As it appears in Raymond Carver’s short story collection Cathedral (1983), the story “Vitamins” is much more in the vein of the author’s earlier, considerably bleaker work. Certainly a sense of “dis-ease,” a term from the French existentialist writer Albert Camus that Carver uses in one of his book reviews, well describes his earlier stories, which offer no comfort or hope of redemption, particularly to the many characters within them who struggle with alcoholism, as Carver himself did for many years.
“Vitamins” is a story very much concerned with the perils of alcoholism, although Carver does not approach the subject directly. Instead of telling much about his characters’ inner thoughts, Carver simply depicts a man who undoubtedly has a drinking problem and fails to comprehend or acknowledge it.
In order to explore such a character, Carver deftly chooses to tell the story from the point of view of the character himself. The result is a story marked by several levels of alienation: The unnamed narrator, in his lack of insight, is alienated not only from himself but also from others, particularly women. Finally, he is further alienated from his own story, because, in the midst of telling it, he is unaware of what he reveals about himself.
The most striking aspect of this first-person narrative is the continual mention of alcohol without any hint that the narrator understands the roots or effects of his drinking. Nearly 40 times in “Vitamins” he makes some reference to drinking. “I worked a few hours a night for the hospital,” he says at the outset of the story. “It was a nothing job. I did some work, signed the card for eight hours, went drinking with the nurses” (91). After a party during which one person passes out drunk and everyone else drinks to excess, he sits up all night drinking by himself (93). The next morning he is drinking Scotch and milk with a sliver of ice. “I finished my drink,” he says, “and thought about fixing another one. I fixed it” (94). Such is the unthinking pace of his drinking throughout the story.
The story ends as the narrator pours himself a glass of Scotch, but not before he experiences what one critic has called a particularly Carveresque moment of quiet, personal horror (Gentry 93). Returning home to find his wife sleepwalking during a nightmare, he becomes delirious: “I couldn’t take any more tonight. ‘Go back to sleep, honey. I’m looking for something,’ I said. I knocked some stuff out of the medicine chest. Things rolled into the sink. ‘Where’s the aspirin?’ I said. I knocked down some more things. I didn’t care. Things kept falling” (109). And, we are certain, things will continue to fall until this man either destroys himself or fi nally reaches some level of self-awareness concerning his problem and his need for help. Carver gives us no reason to believe that one outcome is any more likely than the other.
Carver, Raymond. Cathedral (1983). New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
Gentry, Marshall Bruce, and William L. Stull, eds. Conversations with Raymond Carver. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.