness and disappointment, in others she is happy to give everything to the man she fell in love with when she was fifteen and never stopped, even after they had been divorced for years.
There are parts of the book, sentences here and there, which are not well written, and some that are poorly edited. Some prose reads like a freshman composition, and not like what one would expect from someone as intelligent and well-read. The section on the 1970s (the book is divided by decades) seems to go back and forth when the rest of the memoir is chronological.
Overall, What It Used To Be Like provides a fine picture of the seriously flawed man who also was the genius writer. But it also gives the reader an insight into codependency as well as a changing culture from the perspective of one who was too busy holding her family together to do more than watch the country that seemed to be falling apart. And yet Raymond Carver's life, short as it was, might well be a kind of trope for an America wrestling with its demons while finding its greatness.