I just finished Where I'm Calling From: Selected Stories by Raymond Carver. It's an interesting way to read Carver. Take the line above from A Small, Good Thing, which mirrors Dante's (translation via Robin Kirkpatrick) "At one point midway on our path in life,/ I came around and found myself now searching/through a dark wood, the right way blurred and lost." Where Dante goes on to rediscover his path by illuminating the divine symmetry of his Christian moral universe, Carver gives us hot rolls and bread, still seemingly Christian, but practical and shucked of the morality and symmetry. The bread-breaking, the small good thing of the story, follows a gut-wrenching vigil over the result of random, anonymous harm, with the comfort of the material world finally expressed in a communion between strangers. In a nutshell, that's Carver-- the modern world is our Inferno, we have no compass to navigate it, but always the invitation to understand one another despite ourselves, to take comfort in another person's story.
I continually thought of Tom Waits as Earl in Robert Altman's version of Shortcuts, Tom Waits in general as the theatrical counterpoint to Carver. Though dashed dreams run through so many of Tom's songs (that's how the sentimental juice gets out), Carver rarely deals in dreams (read ambitions), there's a shared set of characters they both like to look at, and they all seem to watch daytime TV since bankruptcy, accident and divorce attorneys like to list their attributes. Diametrically opposed in terms of style, Tom's early characters are peacocks and one-way phoenixes, creatures to watch, and occasionally to feel for ("Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis"). Carver's stories are free of flash. There's a solidity to them that matches say the plywood boxes of Donald Judd or the art world's minimalists, a point of unshakeable control. Waits makes the ever day into opera and Carver makes opera into the every day.