Dancing After Hours
Of the nine books of fiction Andre Dubus has published in the last twenty years, seven of them are collections of short fiction; thus he is usually included as part of the so-called renaissance of the short story that has taken place since the 1970’s. However, Dubus’ fiction is neither like the self-reflexive experiments of Donald Barthelme, nor the minimalist realism of Raymond Carver. Rather, Dubus’ short fictions are more like the kind of stories that Bernard Malamud would have written had he not been Jewish, Flannery O’Connor would have written had she not been southern, or Raymond Carver would have written had he been Catholic. In short, Dubus’ stories have always manifested a hopeful spirituality and an optimistic humanism that has marked him as thematically old-fashioned and technically conservative among younger short-story writers.
As it has been for Dubus’ fiction in the past, most of the short stories in Dancing After Hours are based on the conviction, belief, or hope that most human beings are seeking love rather than sex, relationships rather than one-night stands, and the security of family rather than the adventure of the temporary thrill. Perhaps because Dubus himself is nearing sixty, most of the men and women in these stories are middle-aged or older. Perhaps because an accident caused him to lose a leg and be confined to a wheelchair in 1986, several of these stories focus on men who have been physically disabled and are trying to find a way to cope with their inability to walk. Perhaps because Dubus’ third wife left him a few months after his accident, most of these stories focus on men and women nostalgically looking backward to a time when they loved and were loved or hopefully looking forward to a time when they will love and be loved again.
As in his earlier Paul Clement series of stories, which focused on the coming-of-age of a young man, Dubus here features the same character in more than one story. In “Falling in Love,” readers meet the young Ted Briggs, who has come back from the Vietnam War with a wounded leg that forces him to use a cane. After impregnating a liberated and independent young woman, he is filled with rage when she refuses either to marry him or to have the baby. He bitterly complains to a friend, who, like him, is also alone and getting older, that he will never have sex with another woman who insists on killing his baby. As if this statement has left a gap that needs closing, in a later story in the collection, “All the Time in the World,” readers learn of LuAnn Arceneaux, a woman who has had many lovers but no real love and who also fears growing old alone, who meets the now-mature Ted Briggs. In what seems a match made in heaven, LuAnn, like Ted, does not want a relationship that begins with sex, nor does she want to conceive a child that she does not want. When Ted makes a token sexual overture she puts him off, and he is glad. She is filled with joy at the possibility of loving and being loved by Ted, and the story ends with her eagerness and anxiety about the future, knowing that love will bring her both joy and pain.
Ted and LuAnn appear again in “The Timing of Sin,” the central theme of which is announced in the opening sentence: “On a Thursday night in early autumn she nearly committed adultery.” LuAnn is forty-three in this story and works part- time at a home for teenage girls. Surrounded by young women who have been neglected or abused and now are troubled and alone, she becomes attracted to the soft-spoken director of the girls’ home. Most of the story is a conversation between LuAnn and a friend who tells her about her previous adultery and the breakup of an earlier marriage, a breakup that she still regrets. LuAnn describes her own almost-adultery that took place in a car. In the process of the encounter, as LuAnn and the director try to get her jeans off, she sees herself walking into her house and not finding her husband Ted or her children there, and she knows she cannot be unfaithful. As she tells her friend, it is not that she was being good, it was the jeans that saved her. Had she been wearing a skirt, there would not have been those few seconds of thoughtful hesitation. Knowing now how easy adultery is and hard relationships are to maintain, she dismisses the triviality of being saved by jeans and asserts that it must have been God or grace that saved her.
The last story about LuAnn and Ted, “Out of the Snow,” is the most powerful one. It is the year following the almost-adultery, and the relationship between husband and wife is intimate and loving. Little happens in the story until LuAnn comes home from the grocery store and is shocked to discover that she has been followed into her house by two men. Seeing herself stripped naked, struck, choked, and raped, with every bit of herself taken away from her, she is filled with rage and fiercely strikes back. In three tense and highly detailed paragraphs, Dubus describes a woman defending her whole self with such ferocity and yet cold- blooded control that the reader cannot help but be completely caught up in it. Making use of a teakettle and a skillet on the stove, LuAnn smashes the men, breaking bones and bringing blood until they crawl pitifully away. In some ways, the scene...
(The entire section is 2156 words.)