[an analysis by Jacob Harn]
In Raymond Carver’s “Are These Actual Miles” a middle-aged man and woman, who are in some sort of a domestic partnership, struggle to reconcile their decaying personal lives as they navigate bankruptcy. Toni, who came into the relationship with children, and Leo, who had no children of his own, had a comfortable consumerist life that now seems to be in disrepair. They liquidated their personal belongings that hadn’t already been reclaimed by credit agencies and now must sell their car—their last item of monetary value. Knowing that seductive tactics will yield best payment, Toni fixes herself up and goes to sell the car. The two characters successfully avoid the unwholesome possibilities this transaction will likely demand, and through the course of a single night, they must come to terms with the state of their lives. Toni assures Leo she will “get out of it” but ends up staying out all night and getting drunk with the car salesman. Toni confronts her ill-will toward Leo (who presumably got them into the situation), and the car salesman becomes an escape from her life for the night. Leo falls apart at home alone, drinking scotch and whiskey, and realizes how vulnerable he is to the possibility that Toni will abandon him for something better.
Carver is a minimalist and condenses a lot of meeting into short, percussive sentences. At first these seem to contain trivial bits of information. The sentences have a cumulative effect, and they begin to convey really powerful insights of the characters in their series of short and simple words.
What I found particularly interesting in this bare but powerful language was his use of dialogue tags. As writers, we tend to want to spice up our stories by varying the tags, but Carver simply uses, “He said” and “She said” in the majority of the piece. And when he decides to use the character’s names to attribute certain lines of dialogue, it is not by accident, and it is his intention to have our ears perk up when he does drop a “Leo said.”
On page 146, it is said, “‘Jesus.’ Leo says, ‘did you have to say that?'” in response to Toni’s allusion that she will likely have to use her body to get a good deal. Leo’s status as a man in a relationship is in jeopardy, and he needs to confirm his existence, his place in life, at a time where all of that is at risk. Carver uses Leo’s name in this dialogue tag, rather than a simple “he,” to highlight Leo’s vulnerability in the face of such a emasculating prospect. Carver states “Leo” to help Leo fight from becoming just another “he.”
Later in the story, after Leo has all but fallen apart over Toni’s night out, it is said, “‘I want to tell you,’ Leo says and wet his lips,” while talking to the car salesman in the driveway—in the car. Carver gives him his only way to claim his place in life. With nothing to his name but a wayward wife and children that aren’t his, Leo has only his title. “Leo says,” and so Leo still exists and has not yet lost everything.