'Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children': A Pittsburgh writing teacher's tender tale
For his second novel, Dave Newman mixes academic angst with domestic affairs for a loving portrait of the city
November 26, 2012 7:41 AM
Dave Newman: "You can be anything in Pittsburgh."
By Carlo Wolff
Writing is a solitary, sedentary process. It's not inherently dramatic because it is private -- except, perhaps, in academia, where Dave Newman's novel takes place. "Raymond Carver Will Not Raise Our Children" is that rarity, an exciting novel about writing. Mr. Newman tells us about it as both profession and calling through his characters, almost all engaging no matter how shaky.
In his second novel, Mr. Newman writes so naturally you feel like talking to his characters and stepping into their world. He is affectionate toward people and place: Pittsburgh is the setting of this warm, yet hardly fuzzy, book, and Mr. Newman, through his protagonist Dan Charles, romances that city.
Lori, Dan's zaftig and worrywart wife, has been offered a teaching job in Alaska so cushy and undemanding Dan wouldn't have to work. Money would no longer be an issue for them and their two young children.
But they'd have to leave home, so familiar, yet so rich with possibility:
"You can be anything in Pittsburgh, a stripper, a writer, a student, a bartender, or something else, or everything else, all of it at once, and no one cares, or if they care, they mean it, it's love," Dan muses. "For 100 years, men walked into fire and made steel. In Pittsburgh, you are tough or you are not. You write or you don't write. You start hearts or allow hearts to wind down like old clocks."
The university where Dan teaches isn't something to romanticize, however. He, along with his good friend James and their spindly colleague Richard, teach classes of thankless students, spar with domineering, politically savvy women academics, and depend for their jobs far too much on Kentucky Jim, a despicable old coot who's leveraged his hell-raiser reputation -- not dependent at all on writing, mind you -- into hiring and firing power.
Academia, in Mr. Newman's knowing depiction, is not a pretty place, and writing is no walk in the park. Much of the action revolves around Dan, James and Richard skipping class to drink and drown their sorrows. It is only when James and the sexy student Lila leave for a tryst down South that Dan starts to take control of his life. What makes his grip stronger is a long talk with Kentucky Jim. What affirms it is his decision to take a job where the results are tangible every day: making hubcaps for Korean cars.
Mr. Newman knows about work and self-respect, and he can shred the inauthentic, be it Kentucky Jim or filmmaker Tim Burton, whose "Alice in Wonderland," seen through the disappointed eyes of Dan and his daughter Abby, comes off as one of the worst movies of all time. Mr. Newman knows his pop culture, whether it's Johnny Depp, '70s literary lion Harry Crews or controversial Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, characterized -- this is the mildest term -- as "ridiculous."
The local touches and topicality should endear "Raymond Carver" to Pittsburgh literati eager to spot the fact behind the fiction. What makes the book resonate beyond his home base is Mr. Newman's warmth, his passion for his profession. He doesn't ennoble it (there are no groves in this academe), and he sets it hard within today's grinding economy.
Still, family carries.
"None of our friends are getting married or having kids. They talk about their pets and the different ways to make coffee in the morning. They all live like bohemians, like expatriates in Paris, but they've forgotten to write or maybe forgotten how or they just don't care and they realize what all writers realize: Writing is as hard as making clouds, and the sky is already filled."
Dave Newman, a poet and connoisseur of jobs both odd and regular, wields sentiment with such precision that it never degenerates into sentimentality.