A Small, Good Thing by Raymond Carver, 1983
The magic trick:
Extending the story beyond the hospital so that the parents find some peace in the closing scene with the baker
“A Small, Good Thing” essentially replays an earlier Carver story, “The Bath,” minus the Gordon Lish edits. We started comparing the two versions with yesterday’s post about “The Bath,” and the discussion continues today. I prefer the leaner, meaner “Bath,” but “Small, Good” has plenty to offer as well.
Stephen King, in a superb 2009 piece about Carver for the New York Times, used “A Small, Good Thing” as evidence to support the notion that Lish did more damage than good with his Carver edits. King says the parents of “Good, Small” are “actually characters” rather than the “shadows” of “Bath.” “This version,” he writes of the Carver-only story, “has a satisfying symmetry that the stripped-down Lish version lacks, but it has something more important: it has heart.”
I agree with both characterizations even as I stand by my preference of the Lish edit. “A Small, Good Thing” meanders far more than “The Bath” after the child’s accident, as Carver explores further the parents’ reactions and psychological torment. Crucially, the child dies in “A Small, Good Thing,” while such an end is only implied in “The Bath.”
The death leaves a coda in “Small, Good” which is entirely excised in its predecessor. During this final section the parents confront the baker and the three share some measure of peace and redemption. This scene becomes the central message of the story, and it is a worthy and memorable one. And that’s quite a trick on Carver’s part.
I will finish, however, by reiterating my admiration for “The Bath.” I’m not sure it’s Lish’s job as an editor to wholly reshape an author’s vision and a story’s theme, but it does seem to be what he did in “The Bath” and I do prefer the result. “The Bath” never even approaches the notion of closure or redemption. That simply isn’t what it’s about. The baker’s calls in Lish’s version are only reminders of danger lurking around everyday life; lurking around even the most joyful of occasions: a child’s birthday party. The bath, for both parents, serves as a respite from that danger, and the phone call at the end is the danger and madness of everyday life breaking back in to show itself as unavoidable. I appreciate “A Small, Good Thing,” but “The Bath” is a smaller, better thing.
It was warm inside the bakery. Howard stood up from the table and took off his coat. He helped Ann from her coat. The baker looked at them for a minute and then nodded and got up from the table. He went to the oven and turned off some switches. He found cups and poured coffee from an electric coffee-maker. He put a carton of cream on the table, and a bowl of sugar.
“You probably need to eat something,” the baker said. “I hope you’ll eat some of my hot rolls. You have to eat and keep going. Eating is a small, good thing in a time like this,” he said.